Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Map the Linguistic Genomes!

My sister, Carrie, who is studying abroad in Grenada this summer, asked a philosophical question about linguistic globalism. This set me off, I'm afraid. After I finished a very long-winded comment on her blog, I looked at it and realized that, really, I had written my own entry.

For Carrie's original post, click here. For my slightly-edited, preachy, pedantic pontification, which exhausts everything I remember from college linguistics, keep reading.


It is vitally important to make and preserve records of dying languages. It is not, necessarily, important for large groups of people to speak them.

Language has an amazing amount of nuance. It influences thought, culture, causality, and a host of other seemingly-insignificant-yet-fascinating issues.

My amazing French teacher, Madame Selke, pointed out a few differences. First, the French hate using the passive voice. They don't say "My car was stolen;" they say "Someone stole my car!"

And, as a culture, the French are much more likely to blame something. Or someone. This isn't me being a bigot; this was Madame Selke's observation, and she was a native. (My friend Katie claims that a few months ago, Parisians held a huge march protesting Winter. That's right. They were sick of cold weather, so they staged a protest. See? They like to blame something.)

Some languages are more vague. In America, you can refer to "my cousin" without it being gender specific. In a romance language, you can't get away with that. It's either "cousin" (male) or "cousine" (female). This makes it harder to lie. Or obfuscate. Or be deliberately vague. Or pull off literary twists of surprise.

Ursula K. LeGuin, author of The Earthsea books, portrays a world in which wizard's literally cannot lie in the Old Tongue, but dragons--who are ancient, and thus still native speakers--can. Think about that for a moment.

If there were a special language designed by Aspies, it would be very precise. And if your only options were to say, "I'm sorry, I will be busy entertaining my male second-cousin once-removed on my father's side," or to say, "I will be busy. I refuse to elaborate," (assuming you are unwilling to lie outrageously), it would hardly mollify a prospective boyfriend. As opposed to "Oh, I'd love to, but my cousin's in town and I promised my Mom I'd be a good hostess."

I did a linguistic exercise once where I had to interpolate translations based upon an incomplete gloss. (A "gloss" is where you get a transliteration instead of a translation. Example: "But not friend (male) my did" vs. "But my friend didn't do it!") Anyway, I spent over an hour scratching my head over a seeming inconsistency. Again, over the word(s) "cousin" There were two different terms for male cousin, and two different terms for female cousin, and I could not figure out what differentiated them.

The teacher explained, at the next lecture, that this African language I had failed to decode differentiated kinship very specifically, primarily because of rules about what kinds of cousins people could, or could not, marry. I have dug through my notes from that class, and I can't find the worksheet. :( But I have done research online and I believe the exercise was in Sudanese, which has eight different words for "cousin." (Father's brother's son, father brother's daughter, father's sister son...etc.)

Many cultures allow marriages between cousins on the father's side but not the mothers. Or marriages between parallel cousins (children of same-gender siblings) but not cross-cousins (children of opposite-gender siblings). This may reflect their observation of birth defects (if the tribe suffers from a common y-chromosome disorder, for instance, it might affect taboos about inbreeding). Often these rules reflect tribal laws of inheritance. In a patriarchal society, two brothers have an interest in their children marrying and keeping all the property in the family. Anyway, the language reflects the anthropology.


There are a variety of Eskimo languages, but they all tend to be very polysynthetic. That means, essentially, that they instead of adding a whole bunch of words together to make a sentence, they string a whole series of morphemes together to make a word. And that "word" frequently can function as an independent sentence.

I'm trying to think if I can invent an example. Something like "un-heav-y-snow-fall-now" ("It's snowing lightly")

It is also said that the Eskimos also have eight or twenty or fifty different words for snow. Again, there are different languages, and "word" is difficult to define here since in a highly polysynthetic langauge, the difference between a "word" and a "sentence" is difficult to delineate. They have lots of morphemes which can modify the idea of snow to convey specific meanings. "Light snow," "Heavy snow," "Hard snow," "Snow falling right now," "Snow on the ground," "Crusted snow that's safe to walk on," "Powdery snow that will take a long time to wade through," and so forth. All those ideas can be conveyed in English, although not as compactly. There are probably northern languages who subdivide snow further in categories we don't think about, though. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on whether certain Eskimos have different words for "sleet" and "snow" or if they just modify "snow" with "stinging".

The idea, of course, is that these subtleties of nuance are fascinating, and endless. Language means you can express new and novel ideas. Shakespeare invented hundreds of new words, and yet everyone immediately knew what he meant.

When the earth loses a language, it forever loses the unique ideas and perspectives and thought patterns of that language. It would be sad, indeed, if it never occurred to anyone to question authority because there was a single word for "authority" which carried, always, a positive connotation.

Madame Selke also said, "Language control is thought control. Period." She was referring to L'Academie Francaise's efforts to censor English words from the French language, but she also mentioned, eerily, "1984".

The French intelligentsia go to huge efforts to ensure that Official Documents, or TV programs, or Authorized Dictionaries say "l'ordinateur" (numberer) instead of "le computeur" (an obvious import). So far they are managing to keep their fingers in the dikes' holes. But the sea is, nonetheless, spilling over the top. If the majority of the population start using words like "le t-shirt," what can they do? (Or, for that matter, if the majority of English speakers stop using the word "whom," what can middle-school English teachers do about it?) Popular linguistic sovereignty!

The general rule of thumb is that if a language encounters a new noun (thing or idea), and it already has a word which can easily be adapted, it will adapt. But if not, it will import. If a primitive tribe in the South American rain forest encounter a truck for the first time, they are more likely to borrow the Spanish word for "truck" than to invent their own, since said truck is so alien.

But not always. The French Linguistic Police are trying, in their own way, to invent French-sounding substitutes rather than let their pure language be diluted with obnoxious Anglicisms. But, according to Jon, the Laotians just started naming car parts after animal anatomy.

Wouldn't it be sad if we lived in a world where no one, ever, thought of calling a car's rear-view mirrors "ears"?


A basic lesson from history is that people will find ways to communicate. If a bigger civilization conquers a smaller, the smaller tends to learn a new language. Remember my favorite quote: "Language is the dialect with the biggest army"?

If two different cultures try to establish trade, they are more likely to create a pidgin, or blended language. Swahili is an example of this.

Modern English began as a pidgin of Anglo-Saxon Old English and Norman French. Another example of culture: a more passive people might simply have shrugged and started speaking French. The Anglo-Saxons were dragged, kicking and screaming, into incorporating French vocabulary. (This is particularly ironic because, now, English loves to "borrow" words. We import like crazy and create even more. Another favorite quote: "English doesn't "borrow" words. English stalks other languages in dark alleys, beats them up, and then rifles through their pockets for loose vocabulary.")

In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman said that globalization is like the sun: more good than bad, and inevitable. "It will happen whether you like it or not," he argued, "So you might as well begin adapting." The same might be said of a universal language.

In general, a "lingua franca" is beneficial. (Yes, that term, which means a commonly spoken language, derives from the time when French was the dominant language of diplomacy.) It facilitates communication and trade. But should we stop teaching college Latin classes just because nobody speaks it anymore?


Each language is amazing, rich, unique, and vibrant. I remember studying ASL and thinking, "It never occurred to me that you could organize a sentence this way! What a fascinating grammatical structure!" (In ASL, you make a picture and present the biggest ideas first. So, spatially you would show "room-table-chairs-sofa (in the corner)"

ASL doesn't have the verb "to be." It's implied. ASL also doesn't have a passive voice, because it is all action. Now, if you had never heard of ASL, would it even have occurred to you that it was possible to have a language without the verb "to be"?

(I really wonder how an ASL interpreter would handle Hamlet's soliloquy. "Live or die?")

It was a huge revelation when, in my first semester of German, I realized that in German (and, Mom explained, Latin and other languages), it doesn't matter what order you put words in, because you change the word endings instead of the word order to create cases.


Spoken Mandarin would have little value to a deaf person, since it relies upon tone. (Does this mean that the Deaf in China rarely bother trying to speak or lip read, the way many in the U.S. do? I can't imagine anything more frustrating than a Deaf individual trying to voice Mandarin.)

Still, written Chinese could have enormous benefit for the Deaf. Mrs. Robarge says she knows someone who wants to create a written version of ASL. If he succeeds, he would probably have to study all the glyphic and pictographic written systems in the world. Even if every extant language on the planet used an alphabetic system for writing, don't you think this linguistics professor would be happy to find grammars on Egyptian hieroglyphics, or Babylonian cuneiform, or Chinese pictograms at the library?

This leads me back to the original premise: it may be impractical for smaller languages to survive. It may be relatively unimportant for smaller languages to survive. (Survival of the fittest.) But it is vitally important to preserve records.

A few decades ago, scientists embarked on a huge project to freeze samples of every plant variety they could find, to preserve genetic diversity. Nowadays they are trying to map the genomes of different plant species. We may never need a particular variety of barley again. But it's nice to have a sample around--just in case.

It's the same principle with languages. I'm not talking about charts showing which languages descended from Latin. I'm talking about recording oral tribal traditions, especially where there is no written language. Create dictionaries. Analyze syntax. Make sound recordings of native pronunciation. And then store everything in a huge granite vault somewhere.

Map the linguistic genomes!

P.S. I also agree with Mom; it would be marvelous for everyone to be bilingual, speaking both Adamic and another language. Or two. Or three.

P.P.S. Also, having a written record of languages can help with historical research. If you can map where languages influenced each other, you can map where different groups of people overlapped.

P.P.P.S. Um, sorry about my super-long rant. It's not my fault! I studied linguistics in college! Something about your blog entry set me off! I couldn't help it!...

P.P.P.P.S. Someday I'll get around to writing my "Anti-imperialistic linguistic terrorism" novel. Wahahaha.

P.P.P.P.P..S. Esperanto is great for Romance-based languages. If you already speak French, Spanish, or, especially, Portuguese, it would be marvelous. It would not be particularly helpful for native Africans, Arabs, Asians, Slavs, etc. A really good international language would rely on the International Phonetic Alphabet. And would only incorporate sounds common to 85% of all languages. Like /m/, for instance.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Alas, even the best artifical language is unlikely to take off. But I'd settle for reforming English spelling.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I have now flushed my buffer. 90% of everything I know about linguistics is written above. (And no longer in memory.) Therefore, comment. Please! Ask questions! Just don't expect me to know the answers!


Carrie said...

You know, I purposefully wrote those linguistic-themed entries just to set you and mom off on responding to them. I figured you would enjoy it. I didn´t expect the Linguistics 101 response which I got!!

My friends here think it´s odd that I prefer posting my analysis of events here, rather than a strict travelogue. I tell them it earns me more comments from my readers. They think that´s wierd. I think I just have a wonderfully intellectual family. :)

Gail said...

You manipulated me!

I feel so...violated!

It was fun, though, so I forgive you.

Jon still hasn't read it. He glanced at my lengthy treatise and said, "Perhaps this weekend when I can spare forty-five minutes..."

Jon said...

Okay, I've finally read it. All forty-five minutes worth. :)

In addition to having names for car parts based on animal parts, they do the same for certain actions. As I've already told Gail, there's a Lao joke that goes something like this (be aware that it makes practically no sense in English but I'll do my best):

"You're driving down the road in the middle of the night and suddenly see an elephant, a lion, and a bear in the middle of the road. There's no room to go around them or to go off of the road. Which one do you run over? The answer is the brake. A car's wheels are called feet and cars step on things, not run them over.

Each of the different languages I have been exposed to over the years has provided new concepts and ideas that I never would have discovered on my own. They have given me new ways to see and interpret and understand the world around me. It would be a horrible shame if our posterity lost that.