The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

An article by Columbia professor John McWhorter appears in the Fall 2009 edition of the World Affairs Journal. “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English” takes a broad view of the process of language death and the rise of English as a dominant global tongue.

From the article:

“…the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word ‘ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.”

Assuming that we can keep 6,000 language alive, McWhorter writes, “is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots”: globalization will inevitably lead to the fading of distinct cultural and linguistic boundaries, and languages will be lost. But language loss does not amount to cultural death:

“…the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language.”

This projection of our linguistic future is complex and a little bit forboding. Are we facing a future in which society becomes completely homogeneous, where Hollywood produces culture, McDonalds provides sustenance, and English speakers, Borg-like, assimilate every language community they come across? How long will the last little enclaves hold out, and what happens  when the Borg finally arrives? Resistance is, after all, futile.

But, as McWhorter points out, the connection between culture and language is a slippery thing, and not necessarily subject to accurate prediction.  The interaction between the two as the whole thing unfolds will shape our linguistic future as a species. As English boldly goes where no language has gone before, where will we end up?

A strange new world, for sure.


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