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Give the familiar Spenglerian theme of demographic death and the end of languages, I thought his readers ought to know about a recent essay by linguist John McWhorter, “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English”.

He poses the question:

What makes the potential death of a language all the more emotionally charged is the belief that if a language dies, a cultural worldview will die with it.

But using the example of the two major pronunciations of “disgusting” (“diss-kussting” and “dizz-gusting”), he argues that different languages do not express different cultural frameworks, but are simply happenstance. What if, he hypothesizes, if all humanity had a single culture with many different languages.
In this we would be like whales, whose species behave similarly everywhere, but have distinct “songs” as the result of happenstance. Who argues that we must preserve each pod of whales because of the particular songs they happen to have developed? The diversity of human languages is subject to the same evaluation: each one is the result of a roll of the dice.

The main loss in the loss of languages is, he argues, aesthetic:

The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.

But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota.

At the end, he suggests, the loss of languages is the price we pay for globalization.



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