22 March 2013

Dying languages

I reawakened my academic side last week when I went to a talk on the evolution of language by a visiting professor. It was fantastic.

He said that languages come about not because of groups being isolated, as I might have thought. In fact, the more densely populated an area, the more languages there are! It turns out that groups of people purposely make new languages to exclude other people. So it's about people purposely dividing themselves from other people. Turning a cold shoulder of the tongue, if you like.

It's effective, too. When travelling through Europe I was amazed at how separated I felt by the language barrier. It was almost as though we were travelling through these countries but looking at them through glass. We could never really 'be' with the local people, because we could never say more than a few basic words to them. (Unless they spoke English, of course, but it was rare for them to speak it well, except in the Netherlands.)

The speaker, Prof Mark Pagel, concluded on what was meant to be a sad note about the death of many languages. They are dying as people turn to the main languages such as English.

While I can see a sad side to that, is it not in fact great news? If many languages come about as people try to divide themselves from other people, then few languages come about because we don't want to be divided. We want to talk with each other now, not fight against each other!

Let's keep talking to each other, and understanding each other.

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