LINGUIST JOHN MCWHORTER
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.