Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet

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Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Jul 29, 2018 11:08 pm

In a stimulating article in The Guardian dated 2018-07-27, Jacob Mikanowski makes a convincing case that the global dominance of English as what the Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan calls the world's sole 'hypercentral' language is impoverishing humanity both imaginatively, emotionally and culturally. This is because it tends to force the linguistic expression of the great diversity of human experience through the prism of the biases, restrictions and blind spots that exist in the English language, and of the worldviews that speakers of English tend to possess:
In 2001, Manfred Görlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English – he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes – published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include “last-minute”, “fitness”, “group sex”, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.
Here is the memoirist Eva Hoffman on the experience of learning English in Vancouver while simultaneously feeling cut off from the Polish she had grown up speaking as a teenager in Kraków: “This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo described something similar in her recent memoir, writing about how uncomfortable she felt, at first, with the way the English language encouraged speakers to use the first-person singular, rather than plural. “After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? … But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.”
[The linguist Anna] Wierzbicka’s description of English’s subconscious system of values hardly holds true for the billion or more speakers of this most global of tongues. But it is also a reminder that, despite its influence, English is not truly universal. Its horizons are just as limited as those of any other language, whether Chinese or Hopi or Dalabon.

For if language connects people socially, it also connects them to a place. The linguist Nicholas Evans has described how Kayardild, a language spoken in northern Australia, requires a speaker to continually orient themselves according to the cardinal directions. Where an English speaker would orient things according to their own perception – my left, my right, my front, my back – a speaker of Kayardild thinks in terms of north, south, east and west. As a consequence, speakers of Kayardild (and those of several other languages that share this feature) possess “absolute reckoning”, or a kind of “perfect pitch” for direction. It also means removing one’s self as the main reference point for thinking about space. As Evans writes of his own experiences learning the language, “one aspect of speaking Kayardild, then, is learning that the landscape is more important and objective than you are. Kayardild grammar literally puts everyone in their place.”

Kayardild and its kin are truly local languages, with few speakers, and modes of expression that are hard to separate from the places in which they are spoken. But that should not lead us to think that they are lesser. The world is made up of places, not universals. To speak only English, in spite of its vast vocabulary and countless varieties, is still to dwell in a rather small pool. It draws the same circle Humboldt described around its speakers as each of the other 6,000 human languages. The difference is that we have mistaken that circle for the world.
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