Did you know this was endangered languages week? I didn’t, but I’m glad it’s happening. With all the alarming news that has hogged the headlines over the past few months, endangered languages have sunk to a lower rung of our consciousness, mine anyway. So it’s time to stop and think for a moment about the many benefits of preserving endangered languages:
1. Every language embodies a system of family and governmental relationships, titles, and rules. Nobody has gotten either system right yet, and we can learn a lot from each other. These systems disappear with the language.
2. Every language uses a certain set of sounds, which express themselves in everything from lullabies to swear words. These help us understand the human brain, and our physical capabilities.
3. Can you imagine a world in which there was no longer a ”Rock-a-Bye Baby,” or an “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” not to mention, “To be or not to be” which other people could understand? Literature and music has been composed in every tongue, whether the culture is literate or not.
4. More than one set of experiments has proven that knowing more than one language improves our method of learning everything else as well, and develops the brain.
5. Extinguishing language means extinguishing identity, relegating certain groups to inferior status. This goes against our principles of self-worth and democracy.
6. Now. If only the Spanish-, Greek-, and French-speaking people I know would answer me in Spanish, Greek, or French when I address them in their native tongue. The United States not only does not foster multilingualism, it mutes the tongues of people who immigrate. It annoys the hell out of me that I cannot practice my second, third, and fourth languages with people who live around me. The less they respond in their native tongue, the less I hear their native languages, and the quicker I lose contact with them.
7. We embrace diversity in all else, why not in language? There is a virtue unto itself of diversity.
Endangered Languages Week 2013 – Here is a weeklong celebration of same in England, if any of you happen through this week.
Celebrating our Sounds, Signs and Songs
SOAS, Russell Square, London
20-28 May 2013
Endangered Languages Week 2013 will present a variety of workshops, talks, films, demonstrations, debate, and more. Events include:
- ELDP workshop on technology and African languages.
- APLL6 conference on Austronesian and Papuan Languages and Linguistics
- Talks and seminars:
- Caroline Kerfoot: ‘Multilingualism as epistemic resource: rethinking ‘languages’ in educational policy’
- Kearsey Cormier on Sign languages
- Henrik Bergqvist:‘The problem of accounting for TAME and related expressions in the context of language documentation and description’
- Catherine Ingram on music and language documentation
- Sarah Ogilvie on web technologies and endangered languages
- Peter Austin: ‘And still they speak Dieri. Language revitalisation in northern South Australia’
- ELAR Open Day, including:
- Film Day: films on/in endangered languages
The full programme of events will appear here soon!
All events are free of charge and open to anyone who is interested in languages.
I am copying into this blogpost an email which appeared on the Language Policy List firstname.lastname@example.org about the ancient languages of the Caucasus Mountains. I have edited out some parts of it which were technical, in order to make it a tidy size for a blog post, and to make it accessible to non-specialists. The title of the original posting is “New Book: A Proposal for Pan-Caucasian Alphabet,” posted on March 24th.
[Several of the languages of Northern Caucasian languages were not traditionally written down.] Standardized writing systems for the North Caucasian languages have been implemented only in the 20th century. Initially based upon the Latin script, the adapted alphabets have been shifted to Cyrillic-shaped graphics during the mid 30s. … These writing systems are incapable to represent [sic], in an unambiguous way, the phonetics of the North Caucasian languages, which in their turn possess an outstanding feature of having one of the richest consonant inventories among all the languages of the world….
For instance, the language of the Ubykhs (extinct since 1992) has 86 consonants and two vowels; the Archi language, presently reduced to 1200 speakers, distinguishes 81 consonants and 26 vowels (many of the former do not have exact correspondences in other languages); the consonant inventory of the Bzyp dialect of Abkhaz includes 68 phonemes, etc.
All Caucasian languages have a regular three-level phonation for stops and affricates (voiced, ejective and aspirated voiceless), whereas the Cyrillic script distinguishes only two levels of phonation (voiced and unaspirated voiceless) in case of stops and one (aspirated voiceless) in case of affricates. The Latin alphabet does not represent affricates at all. … [T]he Cyrillic script until the 20th century has chiefly been confined to a limited range of a few Slavic languages sharing similar phonetic traits. … [D]issimilar sets of symbols often with illogical combinations were introduced into the alphabets of particular North Caucasian languages during the adaptation of the Russian script.
For instance, the series of Ubykh postalveolar affricates and fricatives numbers 22 distinct phonemes, for which there is only one (!) correspondence in the Cyrillic script – the letter ч (tɕ). Obviously, this one sign alone is quite insufficient to express the overall phonemic diversity of this extensive series by means of Cyrillic graphics. Set aside the letter х, there is no other direct or indirect graphical correspondence for uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal and glottal stops, affricates, fricatives and sonorants, which in Caucasian languages abound.
As one can see, the quantity of phonemes of these languages by far exceeds the graphical capabilities of all alphabetic systems that have previously been proposed for them or are currently in use. Such a vast phoneme inventory significantly hinders the possibilities of adaptation of any actual script and constitutes the prime reason for the current project.
[Twenty-four[ out of 69 characters of Adyghe alphabet are double, and 11 – triple, making in sum 35 compounds, which is more than half of the total listing with 69:35 ratio. The similar statistics of the other Caucasian Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Abaza (74:40), Kabardian (55:25), Abkhaz (64:24), Akhvakh (56:30), Aghul (69:32), Avar (53:37), Lak (59:25), Tabasaran (59:25), Tsez (40:14), Chechen (45:16) etc. The Chechen alphabet alone having merely 45 characters in the presence of 44 authentic vowels and diphthongs in the language itself, clearly convinces one in the fact that even at the cost of universal violation of the alphabetic principle and inappropriate complication of orthography, the given alphabets are unable to express the phonemic structure of the Caucasian languages even in the least satisfactory manner.
All above-mentioned complications essentially limited the means of graphical expression of these languages and led to a point, where, set aside rare dialectal phonemes, a series of sounds of literary languages were omitted in a number of alphabets. In many cases, these very same circumstances also defined the selection of dialects upon which the literary versions of some Caucasian languages were subsequently based: neither the extent of geographical distribution, nor the greater number of speakers was the decision criterion, but the minimal consonant inventory.
In summary, we may conclude that presently for the languages of both North Caucasian families there are practically no alphabets with a satisfactory level of phonematicity. Moreover, in Cyrillic script we deal with a quite inconsistent system of symbols, the potential of which in respect of grapheme morphology and structural correspondences is extremely low and insufficient not only for a simple, practical and phonemically complete rendition of the North Caucasian languages, but also for their aesthetic graphical representation.
The latter is of paramount importance for psychology of writing and determines the representativeness and competitiveness of an authentic language under the dominance of another – an official language with an identical writing system.
Besides the imperfection of the writing system or even its absence, the official status and the cultural dominance of Russian has a no less considerable impact on the marginalization of the spheres of usage of the native Caucasian languages, promoting their gradual extinction. A large number of languages, among which were examples unique by their grammatical and phonetic properties, either completely died out or are on the brink of extinction being reduced to a few hundred or thousand of speakers, such as Archi, Akhvakh, Khinalug, Khwarshi, Tsez, Hinukh, Hunzib, Bezhta, Ghodoberi, Kryts, Budukh, Udi and many others.
Granting these languages a new impetus and means for development may be a possible break through the mentioned difficulties. To achieve this goal we suggest a scientifically valid development of completely new and well-adapted Caucasian alphabets that are adjusted by the morphology of symbols and the logic of their modification. At the same time, they must correspond to the complex intrinsic phonetic features of these languages, render them with full phonemic representativeness and alphabetical unambiguity, and at the same time be free from any irrelevant political or cultural context and enforcing influence.
The best illustrations to the aforesaid are the 1600-year time-tested alphabets of once dominant languages of the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands – Armenian, Georgian and the extinct and only recently deciphered Caucasian Albanian. Among the writing systems of the world, these three alphabets are distinguished by their highest level of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence and are listed among the phonetically most perfect. Caucasian Albanian, inter alia, was the only language of the South Caucasus possessing phonetic features similar to the North Caucasian languages and an ancient alphabet adapted to it.
Throughout the centuries, the viability of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, alongside with the power of tradition and some peculiarities of the identity of these two nations, was supported by the fundamental fact: they reflect the phonetics of these languages with the highest level of perfection. These alphabets were never superseded by the Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian or Latin scripts, as they weren't adopted or modified, but from the beginning developed on the basis of a meticulous scientific analysis of the phonetics of Armenian and Georgian (as well as Caucasian Albanian).
Hence, we set forth the idea to introduce completely original, easily legible, and most importantly – phonetically perfect and grammatologically thorough writing systems for the North Caucasian linguistic area, based on the character forms and graphical principles of construction of the alphabets of geographically adjacent and historically akin South Caucasus.
To achieve maximum efficiency, two similar, but mutually independent generalized sets of characters for [the] language families are introduced, wherefrom the specific alphabets for the particular languages are subsequently deduced.
Additionally, for the Ossetic language alike, which is an integral part of the Caucasian heritage, an independent alphabet sharing the features of both the newly developed North Caucasian and the ancient Transcaucasian alphabets has been created.
Thus, we attempt to give a new and historically sound unity and continuity to the millennial writing culture of the Caucasian region, a new impulse to the development of greater speech communities, as well as viability for preservation and future revival to smalle
Most of the argument is about the singular “they,” but the singular “you” also has an interesting genesis, and this article in The Economist tells the story, or at least part of the story.
The article concludes that social change has brought about this language change, though it does not draw any conclusions about why social change, meaning egalitarianism, did not also destroy the familiar “tu” in French, Spanish, and Italian, and the familiar “du” in German. What was it about English social change that was tied so tightly to language? That’s just something to think about.
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
An observant British diplomat serving in India, Sir William Jones, observed in the late 18th century that many word roots in Sanskrit matched word roots in Greek and Latin, which led to further linguistics research which ultimately linked a stunningly large group of languages, from English to Finnish, to Sanskrit, all the Latin languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, etc.), the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Serbian), and a host of other languages, some living, some extinct.
Now there is disagreement over where the first language, called Proto Indo-European, or PIE, came from. The latest theory was proposed by a biologist, Dr. Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He takes the origins farther back than ever before, from 4,000 to 9,000 years ago. Since we are, so far, discussing theories which can never be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there are arguments for at least these two theories, each having a claim that sounds reasonable to me.
I don’t see why the language could not have originated with pastoralists in what is now Turkey 9,000 years ago, and then been spread by chariot-driving conquerors from lands above the Black Sea 5,000 years later. We might be able to have our pie and eat it too.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa has sponsored an English-only bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a dumb bill with unstated pernicious goals of racism and exclusion, but leave that aside for the moment. Rep. King said, “A common language is the most powerful unifying force known throughout history, throughout all humanity and all time. If (people) can’t communicate, they’re bound to separate.” The people in India, China, many African nations, the Quechua-Spanish nations of South America, Indonesia, and numerous other countries which have multiple languages might disagree on that statement. It is, at the very least, not a statement based on fact. Language differences might sow disunity, as Rep. King is doing in the U.S., but these nations have not been “bound to separate.” (The U.S. came close to separation without any linguistic involvement except perhaps the stigmatizing of peoples’ accents.)
More disturbing than that statement was his use of China as an example of linguistic unity “throughout history.” His report on the history of the “Chinese language” is riddled with the sorts of logical fallacies which result from not knowing what you are talking about. First of all, there is no language called “Chinese.” A person from Beijing cannot easily understand someone from Canton, Taiwan, or even Szechuan. There are also many tribal languages spoken in China. My Chinese friends tell me that the variances between, say, Beijing Mandarin and the languages spoken elsewhere are much greater than the languages of Texas and New York. In America, it is a matter of accent, but the differences are more pervasive in China. Any broad brush analogy between China and America, and ancient China with modern America, is bound to be fallacious. One has to be careful when comparing even England with America.
The Chinese alphabet is indeed a cleverly devised unifying tool unlike anything we have in the Western world. It is perhaps analogous to the sign language which Native America tribes used to communicate, since they could not understand each others’ languages. In our Western alphabets, a person must memorize the words house, casa, maison, spiti, and so on, in order to communicate the idea of “house” or “home.” Two Chinese citizens who cannot understand each other verbally can communicate through the symbol for house. The Google translation for “house” contains multiple entries, but one of them is 名词. A Frenchman and an American can say to each other over and over again “House,” “Maison” “House” “Maison” and never understand each other, but two Chinese can write down 名词 and communicate immediately.
I once asked several Chinese students to come to the board and write the symbols for various words. The rest of the Chinese students in the class enjoyed the display even more than the rest of us. The Taiwanese student used an extra slash or line to write her symbols, and the Beijing student had a different slant or a different interior relationship of strokes. They said in explanation that the Taiwanese student wrote with an “accent.” They could detect where the student was from by analyzing the symbolic depiction of certain concepts. This is an entertainment which no Western student could participate in. Writing “maison” instead of “house” does not provide any laughs at all.
I was amused by Rep. King’s turning to China as a template for the U.S. to follow. There are few Republicans indeed who would use a Communist government which dictates policy, including language policy, as our model.
Our ignorance of things Chinese is so great that politicians can grab onto fragments of truth and include them in their speeches unchallenged, because neither they nor their audiences know what the truth is. I stipulate right here that my knowledge of Chinese is very limited, but compared to Rep. King, I’m an encyclopedia.
So who has the upper hand in the world today? The Chinese or the Americans? I recently met Yen, a young Chinese woman who is beginning high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She will be living with 15 other young Chinese students. (They will soften the transition to the U.S. by employing a Taiwanese chef to cook their meals. It is very difficult for a Chinese person to become accustomed to the American kitchen.) She already speaks good English and, if the family plan is accomplished, will finish both high school and college in the U.S. There are tens of thousands of Chinese students like Yen studying in the U.S. today, and each will take back to China a bit of knowledge to share with their families, acquaintances, and colleagues. We, in the meantime, are entertaining each other with false stories about Chinese history and language, without the slightest clue what China is like.
One of my students once wrote an essay in which she claimed that if we limited the ability of ordinary citizens to purchase guns we would be “just like China.” I had no idea what being “just like China” would entail, so I asked her in what ways they would be similar. “Do you know a lot about China?” I asked her. She sheepishly cast her eyes down. She barely knew where it was. Such foolish bromides about gun control had become second nature in her family and her community (she was home schooled), and had the ring of truth to them. As my father remarked about one family’s annual reunions, “They get together once a year to increase their ignorance.”
We live awash in such ignorance at our peril.
Once again, English Only legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Congress, this time by Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Given the substantial number of serious problems faced by America now, this legislation should be viewed as a frivolous waste of time, but its deleterious effects go deeper than that. It denigrates and demeans the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S., most of whom are struggling to learn English, if for no other reason than that their futures will be much brighter if they do. All of their children learn English, and their grandchildren often don’t even speak the native language of their immigrant parents or grandparents (which is a problem from cultural and national security standpoints).
Let us begin by reviewing some of the provisions of the proposed legislation, which, thankfully, is not expected to pass.
§162. Preserving and enhancing the role of the official language
Representatives of the Federal Government shall have an affirmative obligation to preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the Federal Government. Such obligation shall include encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language.
Without defining what “encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language,” this provision has no meaning at all. The Federal Government already functions in English and no enhancement is needed. But “encouraging greater opportunities” can only mean establishing learning centers where immigrants can learn English, and providing a greater number of ESL teachers in schools. This would be a welcome and expensive addition to the federal budget, but increased funding for any kind of education is rejected by the very people who support English-only laws, so this provision is dead on arrival and not worth the paper it is written on.
§ 164. Uniform English language rule for naturalization
(a) UNIFORM LANGUAGE TESTING STANDARD.—All citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution.
Who could object to learning a bit about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Certainly not I. It is the principles enshrined in these documents which draw many immigrants to America in the first place. They have heard about equality of opportunity long before they ever tread our shores. But I wonder which parts of the Declaration of Independence would be considered especially important.
The respect paid to immigrants would be welcome. Prevention of immigration is one of the objections to King George’s rule: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…”
The final remonstrance (in a long list) against King George might seem, to the untutored immigrant, to clash with the basic declaration that “all men are created equal”: He has…endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. Would we then, in fairness, teach our new immigrants about the “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” which the U.S. government practiced against these “merciless Indian Savages” over the hundred and more years after we became independent? Who would fund the learning centers where immigrants were taught the archaic language of the Declaration of Independence, with its outdated vocabulary and punctuation?
Regarding the Constitution, we would be bound to alert new immigrants that some provisions of this document no longer apply, such as: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Surely we would want to tell the new immigrants that this vile provision which resulted in escaped slaves being returned to their masters to endure legally sanctioned measures such as death was overturned later by the Supreme Court. Most damaging to the spirit of all men being “created equal” would be the provision which states: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The Constitution tiptoes around the mention of slavery, but in this provision, counts slaves as three-fifths of a person, and does not include Indians at all. It does count indentured servants, who were usually white, as full people. That part, too, was later overturned, ultimately allowing Barack Obama to become president. Who would want three-fifths of a president?
Is this the image of America that we want to paint for new immigrants? Wouldn’t the economic, social, and cultural pressures to learn English lead them to a more accurate picture of modern America, and more facility in navigating such civic duties as voting and holding a job? Our own high school students have only a vague idea of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I wonder how many of them would pass the test given to immigrants.
Linguists almost universally oppose English-Only legislation, joined by many others; for example, the American Psychological Association’s web page contains an article opposing it. The abstract of the article states: “The scientific literature relevant to the arguments for and against the English-only movement is reviewed, to determine whether the Resolution Against English Only before the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) was supportable. Some of the misconceptions advanced by English-only advocates that affect the sociopsychological, educational, testing, and health-service delivery arenas are examined. It is argued that there is no support for English-only initiatives, and that the English-only movement can have negative consequences on psychosocial development, intergroup relations, academic achievement, and psychometric and health-service delivery systems for many American citizens and residents who are not proficient in English. The public interest is best served by affirming a position in opposition to English-only. English-only is socially divisive and poses a threat to the human welfare that psychologists espouse in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists.” The full article can be found here.
Services affected by English-Only legislation would include: health, education and social welfare services, job training, translation assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers’ licensing exams, and AIDS prevention education. The sponsor of the present bill, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, suggests that its passage would alleviate the expense of providing interpreters and translators in hospitals, courts, and schools. Really? Does this mean that a person who does not speak English will not be helped to understand the proceedings in the court where he or she might be convicted of a crime? On the medical side, would a 911 operator or an EMT be allowed to speak in a language other than English? The present legislation specifically requires that entities from the federal government down to the smallest town must comply with federal law, and since local ambulance drivers and telephone operators for 911 are governmental entities, they might well be forbidden to speak anything but English. In the days of segregation, well within living memory, Black people were allowed to die if there was no hospital for Black people handy. That’s how the famous singer Bessie Smith died – she bled to death because the White hospitals wouldn’t take her in. Are we going to allow grotesque modern situations to refresh that memory?
Passage of an “English Only” ordinance by Florida’s Dade County in 1980, barring public funding of activities that involved the use of languages other than English, resulted in the cancellation of all multicultural events and bilingual services, ranging from directional signs in the public transit system to medical services at the county hospital. The absence of bilingual signage would not bode well for the tourism industry.
Librarians complain that English-only laws inhibit their ability to communicate with many of their clients.
The English-Only proponents are opposed to spending money on multi-lingual ballots, thus affecting the voting rights of immigrants. One Representative who urged the House of Representatives to reject the English-only measure wondered how we could enforce immigration laws if we were forbidden from communicating with the affected immigrants.
Learning English is a long process, especially for people with limited educational experience. They may be working at multiple jobs to support themselves or taking care of young children or other relatives. It could take them years to master the Constitution. A little patience should be in order while they acclimate themselves to a new country.
Some states have declared English their “official language,” but Hawaii has deemed both English and Hawaaian “official.” Will that now have to be overturned?
The English-only forces include a fringe of racists belonging to hate groups, and underlying all such legislation is a smug intolerance, at the very least. America would benefit more fully from initiatives in the other direction. How foolish, for example, that we had a severe shortage of Arabic-speaking citizens when we went to war in Iraq! It is the smug superiority of Americans such as Rep. King which created generations of Americans who do not speak the language of their immigrant parents or grandparents. In today’s interconnected world, we need to encourage multilingualism. It is good for the arts, business, diplomacy, education, and peace. Any efforts to intimidate Americans into speaking only English take us into isolation and dysfunction.
There is a deeper moral principle to be honored though. English as a language is one form of the glue that has always bound us together. This will not change. Relegating the many languages spoken among us to second-class status only causes division and rancor, not the unity which Americans since the Declaration of Independence have striven for. Immigrants come to America to live where the goal is equality of opportunity, and where that is concerned, we have walked the walk. We have had a Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who speaks English with a German accent, and a recent Chief of Staff of our Armed Forces, John Shalikashvili, spoke English with a Polish accent. We revere Lafayette and deTocqueville, who spoke English with a French accent, as American heroes, and the list of artists, writers, film makers, and musicians who took a while to become fluent in English is a very long one. These American giants all took a while to learn English, and they might have had mothers or other relatives who came to live here who never learned English at all. We don’t want to discourage the scientists who will take us to Mars or the musicians who lift our hearts to be discouraged from coming to our country because we don’t value their language. Bring on the bagels (Yiddish), ketchup (Chinese), chipmunks (Algonquin), soufflés (French), and all the rest! Hooray for America!
Geneticists, Drs. David Reich of Harvard and Andres Ruiz-Linares of University College London announced today, as was reported in The New York Times (“Earliest Americans Arrived in Waves, DNA Study Finds”), that there were three waves, not one wave, of migration from Siberia which first populated the Americas. DNA has provided enough clues to confirm this, though researchers need more DNA samples to flesh out the picture. The full report was published on July 11 in Nature.
In 1987, a linguist, Joseph Greenberg, “asserted that most languages spoken in North and South America were derived from the single mother tongue…Amerind…Two later waves…brought speakers of Eskimo-Aleut and of Na-Dene, the language family spoken by the Apache and Navajo.” Dr. Greenberg’s conclusions were roundly rejected at the time, and have only now been resuscitated. Yes, there were three waves.
Genetic research is less squishy than linguistics research, but perhaps this confirmation that language research is also a way to uncover the past will earn it more respect. Unfortunately, Dr. Greenberg did not live long enough to see his theory vindicated. He died in 2001.
I take a lesson from this — one that we learn again and again. Do your job well and then call things as you see them, no matter what the fallout. Ask Charles Darwin. Do what you love doing. That’s a good life. The rest is history.
At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.
The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.
There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)
Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.
Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.
In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.
This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.
In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.
Around the year 449, England was invaded by Germanic tribes who introduced their language to the Celts whom they conquered. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, recorded the first account of this catastrophe. Bede claims that the conqueror tribes were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, from the Danish peninsula and Germany.
Before 449, the central and southeastern parts of England were a Roman province (the Romans never penetrated Scotland and Wales), and the Romans spoke Latin. Given the advanced technology and comforts introduced by the Romans, like central heating, baths, and advanced plumbing, it is no surprise that at least the mercantile and ruling classes in Britain adopted Latin as their language, while the rest of the populace spoke Celtic languages. Gaelic, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, and Manx are among the original Celtic languages, and some are making a comeback today.
As Rome weakened, its legions left Britain, leaving it unprotected against the invasions of the Germanic tribes who brought along the original forms of English.
Under different circumstances, our language might be called Jutish, or Saxonish, but the Angles became ascendant among the invading tribes. Over the succeeding centuries, the place came to be called “Englalande” (Land of the Angles), and the coalescing languages of the invading tribes were called Englisc.
Olde English, with its Germanic declensions of nouns and adjectives and complicated verb conjugations, lasted from about 450 to 1150. Olde English is dead in that nobody but specialists could either speak or comprehend it today. It differs from modern English more than, say, old French from modern French, or old German from modern German. Consider this example (taken from The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutscher):
Me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worhte (I regret having made them).
This is incomprehensible, right?
Language turned topsy turvy again in 1066, when the French-speaking Normans invaded. The Norman king and his Court spoke French, and as reward for their victory, Norman lords took over British land and businesses. The servants and townspeople continued speaking English. Gradually, the Latin-based French vocabulary and syntax changed the surrounding English dialects, and by 1600 the above quote became:
For it repenteth me that I haue made them
which is fairly comprehensible.
Nouns dropped their gender in this period, though for some reason we still call ships “she.” Over the centuries, the familiar forms thou/thee were replaced by you in both the singular and the plural. The modern pronoun forms he/him/his, she/her/hers, our/ours/ours, and so on, give us a sense of how to decline nouns, but even these forms are fading. My students regularly use me instead of I in sentences such as, “Me and Mary went to the mall,” thus regularizing the pronoun forms. Without the declensions, speakers identify the function of nouns by their place in the sentence. Me is the subject (nominative case) because it comes first in the sentence. English has become a more linear language.
When some English people ended up in America, all hell broke loose. The native tribes contributed succotash, chipmunk, moccasin, powwow, and teepee. African slaves gave us the Blues and boogie, mumbo jumbo and banjo. The Irish added hooligan, galore, and whiskey. The Jews brought us oy vey, blintz, chutzpah, glitch, and putz. We recently added quesadilla, hola, and macho to our vocabulary.
The invention of recording devices made it possible at last for us to listen to the accents of peoples’ speech. We cannot hear a 10th century British farmer speaking, but we can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many early movie actors, whose speech sounds almost British. Changes in accent occur gradually, as do changes in syntax. We seem to be eliminating the nominative case and saying, “Me and Mary went to the mall” without the blink of an eye.
English is morphing in Jamaica, India, and Singapore. Perhaps some day these offshoots will be so deeply changed by influences of their own that a native English speaker will not understand them. That’s how modern English moved away from its own Germanic roots.
It all started in 449. Thanks goodness that today our changes occur through immigration, not bloody invasion. The language changes faster that way, and change is more or less voluntary, though many grandparents today mumble, “Over my dead body,” when they hear their grandchildren say “Me and Mary went to the mall.” But I like it better this way.