Link to review: Empires of the Word & anti-Babel
February 4, 2011
September 22, 2010
I was going through my stack of podcasts today and I decided to listen to a discussion between the linguist John McWhorter and the linguist Ben Zimmer, and at one point McWhorter addresses the issue of linguistic diversity, and wonders aloud if perhaps we wouldn’t be better off with one world language, though more as an intellectual thought experiment than in any seriousness. His arguments are laid out in this article The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English. McWhorter recounts how the piece resulted in his cameo appearance as one of history’s greatest monsters in a book by a linguist who is fighting language extinction.
You can listen to Zimmer and McWhorter’s exchange on the topic yourself:
Over the past two months there have been many responses to my original post “Linguistic diversity = poverty”. I need to reiterate something on the record: I am not a writer for Discover Magazine, and what I say on this blog does not go through any editor. With that out of the way a common issue that has cropped up repeatedly is that people have transformed my contention that we should be calmer about letting nature take its course with dialects on the edge of oblivion. Instead of what I did say, some people report that I argued that I think languages should be “banished”, or that coercion should be used to give rise to Globish. Not at all. I didn’t say that, if you said I said that, please update your blog post to indicate you misunderstood me.
A second issue is that people keep calling me a “Social Darwinist.” Really the way that it’s being used is very similar to conservatives referring to people on the Left as “Marxists.” The reality is that most Leftists today are not Marxists. Marxism is a very specific set of movements with philosophical commitments and beliefs about the world. But it’s a nice way to impute some negative historical baggage because of Marxism’s connection to totalitarian Communism, and the general influence of Marxism on the broader Left (e.g., most European Social Democratic parties have Marxist roots, even if they eventually repudiated or distanced themselves from those roots). Similarly many of my critics throw around the term Social Darwinist as if it’s ju-ju which can explain my oh-so-evil-rotten-heart. It connects the fact that I’m a political conservative with Nazism, but doesn’t go so far as to transgress into the realm of Godwin’s Law. One of the things that set Greg Downey off about the aspersions I cast toward linguistic anthropology specifically was that I stated that they were Talmudicists. But I think that’s kind of an insult to the rabbis at this point after seeing the range of responses, really many of the critics who know I’m oh-so-evil are no different from the shamans who they may have studied, and have now seemingly developed an instinct to label individuals taboo.
At least Greg Downey did some leg work attempting to refute my contentions (though it’s a little funny how many people think that his refutation was the last word even when he admitted to its provisionality). Most of my critics retreated into their academic-pidgin and were comfortable implying that I was an unsaved heathen, leaving it at that. But there is something Dr. Downey said which I think is worth exploring again:
I won’t keep writing on this subject, but I once had a student in my Intro to Latin American cultures class who got really upset when I said that I thought Latinos in the US should just be allowed to speak Spanish without being harassed. He got irate. He said his ancestors had been forced to speak English, to give up their native tongues. I asked him, ‘Would you like to be able to speak Gaelic or German now?’ He said, ‘Of course.’ Fortunately, he realized what I was getting at, that the same sort of identity erasure that he regretted, he was ready to visit on someone else — he was a deep guy and a thinker, in spite of our political disagreements, and he really helped me to better understand my role as a teacher.
When I read this I was a bit confused. In The Anglo Revolutions it is stated that the Gaelic speaking peasants were mostly English-speaking when they arrived to American shores. I don’t know if the literature citation (there was one within) is correct, or representative of the linguistic history, but Greg’s interlocutor may simply not have known what he was talking about in regards to his ancestors. Now, one can assert that the English forced the Gaelic speaking Irish to speak English, but I’m not sure we should take this as a given (depending on what you would refer to as “force”, since Gaelic did not have an official status from what I know and so would be implicitly at a disadvantage). Second, from what I recall when the American Germans arrived in the 19th century to these shores most of them would have spoken a German dialect, not German, as their native language. In today’s Germany, as in today’s Italy, the regional dialects which are really separate languages without much of a written tradition (if at all) are dying, in large part due to interregional marriage and the passing on of older generations who were more comfortable in dialect than standard German or Italian. I don’t know the details of the conversation between Greg Downey and his student, so perhaps they addressed these nuances, but the point is that the issues aren’t as plain as they’re made to seem, and the identities which outsiders perceive and want to defend in the interests of justice and free choice are often more complex when you scratch beneath the surface. A good example of the preservation of German in the United States is among the Amish, and the “German” they speak amongst themselves is a specific dialect, not standard German. The main coercion involved in the decline of American German was the closure of German language schools during World War I (though the Irish American Catholic hierarchy were also enemies of German language Catholic schools). But if those schools had not closed it may be that most knowledge of German today would be of standard German, not the deeply rooted dialects of the ancestral Heimat of a given people. To perpetuate German dialects abroad one would have to maintain ethno-religious endogamy, as Amish communities have. Even marrying across German dialect groups would probably have resulted in the transformation of standard German as a lingua franca which eventually pushed aside the ancestral dialects (which again, are actually sister languages from a common Germanic ancestor).
My point is exploring that particular aside in detail is that I know these are complex issues, and often knotty. My high-priest shamans wielding the magical formulas of academese, i.e., Wielders of Words of Power such as Privilege, Social Darwinist, Eurocentric, etc., are often aware of complexity and how easy it is to problematize. But when the layers of complexity settle on one which is congenial with their normative framework the labors of the wizards are done, and the mists which obscure the possibility of positivism clear away! If you read this weblog you know that I am aware of the complexity of ethnographic, historical, and religious issues. But unlike most people with such an awareness I’m frankly Eurocentric in my values and do not see the perpetuation of collective indigenous identity as one of the world’s greater utilitarian goods (though I don’t think it can necessarily be dismissed, I’m no longer a full-throated individualist in my utility calculations). It’s not because I’m ignorant, it’s because I’m a heathen, willfully rejecting the Good News.
I suppose that makes me a monster of some sort in the eyes of many, but I want to look to one case where I am broadly sympathetic to the perpetuation of a specific indigenous identity: that of the Kafir Kalash. They’re a population within the Human Genome Diversity Panel, and from what I have read their inclusion was conscious, as L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and company wanted to get samples from isolated populations which were on the verge of disappearing through assimilation. There is some genetic interest in the Kalash, though I think we’ve squeezed most of the juice out of that already. Linguistically they’re not an isolate, they speak an Indo-European language which is ambiguously placed between the Iranian and Indo-Aryan families. Rather, their uniqueness is attributable to the fact that the Kafir Kalash are the last practitioners of the Indo-European pagan tradition in the modern world. In other words, the tradition of the Rigveda, the Iliad, and the Edda. Arguably both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism derive from Indo-European paganism, the former as a negation, the latter as an evolution. But it seems to me that Zoroastrianism as we understand it today can not be decomposed without a comprehension of its long interactions with Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. As for Hinduism, it is a matter of scholarly debate how much of the religion truly derives from the Vedas, and how much from indigenous South Asian religious traditions which pre-date the Aryans. Some of the same issues crop up for the Greeks and Roman religions, whose influences from indigenous Mediterranean cults were clear (e.g., many of the Greek gods have obvious Near Eastern origins, such as the Artemis and Dionysus). And frankly, the same probably holds for the Kafir Kalash. We have no other Indo-European peoples who maintained a continuous pagan tradition down to the modern era to compare with, so we do not know what is a shared derived characteristic, and what is a unique characteristic of the Kafir Kalash. Nor do we know what characteristics may have been lost among the Kafir Kalash which were common among other Indo-Europeans.
But let’s stipulate that the Kafir Kalash paganism is sui generis, and an authentic representative instance of the religious expression of the ancient Indo-Europeans. From a cultural perspective this is arguably precious. And, we know that in modern Pakistan today the Kafir Kalash are under grave threat. Their homeland is in the sphere of influence of the Pakistani Taliban. Their current existence as a religious group is a matter of historical contingency, their Nuristani cousins across the border in Afghanistan were forcibly converted to Islam 100 years ago. And coercion is not the only issue, large numbers of Kafir Kalash have converted to Islam in a Pakistan where being a non-Muslim, let alone a pagan, is simply very difficult. Their numbers have been bolstered by their high birth rates.
So how do we save them? One suggestion I made is that those who care about cultural diversity should allow for the wholesale transplantations of groups under the threat of cultural genocide. The Kafir Kalash are certainly one of those groups. But here is where the real world would clash with our intentions: I suspect bringing the Kafir Kalash into the Western world would result in their conversion to Christianity, or perhaps even Islam, rather than the retention of their ethnic paganism. As an analogy, many of the Hmong transplanted to the USA are converting to Christianity. Only a small minority of Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, or Maori, maintain their indigenous religious traditions. I believe that the paganism of the Kafir Kalash may be mostly a function of the fact that they’re extremely poor and geographically isolated in Chitral. This was certainly one reason Muslim rulers had not bothered to conquer and convert them; there was little fiscal upside, and the logistics were difficult in the pre-modern world. Bringing the Kafir Kalash out of Pakistan would prevent their cultural genocide through coercion, but I’d be willing to bet good money that their ethno-religious cohesiveness would disappear in a consumer society (this is an issue which Western Mandaens are facing right now).
Working out how one’s norms intersect with the world as it is, and the consequences which entail, is a difficult slog. In a world with finite resources and variations in the probabilities of success of a range of actions I do not believe decisions are quite so clear and distinct. Especially when it comes to human beings the law of unintended consequences crops up. It is often easy to sketch out the Light and the Dark, the Saved and the Damned, but the world is not so cooperative. Well, at least as long you’re not a physicist….
July 20, 2010
This isn’t The New Yorker, and I’m not writing twenty page essays which flesh out all the nooks and crannies of my thought. When I posted “Linguistic diversity = poverty” I did mean to provoke, make people challenge their presuppositions, and think about what they’re saying when they say something.
I think knowledge of many languages is awesome. I am weak at language acquisition myself, but, as someone with an interest in Bronze Age Near Eastern history I’m obviously invested in people having some comprehension of Sumerian and Akkadian (not to mention Hittite or ancient Egyptian). And I’m not someone who has no interest in the details of ethnographic diversity. On the contrary I’m fascinated by ethnic diversity. Like many people I enjoy reading monographs and articles on obscure groups such as Yazidis (well before our national interest in Iraq) and the Saivite Chams of Vietnam. Oh, wait, I misspoke. I actually don’t know many people who have my level of interest in obscure peoples and tribes and the breadth of human diversity. If you’re the type of person who reads monographs on Yazidis not because it pertains to your scholarly specialty, but because you’re interested in a wide range of facts and topics, and would like to have discussions with someone of similar disposition (me), contact me with your location and if I swing through town we can have coffee or something. I’m interested in meeting like minds who I can explore topics with (and here I’m not talking about someone who is a Hakka and so knows a lot about the history of the Hakka; I’m not Hakka and I know something about the Hakka and I’m not an Oirat I know something about the Oirat, and so forth). All things equal the preservation of linguistic diversity is all for the good, and not only does it enrich the lives of humanity as a whole, it enriches my life in particular because of my intellectual proclivities. But all things are not equal.
First, let me digress and admit that I do not adhere to a plain utilitarianism which does not value the cultural accretions and symbolic residues of history. For a concrete example, consider the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 by the Taliban. On a concrete material level this was simply the rearrangement of molecular aggregations. We even have the visual sensory representation of the Buddhas before their destruction in the form of photographs. Why the outrage? Naturally Buddhists were outraged because the images of the Buddha had a sacred valence for them. But the world in general was outraged, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. The local Shia Muslims who live in the region, the Hazaras, were aghast at the cultural destruction, as they considered the Buddhas to be part of their heritage. At the time the Hazaras were being subjected to genocidal persecution from the Taliban, who considered them racially alien due to their Mongolian heritage and also heretics because of their Shia faith, so they were in no position to interpose themselves between the Taliban and the Buddhas.
As for the Taliban their concept of the Buddhas of Bamyan is that they were plain stone. Additionally, the Taliban perceived that the Buddhas were blasphemous because they were idolatry, drawing upon a long line of iconoclasm which goes back to the legendary Abraham. Unlike the atheist the Taliban may have perceived in the stone something more than material, rather, the stone may have been an expression of demonic or devilish forces in the world. Even if it lacked malevolent spirit forces, if they were objects of worship by human beings then that naturally violated their conception of the proper order of things.
But there’s a more nuanced context to the destruction of the Buddhas: Afghanistan was suffering through a famine during that period. Though the proximate cause for their destruction seems to have been the influence of the Arabs who were a power in Afghanistan at the time, Arabs who had no cultural affinity for Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage, I have read that one aggravating issue may have been that the leadership of the Taliban was offended that the world seemed more focused on the potential destruction of statues than on the suffering of flesh & blood people. You can extrapolate this sort of objection pretty easily; at the same time that the Buddhas of Bamyan were under threat, tens of thousands were dying weekly in the Congo.
Here is where I must admit that my actions suggest that I am no simple utilitarian, who prioritizes the suffering of flesh and blood above stone and symbol. At the time in 2001 I specifically remember being very concerned about the destruction of the Buddhas, though I did not imbue them with spiritual value. I do not imbue the pyramids of Giza with spiritual value in a deep metaphysical sense, but I would be concerned about their destruction. I am not the only one. How many Egyptians would have to die in local violence to obtain the same world-wide media coverage as a terrorist detonation of a series of devices which destroyed the pyramids? I estimate on the order of millions (and even here, I am not so sure, as the genocide of millions in Africa receives far less coverage than I believe that a destruction of the pyramids would entail).
Human life and suffering are balanced against the aesthetic of life itself, which is more than bread and water. How many millions could have been fed with the funds which went to the Apollo mission? And yet what dollar value could we put on the photo of the pale blue dot? What dollar value on the reality that a human being has stepped foot on another planet? These are difficult questions in some ways because assessments of value and worth need to get the root of one’s implicit calculations. I know many people from the biological sciences who have little use for space exploration. And yet I know many people of marginal academic inclination who perceive much of biological research to be esoteric and without direct utility.
And it is here that biologists can respond that the domain of knowledge leads directly to discoveries in medicine and technology which will enable greater human happiness and well being, no matter what one thinks of the millionth beetle cataloged. On the margin some of these justifications for research based on plausible utility are as ludicrous as the justifications for a manned space mission. But the attempt must be made. Whether the quest for knowledge is worthy or not is not evaluated by some objective abstract criteria; even if researchers sit on granting committees the funds must ultimately come from elsewhere.
Which brings me back to the extinction of languages. The Lousy Linguist is skeptical of my contention that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth or social amity. I outlined the theoretical reasons previously. If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”
A more on point response came from John Hawks:
I’m sympathetic to recognizing the real loss that accompanies the disappearance of a language from the world of speakers. The “unique oral history” and “lost in translation” ideas are true as far as they go — the value of folk art and oral history is that they enable social relationships.
But most communities of a few hundred speakers don’t have a Beowulf. Unique perspectives and unique history, to be sure — just as every Rembrandt is unique. But every Rembrandt is not the Night Watch. Most unique perspectives are about the speaker’s life. At some point we can’t learn the stories of all our ancestors anyway, because there are simply too many of them. Obviously I think we should enable people to learn about their history, yet we can’t keep communities pinned like butterflies in a cabinet of curiosities.
Human language communities in prehistory had a few hundred to a few thousand speakers. Those communities shared the same basic social lives and needs. Ninety-five percent or more of all those languages were lost — and those remaining have mostly come from a handful of languages less than 10,000 years ago.
I read in the Rijksmuseum that art historians figure more than 95% of the work of artists from the Dutch golden age had been lost or destroyed over the last 300 years.
John says it with more sensitivity and sympathy for the issue than I did, but I agree 99% with what he is saying here. The only point I might quibble over is that perhaps all groups do have their Beowulf. And yet it doesn’t matter. If the speakers of the language decided to shift to another language, then they are making the choice which increases their own flourishing. Speakers of a few hundred languages are not always in the circumstances of Native or Aboriginal peoples in North America, where they can gain sympathetic hearing for preservation of their folkways from the government and majority population. They need to make the best decision for themselves at the time, and often assimilation is the best of all choices, because the sample space of choices is limited. It is correct that bilingualism, or resistance to linguistic assimilation can persist. Hasidic Jews in New York City have communities where English is a second language and adults, of the third generation born and raised in the United States, have strong accents. But this community’s insulation comes at a cost, their relative poverty.
But for most communities the level of poverty of Hasidic Jews, or the material deprivation of the Amish, is wealth indeed. Many groups in Africa, South Asia and Australasia have not moved far up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Many of these groups live in grotesque poverty, experience radical marginalization, and some of them fear for their individual survival, not just tribal or ethnic coherency. If those in the developed world do value the preservation of these groups and the richness which they add to the world by their very existence, then a concrete program has to be offered. Perhaps a massive direct wealth transfer to targeted ethnic groups which are being assimilated (in India and Southeast Asia conversion to Christianity has been the most efficacious manner in which to preserve ethnic and linguistic identity, so perhaps one should donate to evangelical missionary groups). Or, the selective sponsored immigration of whole tribes and ethnic groups to the West, with an agreement that these groups have a sort of spatial sovereignty similar to Native Americans. In this way they wouldn’t be subject to the same dynamics as they were in their nation of origination.
I don’t care about linguistic diversity enough to support either of these programs. But that’s an expression of my values. And, I think it’s an expression of the values of most humans (granted, most humans do not value knowledge, but they do pay taxes which fund social engineering projects so their opinion counts). For those who do value linguistic diversity, to be taken seriously you need to present more than what it offers you and your own interests when you bear none of the costs of marginalization. Aggregate intangible utility may be maximized by this diversity, but it is simply unjust for that aggregate utility to be gained at the expense of the ones adding the diversity at the cost of their exclusion from the nation-states in which they’ve found themselves.
Addendum: Spencer Wells has noted that there is somewhat the same issue with genotypic diversity, as small groups are absorbed into larger groups. By analogy, one might offer up a program whereby tribal members are encouraged to marry only their own ingroup so as to preserve genetic lineages which may be of intellectual interest, and add diversity to the world. This is naturally the sort of argument many racialists present, though with a slightly different spin.
Image Credits: Wikimedia, CNN, Glenn Fleishman