Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction

By Perlin, Ross | Dissent, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction


Perlin, Ross, Dissent


.. . words are a way of fending in the world: whole languages, like species, can disappear without dropping a gram of earth weight, and symbolic systems to a fare you well can be added without filling a ditch or thimble. . . .

A.R. Ammons

Model'll linguistics is founded on a radical premise: the equality of all languages. "All languages have equal expressive power as communication systems," writes Steven Pinker. "Every grammar is equally complex and logical and capable of producing an infinite set of sentences to express any thought one might wish to express," says a recent textbook. "The outstanding fact about any language is its formal completeness," wrote Edward Sapir, adding elsewhere for rhetorical effect: "When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam."

Where native speakers are concerned, no language, dialect, or accent can meaningfully be described as primitive, broken, or inferior. The world's 7,000-plus languages are fantastically various, but each one has evolved (in its particular historical, cultural, and ecological niche) to handle all the core communicative demands of daily life. Every language has a complex grammar-an almost invisible glue between words that enables meaningmaking-and new vocabulary can always be borrowed or coined. Some languages may specialize in melancholy, or seaweed, or atomic structure, or religious ritual; some grammars may glory in conjugating verbs while others bristle with syntactic invention. Hawaiian has just thirteen phonemes (meaningful sounds) while the Caucasian language Ubykh, extinct as of 1992, had eighty-four. "English" (with all its technical varieties) is said to be adding up to 8,500 words per year, more than many Australian aboriginal languages have to begin with. But these are surface inequalities-questions of personality.

Perceptions of linguistic superiority or inferiority are instead based on power, class, and social status. Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing-Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core-that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their "classical" status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition. By the nineteenth century, the imperial nation-states of Europe were politely shunting them off to the museum and imposing their own equivalents: newly standardized "modern" languages like English and French. Johann Gottfried Herder's Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772) inspired would-be nation-builders to document, restore, and develop their own neglected vernaculars. One by one, the nationalists of Central and Eastern Europe adopted Herder's program, as has virtually every modern nation-state sooner or later: warding off imperial languages from without by establishing a dominant standardized language within, at the expense of minority languages and local varieties. TWo speech varieties can be called different languages if they're mutually unintelligible, most linguists hold. But this distinction proves hard to keep up in practice. At least in modern times, a "language" has come to mean something irreducibly, but often invisibly, political, a dialekt mit an armey un a flot (a dialect with an army and a navy) in the famous Yiddish phrase attributed to Max Weinreich.

It was just over a century ago when a group of linguists made an effort to go beyond the language politics of imperialism and nationalism. For reasons both scientific and political, they affirmed the equality of all languages. They devoted themselves to documenting languages that were all but invisible to their contemporaries, or else considered beneath notice by all but Christian missionaries. They stressed the natural primacy of oral language (and later sign language among the deaf) over the constructed, elitist character of every written tradition. …

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