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Languages reveal our cultural diversity – the different ways we explain ourselves, the different ways we categorise our knowledge, the different ways we think, hope, and dream. We use our words to express our lives, to talk about what matters most.
Some of our language is unique to where we live, because our words also capture our physical experience of the world. If your life and livelihood depend on knowing the sea, your language will reflect that connection to water and fish, tides and storms.
What happens then, when a language disappears, when no one speaks or remembers it? What happens is a loss and a forgetting – the loss of a way of being, a way of seeing, the steady erasure of evidence that anyone who thought this way or lived like that was ever part of the planet. What is lost and forgotten is the knowledge that illuminated a specific part of the natural world; that revealed how we learned to adapt and thrive in a given environment.
Fully half of the world’s languages have disappeared in the last five hundred years. Half of our remaining languages are expected to disappear by the next century. The loss is devastating, the forgetting unparalleled. Even deep-rooted languages are vulnerable: with the oldest literature in Europe after Latin and Greek, today Ireland’s first language is English, and Irish isn’t being taken up by children outside of school – a sure sign of peril. If children decide not to speak a language, the language dies out when the older generation dies off.
If you’ve understood what you’ve read to this point, you’re already familiar with English, one of the conquerors in the language wars. English is a global language with a killer reputation – a force in international finance and law, modern science, global aviation, computing and television. English is often assumed to be required for success; by virtue of its breadth in the world, more opportunities are available to you if you speak this ubiquitous tongue.
English is also viewed by many as a prerequisite for progress, which is shorthand for economic advancement. In late 2014, researchers at the University of Cambridge noted that the more economically successful a country is, the faster its language diversity is disappearing. As economies grow, they suggested, one language begins to rule a country’s political and educational spheres. People then have to decide whether to adopt the new tongue so they can participate economically and politically, or whether to hang on to their native tongue and risk being marginalised – or rather, risk staying marginalised.
Anthropologist Daniel Nettle and linguist Suzanne Romaine point out that the hundred most-spoken languages in the world (out of at least 5,000) are used by ninety per cent of the world’s population. Put another way, Indigenous peoples, who live in some of the world’s most uniquely biodiverse environments, make up four per cent of the world’s population but speak roughly sixty per cent of its languages. Nettle and Romaine note that threats to languages and threats to biological species are connected: “Where languages are in danger, it is a sign of environmental distress.” When a language is lost, the environmental knowledge catalogued in that language is lost with it.
Strikingly, the loss of language diversity tied to economic growth parallels a loss of language diversity that has occurred within English. Since the 1970s, economic language has crowded out noneconomic language; we now use economic values and assumptions to frame how we think and talk about a broad spectrum of human activity that used to be governed by a much wider range of ideas.
Consider the transformation of government. In the western world before 1970 the public and private sectors were distinct areas of activity with different value systems. The language of the public sector was the language of citizenship, of democracy and the democratic process, of the common good and the public interest. The language of the private sector was the language of consumers, of profit and productivity, of efficiency and entrepreneurship, and of private gain.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, researchers began to notice a value shift in governments in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The public sector was being increasingly criticised in economic terms – pilloried for being inefficient, for not controlling costs or quality, for being subject to the undue influence of labour unions and professional associations. The proposed solution was to run government like a business, reframing citizens as customers, emphasising productivity and cost cutting, and introducing competition through outsourcing, deregulation, and privatisation. By 2000, what had come to be known as New Public Management was recognised as the main paradigm being used by governments around the world – and the central thesis of this way of doing and being government was that there was no real difference between the private and public sectors, and that the methods of the private sector could be used to manage the public sector too.
Now multiply that loss of noneconomic language by similar language loss in how we once understood and talked about our work, our relationships, the environment, our communities, health, education, spirituality, and creativity, and you begin to get a sense of the scale of loss and forgetting that we’re now inhabiting. This list of noneconomic language loss, after all, is a list that encompasses all of our major societal institutions, including libraries, museums, arts organisations, churches, prisons, hospitals, schools, governments, non-profit organisations, and families.
If language is a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world and expressing that seeing, then as one language becomes dominant, we come to see and experience the world from that one perspective. We frame our problems and potential solutions in terms of that one perspective, and we don’t just express ourselves in those terms – we understand ourselves and act in those terms.
English dominates so many other languages in part because people fear they will be left behind economically if they don’t embrace it. At the same time, economic ideas continue to dominate English. The result? When we take up English, we take up an economic language. When we are fluent in English, we are fluent in that economic language.
Facing what has been described as a catastrophic loss of human and cultural diversity through the loss of our languages, we are now streamlining our understanding of the world. We are homogenising our perception of ourselves, our problems, and our potential, resulting in a worldview that is inextricably linked to economic assumptions about the nature of reality. Our one way of seeing becomes an economic seeing. Our one way of understanding becomes an economic understanding.
We function, but in the end we diminish our humanity. When we lose a language, when we lose noneconomic parts of a language, we lose the ability to communicate the part of ourselves that was unique to a given environment. We lose the part of ourselves that was best expressed in noneconomic terms. In a culture and language steeped in economic values and assumptions, it may not seem like we remember how to talk about anything else, but we do – if only we can find the words.