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.




SAIVUS is an online non-profit organization that teaches Native American languages currently spoken within the United States. Founded in 2008 by Mathias Bullerman, a student linguist at Rutgers University, it provides comprehensive grammar tutorials, word lists, practice exercises and other materials vital to modern language survival and health in order to help Native American people acquire and maintain speaking ability of their languages.

Mathias writes:

“I’ve always been very interested in American Indian and Polynesian languages, and unfortunately over half are expected to disappear within our lifetime. I really want to give something back to these languages that taught me so much, and one of the biggest factors contributing to their decline is a lack of quality educational materials.

For large languages like Navajo or Ojibwa there are plenty of workbooks
and dictionaries, and some other non-profit organizations and applied
linguists provide language materials to specific tribes. Rosetta Stone
offers internships in developing software for endangered languages, and
there is SSILA – Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the
– which aids linguistic research. Some universities offer classes
in indigenous languages, in fact if you want to learn Hawaiian you can
even enroll in an online course at the University of Hawaii.

Yet, whereas all of these options are very expensive, online tutorials
don’t cost a cent. Most people interested in learning indigenous languages
are native peoples who grew up speaking English and I feel like no one
should have to pay to learn their own language, especially since they are
the poorest ethnic group in America. Many sites direct you can go to where
you can go to learn indigenous languages, but aims to provide
actual tutorials. The web format is superior since it has no page limit,
wastes no paper, can be updated immediately, and best of all it can
support sound files and flash animations.

While SAIVUS’ tutorials are pedagogically oriented, they are of utmost
interest to theoretical linguists since they contain ample information on
phonology and bibliographies that list previous research. Within a year,
we hope to develop grammar lessons as well. The first S of SAIVUS stands
for Society, so if there are any other linguists out there who would be
interesting in helping the effort please contact me at Right now we’re concentrating on Hawaiian, Lakota,
Cherokee and Plains Indian Sign Language, which have the greatest
potential since they are popular and widely spoken, but eventually I hope
there will be language lessons for at least one language of every region
in the United States.


If anyone has written papers on these languages, I will publish them on
the site for free. You can put this on your CV – grad schools and
employers love to see publications and plus you’ll be getting your name
out there. It’s also a good way to make native speaker contacts if you’re
interested in doing fieldwork, or meet professors who have worked on these
languages; it gives you a reason to introduce yourself. There is also a
humanitarian component; ever since I posted a small Hawaiian pronunciation
lesson I’ve received several heartfelt emails from Hawaiians telling me
how much SAIVUS means to their people. That page alone got around 10,000
hits last month!”

For more information, news and FAQ about SAIVUS, visit their website.