Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction

Ross Perlin in Dissent:

PisaEvery language has a complex grammar—an almost invisible glue between words that enables meaning-making—and new vocabulary can always be borrowed or coined. Some languages may specialize in melancholy, or seaweed, or atomic structure, or religious ritual; some grammars may glory in conjugating verbs while others bristle with syntactic invention. Hawaiian has just thirteen phonemes (meaningful sounds) while the Caucasian language Ubykh, extinct as of 1992, had eighty-four. “English” (with all its technical varieties) is said to be adding up to 8,500 words per year, more than many Australian aboriginal languages have to begin with. But these are surface inequalities—questions of personality.

Perceptions of linguistic superiority or inferiority are instead based on power, class, and social status. Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core—that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their “classical” status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition. By the nineteenth century, the imperial nation-states of Europe were politely shunting them off to the museum and imposing their own equivalents: newly standardized “modern” languages like English and French. Johann Gottfried Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772) inspired would-be nation-builders to document, restore, and develop their own neglected vernaculars. One by one, the nationalists of Central and Eastern Europe adopted Herder’s program, as has virtually every modern nation-state sooner or later: warding off imperial languages from without by establishing a dominant standardized language within, at the expense of minority languages and local varieties.

More here.