Ba­bel, sim­pli­fied


Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - For The New Mex­i­can Casey Sanchez

Lin­guist John McWhorter speaks on “The Lan­guage Hoax” at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter

cen­tury from now, it’s likely that only 600 lan­guages will be spo­ken on Earth. That’s down from the ap­prox­i­mately 6,000 spo­ken to­day, ac­cord­ing to “What the World Will Speak in 2115,” an es­say pub­lished in The Wall Street Jour­nal last year by John McWhorter, an as­so­ciate professor of English and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Columbia Univer­sity. Not only will there be fewer lan­guages, but the spo­ken tongues that re­main will be sim­pli— fied and stream­lined pared-down ver­sions of the mother tongues that can be more read­ily learned by adult im­mi­grants.

Many lin­guists be­lieve that with the loss of each lan­guage comes the death knell of a cul­ture and a sinHow­ever, gu­lar way of think­ing. for McWhorter, who has pub­lished sev­eral books and ar­ti­cles on lan­guage and race, the global dom­i­nance of key lan­guages like English, Man­darin, Ara­bic, and Span­ish is a more com­plex story, with no easy tropes of win­ners and losers. “There’s an idea very dom­i­nant among liny­our guists that the way lan­guage works struc­tures the way you think,” McWhorter said in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “I am op­posed to that — this idea that what your lan­guage is must also be your cul­ture.” McWhorter will ex­pand on that theme in a lec­ture ti­tled “The Lan­guage Hoax” at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Tues­day, June 7, as part of the Santa Fe In­sti­tute Com­mu­nity Lec­ture se­ries.

In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The At­lantic last year, McWhorter cites the rise of the Kiezdeutsch di­alect in Ger­many. With the in­flux of Ara­bic- and Turk­ish­s­peak­ing peo­ple to the Euro­pean na­tion, chil­dren of im­mi­grants and adult learn­ers of Ger­man have jet­ti­soned some of the lan­guage’s more com­plex con­struc­tions and in­jected a lively stream of slang at the same time. To be sure, McWhorter states, Kiezdeutsch has noth­ing to do with Ara­bic or Turk­ish lan­guage el­e­ments be­ing in­serted into Ger­man as some sort of hy­bridized tongue. “Rather, peo­ple who are per­fectly ca­pa­ble of speak­ing Stan­dard Ger­man use a dif­fer­ent kind among them­selves that shaves off some un­nec­es­sary com­plex­i­ties in the way that their par­ents’ ver­sion of Ger­man does,” he writes. “Lan­guages are, as a rule, much more elab­o­rate than they need be, so the stream­lin­ing doesn’t de­prive the speaker of ex­pres­sive power.”

The lin­guist sug­gested that the no­tion that lan­guage shapes thought pat­tern can lead to dangerous, es­sen­tial­ist think­ing about dif­fer­ent cul­tures and races. Lan­guages, how­ever, of­fer a geopo­lit­i­cal map that re­veals the story of sub­ju­gated peo­ples, oc­cu­pied coun­tries, and dom­i­nant economies. It’s a story of adult learn­ers forced to adapt to new lan­guages. “You can see how lan­guages were used in the past. You can look at lan­guage’s gram­mar, how they put sen­tences to­gether, pre­fixes, suf­fixes, as clues in a de­tec­tive story about how pop­u­la­tions move or were sub­ju­gated to other lan­guages.” In most cases, em­pire na­tions that ag­gres­sively ex­panded into other ter­ri­to­ries, forc­ing adults to learn new tongues quickly, have lan­guages that nearly al­ways ended up sim­pli­fied — of­ten shorn of the cases and gen­dered nouns that made these tongues so dif­fi­cult for any­one who was not born into the lan­guage to mas­ter.

In Our Mag­nif­i­cent Bas­tard Tongue, McWhorter’s 2009 book ex­plain­ing the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of English, the lin­guist charts the un­likely path of a global lin­gua franca, born from the Vik­ings’ in­va­sion of Eng­land in the eighth cen­tury. Once upon a time, Old English was a form of Ger­man, com­plete with the com­plex gram­mar that re­quired five cases and three gen­ders. Be­cause adult Scan­di­na­vian Vik­ings had to learn English in a hurry, they sim­pli­fied the lan­guage, cast­ing out cases and gen­ders and re­duc­ing its baroque vo­cab­u­lary to a more mod­ern form. While McWhorter’s his­tory of English is tra­di­tional, it’s his stance that re­mains icon­o­clas­tic. His book freely as­serts that many con­ven­tions of English gram­mar and spell­ing are ar­bi­trary, while ex­am­in­ing why the pared­down form of English that came about dur­ing the early rise of Bri­tain had con­ver­sa­tional ba­sics that were sur­pris­ingly gras­pable to im­mi­grants and trav­el­ers across the globe.

English isn’t even the most ex­treme ex­am­ple of adult new­com­ers es­sen­tially trans­form­ing a lan­guage through sim­pli­fy­ing it. Con­sider the spread of In­done­sian, a lan­guage force­fully in­tro­duced to mil­lions of adult speak­ers of other lan­guages. “Only about one in four speak­ers of In­done­sian learned it as their first lan­guage,” McWhorter writes in his piece in The At­lantic. The re­sult is that spo­ken In­done­sian has been con­sid­er­ably stream­lined. “To ac­tu­ally func­tion so­cially in the lan­guage is to un­learn much of the elab­o­rate gram­mat­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus in text­books — the ver­nac­u­lar forms tend to elide or sim­plify many of the rules laid down for the stan­dard va­ri­ety.” Es­sen­tially, adult learn­ers of In­done­sian haven’t just sim­pli­fied the lan­guage to meet their own day-to-day needs; they have trans­formed how new gen­er­a­tions of na­tive In­done­sian speak­ers will speak in their own first lan­guage.

So what about Rus­sian? Im­posed on tens of mil­lions of adult speak­ers through cen­turies of conquest, the Slavic lan­guage has rigidly main­tained its com­plex gram­mar that in­volves six cases and three gen­ders. It would seem to defy McWhorter’s the­sis that lan­guages get sim­pli­fied through pop­u­la­tion. Against the odds, Rus­sian has re­tained all its for­mal com­plex­ity, as the coun­try’s an­nex­a­tion of Cen­tral Asian and Siberian ter­ri­to­ries of­ten forced these col­o­nized peo­ples to learn Rus­sian un­der rig­or­ous for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. That’s a highly un­usual his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. As far as geopol­i­tics and lan­guage are con­cerned, McWhorter said that Rus­sian is the ex­cep­tion that proves the rule. “When we ask why Rus­sian is so com­pli­cated, we re­ally should be ask­ing why English is so sim­ple.”

McWhorter’s view of lan­guage change won’t please purists who wish to main­tain the dom­i­nance of older tongues. But as a de­scrip­tion of the world into which we are head­ing — stream­lined In­ter­na­tional English, on-de­mand Smart­phone trans­la­tion tools, and the rise of emoji-based text con­ver­sa­tions — it’s a use­ful model for un­der­stand­ing that as we lose lan­guages and shed the com­plex­ity of the ones we speak, we are only demon­strat­ing our in­nate hu­man abil­ity to adapt new lan­guages to their ba­sic func­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

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