Profusion of tongues in the global village

October 02, 1997|By Gwynne Dyer

IN A TIME when English has become the first and only ''global language,'' used regularly by Koreans to communicate with Danes and by Turks to talk to Peruvians (both in the flesh and on the Net), it is reassuring to learn that it is not pushing other languages to the wall.

On the contrary, concludes David Dalby of the Observatoire Linguistique, the world contains over 10,000 living languages, 50 percent more than previously estimated.

The smallest of those languages have only one or two living speakers, and will die with them: Bikya, for example, is now spoken only by one 87-year-old woman living near Furu-awa on the Cameroon-Nigerian border. But most of them have enough speakers to carry on forever, and the dominance of English is no threat at all.

This conclusion runs contrary to almost everything that has been said about the subject for decades. As long ago as 1985, Development Forum, published by the United Nations University, coined the phrase ''language death'' and suggested that endangered languages needed active conservation policies.

But Mr. Dalby dismisses the common assertion that one-third of spoken tongues are in imminent danger of extinction as ''absolute rubbish.'' The only languages in any danger at all are those spoken by very small groups of hunter-gatherers, and what puts them at risk is not ''global English'' but any nearby bigger language that comes equipped with books, schools, and television.

Mr. Dalby should know, for he is Welsh, and the institute he directs, despite its French name, is in Wales. Welsh was the very first language to come under pressure from English, but half a millennium after the English conquest of Wales, fully one-third of the population can speak Welsh. Almost all Welsh-speakers are bilingual in English, however, and that, Mr. Dalby reckons, is the dominant pattern for the future.

Until now, amazingly, nobody had done a full compilation of the world's languages and dialects. The international network of scholars who collaborated in the effort to produce a 1,600-page register of all the world's languages never suspected that so many languages existed, because each expert knew only his own region. So where do all these languages come from?

They come from a past before civilization, when language diversity was so extreme that every little group of a few hundred human beings had its own language (as the people of the Papua New Guinea highlands still do).

There may have been only 10 million people on the planet than, but they would have spoken at least 20,000 different languages. And most, like the New Guinea highlanders, would have spoken a bit of the neighboring groups' languages, too: Multilingualism is not the exception but the norm in human history.

Then came civilization and the growth of mass societies in which millions spoke the same language. Mass civilization has been such a successful phenomenon that five millenniums later, only eight languages account for fully half of the world's people. (In order of size, they are: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Bengali, Arabic, and Portuguese.)

Little languages

The hundred biggest languages account for 95 percent of the world's people, and in some of the longest-civilized places -- the Middle East, Europe, East Asia -- the surviving minority languages are counted only in the dozens. But in most places, many more ''little languages'' have survived: The United States and Brazil are home to hundreds, India and Indonesia to over a thousand each.

Moreover, new technologies have lowered the cost of providing books, radio and even television service to the point where languages with only 20,000 speakers can become perfectly viable mediums of communication for modern living, especially if they are geographically isolated.

A good example is Inuktitut, spoken by Canada's Inuit (Eskimo) people. The small Inuit communities scattered across the vast expanse of the eastern Arctic are all being given satellite up-links and Internet connections, enabling them to talk to each other in Inuktitut, to access the few thousand books that have been written in Inuktitut or translated into it, and (if they are bilingual) to use all the rest of the world's information resources as well.

But that's the rub: ''if they are bilingual.'' And ''bilingual'' actually means bilingual in English, since 80 percent of what's on the Net is in English. And isn't becoming bilingual in English the first step down the road to ''language death''?

The French certainly think so, and launch periodic linguistic pogroms to purge their language of English loan-words. But such paranoia is not justified by the evidence: Bilingualism or multilingualism was once the natural state of human beings, and doesn't necessarily cause language loss at all.

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