Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Way of the Word

by Drew Martin
A couple months ago I was in Berkeley at an Ethiopian restaurant with a friend. A discussion about my her vegetarianism turned towards cannibalism, specifically Russian cannibalism, and a young lady sitting behind me burst out laughing at our overheard conversation. I asked her if she wanted to join us and she eagerly pulled up a chair.

Her name was Morgan, and was one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. She was deeply intelligent, had a quirky sense of humor, and seemed like a very special person. I forgot to ask her for her email before she left and I definitely wanted to keep in touch with her. I knew her first name and that she was a grad student at Berkeley studying classic languages so it only took a couple minutes to find her online. In doing so I read something about her by a friend of hers: a senior linguist and lecturer at Standford who had written several books on the origin of languages, phonological systems, and linguistic taxonomies:

I first met Morgan when she was 15 and a sophomore at Santa Clara University. (She skipped high school.) After talking with her for two hours I realized that she had a post-doctoral knowledge of comparative linguistics. She graduated from Santa Clara when she was 18, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude with a double major in Greek and Latin. 

I wanted to know a little bit more about Morgan and her understanding of languages so I asked her to answer a few questions for me:

How many languages do you understand? 

I can speak English, French, and Italian. I can read German, Latin, and Ancient Greek. With some effort, I can puzzle my way though Sanskrit, Hittite, Oscan and Umbrian. I've studied Arabic, Japanese, Russian, and Tocharian, but not very much has stuck. In addition, I studied some Spanish in elementary school. 

What is your favorite language?

English, Sanskrit, and Greek because of their enormous vocabularies. As they say, "the Greeks had a word for it."

What is your favorite language to speak?

I don't really speak foreign languages much--I primarily read literature in them--but I enjoy speaking French, German, and Italian.

What is your favorite language to read (and why)?

Ancient Greek--both because of quality of literature in it and a certain difficult-to-express elegance and beauty of both the script and the language itself--whatever it is, Latin doesn't have it as far as I'm concerned.

What is it about studying languages that you like?

I like several different things: the ability to read literature in the original, the intrinsic interest of the structure and syntax of different languages, and the knowledge of history provided through historical linguistics, in which the development and mutual relationships of languages are studied.

Is there a danger of having one big global language or do you think that would benefit us all?

I would be bored, myself.

Should that language be a dominant/popular language like English, or a made up language like Esperanto? 

It'll be English. Made-up languages never succeed because people have to have a good reason to make the effort, and career advancement is very motivational. As for whether this would be good or bad, as someone interested in linguistics it's obviously somewhat less interesting when things are more homogenous, and there's the risk of the cultural riches of the literature in these languages being lost, but hopefully all these languages will have been recorded and can be studied as dead languages (like Latin!) by the scholars of the future. The practical advantages of having a common language--that people will no longer be isolated in cultural backwaters if they don't speak a major world language--will, I think, provide a very significant counterweight to this loss. 

What do you think is the future of English in 100 years, and 1,000 years? And what is the future of all languages in 1,000 years? 

It's difficult to predict the future of language in a world with rapid global communications and mass literacy -- both new phenomena. I predict that dialects based on voluntary social identity, trends, and fashion (like Val-Speak) will diverge more, but geographical dialects will homogenize.

When I lived in the Czech Republic I was told of how their language basically died (German had taken over for many years before WWI) and then was brought back. Are there any examples you know of in terms of language revival? 

Hebrew is the best known and most successful--what really made it work was that the key figure behind the revival effort was willing to speak Hebrew exclusively to his son. Efforts have been made with Welsh and Irish (of course, not even completely extinct) but without much success, and similarly Navajo has become much more widely spoken as a first language in the last generation, and there are advocates of reviving Coptic (last spoken in the 17th century, so considerably more recently living than Hebrew) as a living language. There is a radio station in Finland which broadcasts in Latin, trying to promote it as universal European language. In India, there are a few thousand people who claim to be native speakers of Sanskrit, and the Spoken Sanskrit Society is promoting its revival. 

William Burroughs said language is a virus (from outer space). Well maybe not from outer space but what do you think of language as a virus in terms of how it spreads?

It's not so much that language itself is a virus, as that language is kind of a culture medium for ideas, or "memes" that are the real viruses.

That being said, and knowing how languages form...if there were human beings on another planet without any connection to Earth and without any knowledge of Earth's languages. What kind of language system do you think would they form in terms of symbols (pictographs vs. alphabets), words and grammar? 

There have been some efforts to construct an environment where a language evolves spontaneously, and it has happened in real life (students at a Central American school for the deaf apparently spontaneously evolved their own sign language, with no instruction from teachers.) I suspect aliens would also have ways of representing concepts with configurations of their bodies that could be sensed by their sensors (think about octopuses communicating by changing the color of their skin or insects with pheromones). Looking at non-human species on Earth like dolphins (which some think have an actual language with words for concepts--they do seem to have names which they say to identify themselves and address each other with) would give us an example of the convergent evolution of language. Beyond that, who can say...

Are languages an accident or are they simply part of advanced social creatures interaction? 

Well, we have precisely one certain data point -- human beings, the only advanced social creature we know about, and we have language. Referring to what I said earlier about dolphins, they are highly social and seem to have some linguistic abilities--orcas actually have "dialects" that are distinct for each pod. Similarly, crows are social birds and have impressive communicative abilities--they seem to be able to warn each other about particular hostile humans. It seems plausible that communication becomes more sophisticated as a species grows more socially complex and that human language is just the most extreme manifestation of this general trend.

And one last question. If you could create a word, what would it be and what would it mean? 

We need a word for weakness of will--knowing you should do something but being unable to summon the will to carry it out. Now we only have the Greek term akrasia, but in the past we used the term 'incontinence'--which has, alas, now assumed a solely medical sense. 

Thank you very much Morgan.