Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics

By Suzanne Romaine | Go to book overview

2
Language Choice

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech . . . And they said to one another, . . . 'Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, 'Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; . . . let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth. ( Genesis 11: 1-11)

MOST cultures have stories which seek to explain the origin of life and to explain why things are as they are in the world today. The story from Genesis would have us believe that linguistic diversity is the curse of Babel. In a primordial time, people spoke the same language. God, however, decided to punish them for their presumptuousness in erecting the tower by making them speak different languages. Thus, multilingualism became an obstacle to further cooperation and placed limits on human worldly achievements. The idea that multilingualism is divisive, while monolingualism is a normal and desirable state of affairs, is still with us today.

Despite the emphasis of mainstream linguistics on monolingualism and homogeneous speech communities, widespread bilingualism and multilingualism of the type found in north-west New Britain discussed in Chapter 1 are actually more common. It has been estimated that there are some four to five thousand languages in the world but only about 140 nation-states. Probably about half

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