The Loss of Linguistic Diversity And the Threat to Our Future

By Andrew Dalby

Columbia Univ. 329 pp. $27.95

People have long believed that the world would be a happier, more peaceful and altogether better place if we all spoke one language. According to Genesis (chapter 11), God confounded our speech at Babel so that the descendants of Noah would be unable to work together harmoniously. By this stratagem “did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” The dispersed tribes soon grew into rival nations, and since they could no longer communicate readily to settle disagreements, wars broke out, and faster than you can say “shibboleth” you suddenly have mini-holocausts because your neighbor doesn’t pronounce that word the way you do.

Over the centuries, various languages — in the West, chiefly Latin and French — rose in prominence and achieved a kind of global acceptance as common tongues, if only among the educated. But their heyday has come and, alas, pretty much gone. More and more, everyone either speaks or is learning to speak English. It turns out that we didn’t need Esperanto or any of those other artificial lingos cobbled together by utopian dreamers. All the world can now smile and say Coke and blue jeans and “Do you want fries with that?”

But Andrew Dalby, author of A Dictionary of Languages, persuasively demonstrates that this is by no means a good thing. To make his point, Language in Danger provides an engrossing account of both how languages evolve and interact with one another, and of how much is lost — culturally and epistemologically — when the last speaker of, say, Cornish or Chamorro or Occitan or Powhatan dies.

First, Dalby puts paid to the notion that any lingua franca will inhibit global conflict: “The fact that in the twentieth century a greater proportion of the people in the world could communicate with one another, using English or just a few other languages, appears not to have stopped any wars, nor to have reduced the frequency with which wars have broken out, nor to have made the wars that have broken out less brutal. In fact, several murderous wars have been fought recently among people who speak ‘the same language’ in real terms: that applies to the civil war in Rwanda, to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the war in Bosnia and to the endless stand-off between North and South Korea.”

His main point, however, is this: People will always educate their children in what they perceive as the power language. “Success . . . means belonging to the elite; to belong to the elite you must speak the official and international language. As soon as they can, that is what even the most down-trodden of minority language speakers will aim at, for their children even more than for themselves.” One generation may arrive in the United States rattling away in eloquent Slovak; their children will be somewhat bilingual; but the grandchildren will speak, like uh, you know, totally pure American. What’s more, “relatively few of those who happen to speak a language of high status as a mother tongue find it necessary to learn one of lower status later.” Over time, more and more people cluster to the power language. Who needs that Old-Country mumbo-jumbo? Gets you nowhere.

Sometimes a minor language survives for a while through its use in ritual or ceremony, or may be employed by the practitioners of a traditional craft. But “once a language has fallen into such limited use, it may no longer matter whether anyone, at least any human being, still understands it.” Even bilingual education seldom helps: The use of Gaelic has steadily declined despite efforts in Ireland to keep it vital. Only the national language — English — matters, because that’s what people really use to advance and improve their lives.

English has grown into everyone’s second language (or first) not because it possesses any inherent virtue, but simply because it’s the most useful language to know. In the past, a lingua franca such as Latin might have split into Spanish, Italian and the other romance “dialects,” but in a world increasingly global, connected by computer technology, international companies and television, the required isolation for this is unlikely to recur. The growth of nation-states leads to linguistic uniformity, and the growth of a world-state, based on digital media and supported by American internationalism, will ensure the continued triumph of English.

So what is lost? “Every language that disappears for good is likely to take a culture with it,” Dalby writes. “If you use what was already a local word, that means that you learnt something — and it may be that it was something useful, such as food or medicinal uses — from the existing inhabitants. If you use a name that comes from your own previous homeland, that often means that you learnt little or nothing locally.” From here Dalby naturally turns to the linguistic theories of Benjamin Whorf, who believed “that the structure of individual languages maps different views of the world, and for that reason affects the way that speakers of those languages think about the world.” According to ancient writers, “some things, easily said in Greek, could only be expressed in Latin with the greatest difficulty.” Dalby, acknowledging that Whorf’s thesis is controversial even now, proffers a slightly watered-down version but essentially does believe that different languages embody different worldviews, though they may not necessarily determine how their speakers actually perceive and understand.

As Dalby makes his points, he offers concise histories of Romani (the language of the Gypsies) and Yiddish and “thieves’ cant” and Koine Greek and Pidgin English. He describes the disappearance of native American tongues, especially in California; the annihilation of all eight of the native languages of Tasmania; attempts to preserve multilingualism; and how much English owes to languages now lost — even that echt 20th-century term “persona” turns out to be a loan word from ancient and largely unknown Etruscan. Sadly, Dalby reiterates that within 200 years the earth will almost certainly be down to 200 languages — from some 5,000 or more now in existence — and English will be picking up more and more speed on its juggernaut roll toward world domination.

There are, concludes Dalby, “three overriding reasons why we need to stop losing languages.” First, “we need the knowledge that they preserve and transmit.” Second, “we need other languages for the insights they give us into the way things may be — we need them for those alternative world views.” Third, “we need a multiplicity of languages because it is interaction with other languages that keeps our own language flexible and creative.” By the end of Language in Danger, most readers will likely agree with Dalby’s analysis.

But here is the sad part: There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about any of this, barring apocalyptic cataclysm or act of God. Our world’s cultural richness is being diminished by the ongoing success of English, an English supported by international communications technology and the success of the American way of life. In other words, we have finally built the Babel tower after all, and it broadcasts “The Simpsons.” •

Michael Dirda’s e-mail address is His online discussion of books takes place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. at

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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