Language is a Treasure Chest V
(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)
Language is many things and only part-things too and languageS are only part of languaGE. All humans have it to some extent and some animals also. It communicates but it is not in itself communication. That might sound weird until you realise that when you say Ouch! or Oh! you have usually communicated pain or surprise to anyone within hearing but without any intention of doing so. So language must be intentional communication and that means it can be used to communicate information we believe to be true — but also that which we do not. I think it was Umberto Eco who commented to the effect that if you can’t lie in it, it is not language.
Of course, we do other things with it apart from just communicating our sense or reality or being deliberately false – we can add overtones of emotion, playfulness, disdain, love, respect, hate and many other things besides. If we could not, poetry, acting and novels would not exist in our cultures.
It is strange to think that language is only the minor partner in a human communication system. We are told non-verbal communication is 73-91% of our communication1 and that that words are only part of even the verbal – which contains – apart from non-verbal sounds — also articulation, volume, tone, pitch, speed, rhythm and the pauses in between words or phrases. If we understood only words themselves we would stumble through interactions with other humans as through a mist. There are people who suffer something approaching that condition, in fact.
Despite its comparatively minor role in communication, we relate language to the spoken and intentional communication by the very name we give it: language, from langue, French for “tongue” and indeed in slightly archaic English, we use the word “tongue” also, as in “speaking in tongues” or “in a foreign tongue” for example. Not just in English – for example in Castillian (“Spanish”), lengua and Irish, teanga.
But there are other words too, even in those languages, for example idioma in Castillian and béarla in Irish. Wait a minute, doesn’t béarla mean the “English language”? With a capital letter it does, as we use it now but originally it was Sacs-bhéarla, i.e Saxon language2. I would hazard a guess (but avoiding doing the research) that the word “béarla” is related to béal, i.e “mouth”3. So, still something spoken and the German has that too, with its word for language: sprache (from “speaking”).
Not all languages are spoken and there are systems of codes and also sign languages, of which there are an estimated 300 in use around the world4, divided into deaf sign languages, auxiliary sign languages and signed modes of spoken languages.5 We all use auxiliary sign language, for example in traffic signaling to turn left or right, in pointing “over there”, in indicating “come” and “go” and to insult (various in different cultures) along with “maybe” or “sort of” (hand outstretched palm down, level, then wobbled a little one side to the other). We use a surprising number of those if we stop to count them and those are only hand-signals, without taking into account soundless movements of head, lips, eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, shoulders ….
Some work-trades or specific operations have their own signal-systems too and, for example, in sub-aqua in Europe at least, the “thumbs up” doesn’t mean what it does on land but rather the need to swim to the surface.
My brother Oisín expressed the interesting speculation that the Irish pre-Roman letters system of Ogham could have been used as a sign language also, using the position of fingers across the face. As the European invasion into parts of America pushed tribes out of their traditional areas, many met on the Great Plains and, lacking a common spoken language, developed a common sign language. Early European traders, hunters and explorers learned parts of that sign language too.
Many animals use sign communication and some of it, in animals of higher intelligence, is intentional,6 which means it is language. However we run into problems with that qualification in some cases: bees are not animals of higher intelligence and yet a worker bee acts out a “dance” to indicate to the hive where much nectar and pollen may be found, direction and distance included and clearly the communication of information is intended. However, one supposes that while the bee could not lie, those animals of higher intelligence have the ability to do so, for example pretending nothing is wrong (when it is) or that they have not just transgressed some prohibition (when they have) or that they do not intend to do so (when they do).7
There are, as we are all aware, many different spoken languages in the world but we may still be surprised by just how many: 6,500 according to one on-line source and 6,700 to another8. One state or country alone may be host to many; ask for a phrase translated to Nigerian language and you may be asked to specify which of over 500 languages you mean.9
And then there are dialects, distinct forms of the same language. People learning Irish sometimes complain that Irish has four (or five, by some calculations) main dialects: different words for the same things, distinct pronunciations of the same words ….. They rarely reflect on the different dialects in the language to which they are accustomed: for example, English may have the most dialects in the world, across English-speaking countries and even in Britain (anyone who doubts this should listen to typical examples of Newcastle, Glaswegian and South London speech). The English imposed a southern dialect as their standard but although a standard has been created in Irish too (an chaighdeán) it has official versions in the main dialects, in addition to non-standard Irish forms being recognised as valid in writing. This may make learning Irish seem more difficult to a learner but, apart from the respect this shows to different regional cultures, one might ask how well learning standard English equips one to exchange communication effectively at certain societal levels in many of the English-speaking cultures of the world.
ONE WORLD LANGUAGE?
The Christian Old Testament (also containing a number of Hebraic texts) gives us the fable of how those who in their arrogance tried to build a tower to reach God were inflicted with so many languages that they could no longer understand one another, thereby causing the failure of the project. The fable is usually called the Tower of Babel (the words “babble” and “babbling” are supposedly not derived from it but I wonder). The fable seems a harsh judgement on the value of different languages in the world but even some atheists have expressed a wish to have only one language so that we could all instantly understand one another – and some socialists are not free of this notion and consequently disdain national cultures and languages.
As different cultures met one another across the world some types of languages in common have evolved, generally categorised as either pidgins or creoles. Both kinds are composites of two or more languages but a pidgin remains a second language while a creole becomes a mother tongue10. “Pidgins have been particularly associated with areas settled by European traders; examples have been Chinook Jargon, a lingua franca based on an American Indian language and English that was formerly used in Washington and Oregon, and Beach-la-mar, an English-based pidgin of parts of the South Seas. Some pidgins have come to be extensively used, such as Tok Pisin in Papua, New Guinea and the pidgins of the West African coast11.”
We know also of the past existence of a north-sea maritime pidgin that included words in Euskera (Basque) and Nordic and no doubt others have existed, probably at different times Phoenician or Greek or Chinese-based. Certainly there was a Norse-English-Irish one in existence which became a creole. Perhaps for a short while there was an Irish-Norman one too, before most of the settled Norman conquerors became Irish-speaking12. The Jewish community languages of Yiddish and Ladino probably started off as pidgins but became creoles, based in the first case on German and the second on archaic Spanish.13
Kouri-vini is a French-based creole spoken by less than 10,000 people mostly in the USA state of Louisiana.14 Patois, Patwah or Patwa is a Jamaican Creole spoken in Jamaica and among parts of its diaspora15. “Notable among creoles is Haitan Creole, which grew primarily from the interactions between French colonists and enslaved Africans on Haiti’s plantations.”16 The Irish Traveller language, Shelta, Cant or De Gammon is also a creole, containing words from Irish, Latin and Romany as well as English.
ONE WORLD LANGUAGE?
To have a world language in addition to others would be no bad thing of course and there have been some attempts at that but never one that succeeded in encompassing the whole world; English has probably come closest, so far. That language had the earlier backing of the largest colonial empire the world has ever seen, the British but now primarily has the backing of the world’s strongest super-power, the United States of America17. In the past, English competed for world cultural dominance with French and both were agreed as official languages for shipping and air transport based sorely on the colonial power of both states rather than the number of speakers, in which case Chinese and Spanish would have been chosen. In earlier times, German was spoken over most of central Europe from Poland to Germany and in the Tyrol. Still further back in the past, Latin, because of the power of Rome and Greek, partly through its earlier colonisation but also through its science and culture, were widely spoken across large parts of the world. Still, even in the Roman Empire, many spoke only a few words of Latin, even in Rome itself at the height of its dominance, where Greek and Hebrew might be more common.
Before its conquest by Roman legions and the destruction of its culture, a Celtic language or group of languages known as “Gaulish” was spoken from what is today the Italian side of the Alps to what is now northern France and possibly variants of it also in Iberia. Today, Gaulish is gone and of the Celtic languages, only Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx (the Q-Celtic group) and Welsh, Breton and Cornish (the P-Celtic group) remain. Latin is no longer a spoken language.
Esperanto was conceived of as a world language, though largely euro-centric in origin and for a time was popular as a project with many socialists18. It is still in use but estimates give us a figure of only 100,000 speakers at present19. However that number may grow, through the Internet for example and as a project to internationalise ease of communication while at the same time resisting the current linguistic dominance of the US empire.
Even within one state, the need for a common language may struggle with the claims of different languages or even varieties of the same language. For example many different languages and varieties of language were spoken across what is now Italy and the unification of all that variety into a one-State Italy was assisted by the imposition of standard Italian20.
Huge states with many languages on the African and South Asian continents have adopted the languages of their colonisers as languages of state, which is why so many people from those parts of the world can speak English in addition to their native tongues (or French, especially in parts of Africa).
The adoption of a common language for use across different cultures and languages has its advantages but also its dangers, in particular for those languages that find themselves at a power disadvantage. Those languages may suffer a lowering of respect among speakers of the dominant language and, in time, even among their own native speakers. They can struggle with reduced resources in education, publishing or physical resources in their heartlands. They can even be forbidden and their speakers punished.
REPRESSION OF LANGUAGES
In fairly recent times child-speakers of Welsh and Irish were punished in school for speaking their maternal tongues, one example being the count of physical blows to be inflicted by a teacher for the number of words spoken in the forbidden language. That was an expression of the cultural domination of British colonialism through the English language21 in the respective conquered nations and it has a history dating back at least to the 14th Century in Ireland when a number of attempts were made to prevent its settlers from speaking Irish.22
Euskera (Basque), Asturian, Gallician and Catalan were all banned or restricted at different times in the Spanish kingdom and most definitely banned under three decades of the Franco dictatorship. Breton, Catalan, Corsican and Euskera are not forbidden in France but they do suffer from under-resourcing in education and infrastructure.
Irish suffers similarly in the British colony of the Six Counties and also in the Irish state despite being officially the latter’s first language.
Kurdish was forbidden in any official domain in Turkey and its speakers still suffer discrimination. Esperanto was banned by the Nazis and the Franco regime and though never officially banned in the Soviet Union, Esperantists did suffer severe persecution there for a period under Stalin23. Native Peoples’ languages were banned in the state (and many Christian) schools in the USA and in Canada.
As a result of past repression, cultural domination, starving of resources and other factors, 40% of languages in the world are in danger of extinction24, according to UNESCO, a great number of those being of colonised peoples.
LANGUAGE IS MUCH MORE THAN COMMUNICATION
Earlier on, we noted that as well as variations of tongue and speaking, there is another word for language which we find in Castillian (Spanish) as idioma. There is a reflection of that word in English too, in idiom25, which a dictionary explains as
- a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. “over the moon”, “see the light”).
- a characteristic mode of expression in music or art. (e.g. “they were both working in a neo-impressionist idiom”)
Digging deeper into the origins of the word, through etymology, we find: late 16th century: from French idiome, or via late Latin from Greek idiōma ‘private property, peculiar phraseology’, from idiousthai ‘make one’s own’, from idios ‘own, private’.
Clearly it cannot be private, by very definition of language, but language is ‘owned’, it does ‘belong’. It belongs to the culture from which it comes. It can be shared, of course but some at least of it always remains an expression of the culture that gave birth to it, that moulded it over centuries. And even of its adoption of other words, expressions or concepts in the course of its development.
The language of a culture expresses its way of seeing, its understanding of aspects of the world around it and how it sees itself. That also finds its expression in song, poetry, instrumental music, yes and even visual art.
When a language is lost, so is all that. And so too is the future of that language and its mother culture. It may be replaced of course. And the dead language may carry much of its furniture, baggage and knick-knacks into its replacement home26. But not all – much is lost and lost forever. Especially that language’s future – where it might have gone, could have become.
Bilingualism is good and multilingualism better but the better bilingual or multilinguist is aware, as is a good translator, of the many different ways of speaking and seeing and also the less than satisfactory experience of translating some expressions from one language into another. In the latter case, we search for approximations.
According to UNESCO, 40% of languages in the world are in danger of extinction27. According to the same organisation, Irish is one of 12 languages in the EU area that are in danger28. The loss of such a language would be a pity anywhere but perhaps particularly damaging for a small nation struggling to develop to serve the people it encompasses. Irish predates English by centuries and has a wide body of literature and artistic expression form and was the earliest expression in Europe of literature in the vernacular, i.e in the language of the common people. The harp is our oldest recorded musical instrument and also our national state symbol …. but its playing was often accompanied by spoken, chanted or sung words. In Irish. Most our place-names even in their English forms retain their Irish origin, including 29 of our 32 Counties.
A world containing one, two or three languages only may seem useful but it would kill so much history, so much variety in the world around us. Ultimately perhaps, even with globalisation and internet, speciation of language might take place, as areas developed dialects that might possibly develop into new languages. We don’t know that would happen, however and it makes sense to hang on the variety in the world at the moment. To spend some time, effort and yes, even physical resources to protect languages that are in danger. To speak more than one language ourselves and to protect our own if it is threatened. The strategies to carry out that protection are subjects for another day’s discussion. But first we have to understand the value of doing so or at the very least, some idea of what its loss will cost us.
We might begin by learning some Irish and speaking what we know of it – in Ireland, most everywhere. Beatha teanga í a labhairt29.
2In all the surviving Celtic languages, the English are still referred to as “Saxons” (e.g in Irish Sacsannach/ aigh, which became Sasanach/ aigh), which testifies to an enduring memory (and not a good one) of the people who overran the Celts in much of Britain many centuries ago.
3and that word can be found in many place-names around Ireland, usually denoting a river-mouth and corrupted in English to “bel”, as in Belmullet in Mayo and Belfast.
6Most of it, however (like our own), is unintentional: the startled cry and flight, the erection of ears to hear better or to focus, the turning of the head to look in the direction of movement, sound or scent, etc. All of those actions communicate information to neighbouring animals (even of different species) but they are not intentional.
7Most will have seen this behaviour perhaps in dogs, cats or pigs.
12The Yola of Wexford was more an ancient English sprinkled with Irish words.
13Of course, Hebrew is a Jewish language and many of its words are to be found in both Ladino and Yiddish but for centuries there were many more speakers of those creoles than there were of Hebrew.
15I heard it often enough in my decades in London.
16https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Pidgins-and-creoles (and perhaps its survival is partly due to the fact that 1) the African slaves were from different language groups and 2) that Haiti was the first slave colony to achieve liberation in a successful uprising (1791-1804))
17Yet even there Hispanic has made great penetration from some US states, from Latin America and from the Caribbean.
18I use the word here to include reformist social democrats and revolutionary communists and anarchists.
20All of current Italy was not united into one state until 1861 https://history.state.gov/countries/issues/italian-unification
21The irony here is that English is historically a fairly new language, a fusion of in the main of Anglo-Saxon with French, in which the latter is the origin of around 60% of its words.
22The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 castigated the Anglo-Normans who had conquered parts of Ireland and settled in them as “the degenerate English” who had “become more Irish than the Irish themselves” through their adoption of Irish customs and culture. The Statutes forbade the now Irish-Normans from adopting those cultures and from speaking Irish (without success except in the heart of the colonial administration in Dublin).
25In fact, reading a discussion on this word alone can teach us so much about language, expressions we use without thinking and how language works.
26Generations that have not spoken Irish still retain not only some words from the language but even forms of construction and of pronunciation. Take for example the reply to “Will you go?” as “I will” or “I won’t”, because in Irish there are no words for “yes” or “no”. Or to say “I have a thirst on me” instead of “I am thirsty” (very close in fact to the “I have thirst” in Romance languages – e.g tengo sed or j’ai soif). Hear also the pronunciation of a hidden vowel between L and M (or R and N) in pronouncing the Irish name Colm and words like “film” (fil-um).
29“The life of a language is to speak her” (“One keeps a language alive by speaking it” would be an approximate but single-layered translation).
SOURCE & FURTHER READING
Place names in Ireland: https://www.libraryireland.com/IrishPlaceNames/Bel-Root-Word.php
Endangered languages: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Indigenouslanguages.aspx