Language and Extinction

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October 2011
Ivan Obolensky

The subject of language is fascinating and complex. Working in the language translation field, I often find myself wondering about the whole subject of language. There are so many. Too many for one person to know although the illustrious Emil Krebs of the late nineteenth century seems to have learned to speak and write 68 languages and was familiar with an additional 120 while working in diplomatic circles in China just before WWI.

There does seem to be some hope that Spanish will become my second language before too long. After all, if someone can learn sixty-eight, I should be able to master two, if not three.

Still, imagine knowing 68 different grammars or the meaning of just 3,000 words in each of those languages? That raises the definitions one can recall to over 200,000 and that does not include the 120 more languages Mr. Krebs was conversant in. That is truly an extraordinary mental feat.

To me, each language is like a separate species with its own personality. Wrestling with sixty-eight would be like going into the ranching business or herding cats.

Of course, I started to question how far this species parallel could be taken and wondered:

Will there be language proliferations with more languages existing in the future than today?

Or, will there be language extinctions and a trend towards a single language?

Further, is that rise or fall in the number of languages simply a function of the number of human populations that exist?

And are we, as humans, destined to a single language and a single population with a single government?

Perhaps answering it can tell us something about that possibility.

The consensus is that the number of languages in existence is definitely decreasing. How come?

One point of view is from the famous linguist, Noam Chomsky. In an interview in 2007, he said that the whole idea of language is a fairly short-term notion since language has only been in existence some 200,000 years. The fact that there are languages disappearing is not particularly alarming. He looks at it from the point of view that if an observer from another planet observed Earth he would conclude that humans have fundamentally one language with some minor deviations from it and these deviations are the different languages in existence today.

Chomsky is known for his study of human language acquisition. He posited that there was no way a child could simply pick up language syntax out of all possible syntaxes given the limited amount of speech a child hears without some sort of template which restricted the number of choices, making it easier to learn.1 This concept, coupled with Jerry Fodor’s The Modularity of Mind, helped to foster the idea that there was a hardwired modularity that helps point the mind in a certain direction to assist learning, in the same way that instincts seem to be hardwired into animals and orient them along certain behaviors so that they are not helpless from the start.2

This would mean that the ability to learn language is hardwired to some degree in each of us. Chomsky points out that there is no particular difference between a child born in the Amazon rainforest and one born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is no known relevant cognitive capacity difference that would prevent either from becoming a quantum physicist.3

There is also a strong fundamental similarity amongst all of us in the present and our forbearers of a couple of hundred thousand years ago. We all speak. We all use language, and if we are to compare ourselves with our forbearers of 50,000 year ago, we see that both sets have cultural elements in common such as music, ornamentation, and painting.4

To Chomsky, since the actual advent of language is fairly recent in the evolutionary record, the fact that there are so many may simply be a superficial variation that over time may be damped out. The other more prosaic explanation for the decline in the number of languages is that they are being lost in a similar way to species extinction by habitat destruction. Of 165 indigenous languages in North America, for instance, only 8 are spoken by more than 10,000 people and 75 are spoken by only a handful. Alarming though this may be, on a worldwide basis it is estimated that 3000 of the 6909 languages listed in Ethnologue 2009 will disappear in the next 100 years.5

This seems to parallel the number of separate populations. Before AD 1200 there were many more separate groups of people living throughout the world with their own cultures and languages. Today there are fewer.

It is only in the last 400 to 500 years that man has taken up world travel and only in the last 100 that travel across oceans has become commonplace. If individual languages are similar to species in isolation, it is possible that as populations move, conquer, and get assimilated, languages will disappear along with the populations that spoke them. The fate of indigenous people in North and South America surely parallels what has happened on a worldwide basis due to the colonization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Regardless of the current number of languages in existence, it is also true that languages themselves are constantly changing. One picks up Chaucer or even Shakespeare and one is confronted with forms of English that are hardly spoken today and tackled only with a large dictionary in hand.

The addition of slang, idiom and history all tend to add words to cultures and, slowly but surely over time, create a vocabulary that becomes very different from the one extant even a few hundred years ago. As words are borrowed back and forth there is a tendency for languages to converge.

It seems every new generation and dedicated group has its own patois that adds new vocabulary to the mainstream. This does not seem to replace it but rather enhances the existing language.

New knowledge has created the need for nomenclature to represent new ideas and techniques as well as neologisms for new concepts. (Neologisms are newly coined words added into a language sometimes from another language.) The advent of technology has created a slew of new words such as English terms being assimilated into French and Spanish. This has become so prevalent that the center for language control in Spain, the Real Academia Española, has continually added entries to new Spanish words rather than simply have new English words encroach on the language.

The question of all languages converging to a single one from all that proliferated before is still up for debate.

In one sense with language diversity dropping, there seems to be a convergence of some sort going on even if only by default. The last language standing is the language we’ll use. On the other hand, language definitely evolves. The language of today will not be the language of 1,000 years from now and if Chomsky is correct, then in a couple of hundred thousand years, learning a new language will not be an issue because there will likely be only one whether from variations dropping away over time or globalization.

The parallel convergence of the number of languages and the number of population groups could mean that only one will emerge but there are also elements that tend to create language diversity. There is the individual’s need to be different, and the observation and creation of new phenomena that will constantly tend to create new vocabulary. One need only attend a mathematics seminar on number theory to know that although the language spoken is English, it might as well be Greek to a non-mathematician. It is, therefore, quite possible to have a separate language within the same language.

One historical example is that of Latin. The classical Latin of Cicero and Ovid was not spoken by the man on the street. He spoke Vulgar Latin, or Latin mixed with local words, idioms and slang. It was also different from classical Latin in terms of both inflection and spelling.

An example of the divergence between the two is illustrated by the grammarian, Marcus Valerius Probus, of the second century AD who wrote a list of the correct way to spell 277 words or phrases as opposed to the spelling in Vulgar Latin. His number twenty-six reads: “Musivum not Museum”.

Vulgar Latin predominated and by the end of the sixth century people from different sections of the Roman Empire could no longer understand each other and even Vulgar Latin was replaced by the local Romance languages. This was a period of language divergence which was coincident with the breakup of one of the largest empires to ever have existed. It is quite possible that we could sometime in the future have a period of language creation during a protracted period of political and social upheaval.6

So even though we might eventually evolve to having a single language, we might have to pass through periods of language diversity along the way. One thing for sure: there will certainly be continual technological changes in the immediate future that will require one to learn new vocabulary to keep pace.

For the present, we live in a world of diversified cultures and their corresponding languages. While English is considered the international language of business, it does not yet mean that one can substitute English for all of one’s business dealings. Speaking in another’s native language is an indication of the respect and commitment one has to understanding a country and its people and can only be profitable for all concerned.

My conclusion is that although there will likely be a convergence of language over time, the most intriguing and important point to consider is not that there are so many languages but that there exists any language at all. Surely that says more about the nature of humanity than perhaps any of our other attributes.


1 Chomsky, N. (2009, August 26). Noam Chomsky on Language’s Great Mysteries. Retrieved October 5, 2011, from http://bigthink.com/ideas/16057

2 Hall, J. S. (2007). Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

3 Chomsky op. cit.

4 University of Utah. (2005, February 28). The Oldest Homo Sapiens: Fossils Push Human Emergence Back To 195,000 Years Ago. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 7, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/02/050223122209.htm

5 Anderson, S. R. (n.d.). How Many Languages Are There in the World? Retrieved October 5, 2011, from http://www.lsadc.org/info/ling-faqs-howmany.cfm

6 Gill, N. (n.d.). Vulgar Latin—Learn Why Late Latin Was Called Vulgar: When Latin Spread, French, Spanish, Italian, and Other Languages Emerged. Retrieved October 11, 2011, from http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/latinlanguage/qt/vulgarlatin.htm


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© 2011 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

 

 

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