“Tell me, why should we care?” he asks.
It’s a question I can expect whenever I do a lecture about the looming extinction of most of the world’s 6,000 languages, a great many of which are spoken by small groups of indigenous people. For some reason the question is almost always posed by a man seated in a row somewhere near the back.
Asked to elaborate, he says that if indigenous people want to give up their ancestral language to join the modern world, why should we consider it a tragedy? Languages have always died as time has passed. What’s so special about a language?
The answer I’m supposed to give is that each language, in the way it applies words to things and in the way its grammar works, is a unique window on the world. In Russian there’s no word just for blue; you have to specify whether you mean dark or light blue. In Chinese, you don’t say next week and last week but the week below and the week above. If a language dies, a fascinating way of thinking dies along with it.
I used to say something like that, but lately I have changed my answer.
Certainly, experiments do show that a language can have a fascinating effect on how its speakers think. Russian speakers are on average 124 milliseconds faster than English speakers at identifying when dark blue shades into light blue. A French person is a tad more likely than an Anglophone to imagine a table as having a high voice if it were a cartoon character, because the word is marked as feminine in his language.
This is cool stuff. But the question is whether such infinitesimal differences, perceptible only in a laboratory, qualify as worldviews — cultural standpoints or ways of thinking that we consider important. I think the answer is no.
Furthermore, extrapolating cognitive implications from language differences is a delicate business. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, you can express If you had seen my sister, you’d have known she was pregnant with the same sentence you would use to express the more basic If you see my sister, you know she’s pregnant. One psychologist argued some decades ago that this meant that Chinese makes a person less sensitive to such distinctions, which, let’s face it, is discomfitingly close to saying Chinese people aren’t as quick on the uptake as the rest of us. The truth is more mundane: Hypotheticality and counterfactuality are established more by context in Chinese than in English.
If we can’t consider this aspect of Mandarin a cognitive facet of being Chinese, then we can’t, in fairness, associate the “cool” features of other languages with the worldviews of their speakers. Surely worldviews aren’t only those ways of perceiving things that we consider admirable or charming.
But if a language is not a worldview, what do we tell the guy in the lecture hall? Should we care that in 100 years only about 600 of the current 6,000 languages may be still spoken?
The answer is still yes, but for other reasons.
First, a central aspect of any culture’s existence as a coherent entity is the fact of its having its own language, regardless of what the language happens to be like. Certainly, a culture can thrive without its own language: No one would tell today’s American Indians that if they no longer spoke their ancestral language it would render them non-Indian. Likewise, being Jewish does not require speaking Hebrew or Yiddish.
Yet because language is so central to being human, to have a language used only with certain other people is a powerful tool for connection and a sense of community. Few would deny, for example, that American Jews who still speak Yiddish in the home are a tighter-knit community, less assimilated into Anglophone American life and less at odds with questions about Jewish identity, than Jews who speak only English.
Second, languages are scientifically interesting even if they don’t index cultural traits. They offer variety equivalent to the diversity of the world’s fauna and flora.
For example, whether or not it says anything about how its speakers think, the fact that there is a language in New Guinea that uses the same word for eat, drink and smoke is remarkable in itself. Another New Guinea language is Yeli Dnye, which not only has 90 sounds to English’s 44, but also has 11 different ways to say “on” depending on whether something is horizontal, vertical, on a point, scattered, attached and more. And there is Berik, where you have to change the verb to indicate what time of day something happened. As with any other feature of the natural world, such variety tests and expands our sense of the possible, of what is “normal.”
These are the arguments I have ready for the “Why should we care?” fellow these days. We should foster efforts to keep as many languages spoken as possible, and to at least document what the rest of them are like.
Cultures, to be sure, show how we are different. Languages, however, are variations on a worldwide, cross-cultural perception of this thing called life.
Surely, that is something to care about.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and music history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.