Monday, November 2, 2009

Whale Songs from the Tower of Babel

The linguistic version of eugenics is alive and well.

With the exception of the aesthetics of certain languages valued by only a few academics, the world would suffer no siginificant loss if all of the extant Babel of 6000 languages disappeared. Of course, because it is already global in its scope, and for the sake of efficiency, English could be the one universal language.

And, contrary to what other linguists, anthropologists, and First Nations' elders know, the demise of language does not facilitate the loss of culture - residential schools in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand notwithstanding.

Important languages with an important body of writing - like Russian - could be preserved as museum pieces. Unfortunately, languages of indigenous cultures need not apply.

Such is the cavalier (and incorrect) attitude of John McWhorter, linguist and professor of literature.

McWhorter, in his article "The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English" in World Affairs, offers all of these views and more, in an argument that astounds with its faulty logic and misrepresentation of the work of anthropologists and sociologists.

For instance, consider this passage:
In fact, all human groups could, somehow, exhibit the exact same culture—and yet their languages would be as different as they are now, because the differences are the result of geographical separation, leading to chance linguistic driftings... In this we would be like whales, whose species behave similarly everywhere, but have distinct “songs” as the result of happenstance. Who argues that we must preserve each pod of whales because of the particular songs they happen to have developed? The diversity of human languages is subject to the same evaluation: each one is the result of a roll of the dice.    [listen to whale songs]
Huh? Where to start? 

First, geographical separation accounts for much of a culture and is contained in that culture's language - the many Inuit words for different types of snow are irrevocably bound to building, hunting, food preservation, ritual, and other traditional practices.
How a Saharan cow herder and a Greenland seal hunter could possibly have the same culture is a fantasy McWhorter requires for his ideas to work.

Second, we are all homo sapiens, just as whales are whales Our cultures are our whale "songs," and, yes, they should be preserved. I wonder throughout McWhorter's essay just who it is who might decide on which human song stays and which goes.

Third, many people do argue to preserve each pod of whales and each distinct song. What's the alternative? Some select pods preserved, with taped songs and stuffed and mounted examples of all the others in a museum?

In another astounding turn, McWhorter states: "Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue."

North American "Indian" elders ( e.g. Stephen Augustine and Leroy Littlebear and Narcisse Blood) and their counterparts around the world are doing whatever they can as fast and furiously as they can to preserve their languages precisely bacause they know that it will help to preserve their culture. Specifically, they speak frequently about the preservation of history and story as critical to the preservation of culture. Anthropologists and sociologists agree (e.g.Wade Davis and Cora Voyageur).

According to the elders, translation just doesn't cut it because so many cultural concepts are lost because there is no corresponding concept in English.

I'm surprised that McWhorter, as both a linguist and professor of literature, seems to have no idea of the place of narrative and history in culture - narrative and history passed on through language that, again, often does not translate easily.

For McWhorter, the only alternative to having English as the universal tongue, especially for indigenous peoples, comes at a terrible price:
The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.
In other words, stay home, you indigenes, in your backwardness and disease, or become Western and adopt English. If I were marking this in a student paper, I would slash through it with the notation "faulty either/or argument". Additionally, I would note "over-simplification"and "sweeping generalization "regarding the last sentence!

Thank goodness for all the elders working to preserve their languages, for anthropologists like Wade Davis and sociologists like Cora Voyageur, for all the NGO's working around the world. Thank goodness for such things as The Slow Food Movement, working against the constant pressure to standardize everything around the world (from soup to cedilla).

McWhorter's choice of the biblical story of  the Tower of Babel as somehow demonstrative of his point is ironic. Yes, the Tower of Babel story shows the curse and origin of many languages.

Does he forget, though, that it all came about because God thought humans with one language, building "a tower with its top in the heavens" (Genesis 11) were dangerous, uppity, and perhaps wouldn't stop with that one tower?

At the very least, many human "whale songs" guard against the standardization of everything. At best, they guard against tyranny.

(Kayak photo credit)
(Desert photo credit)
(Whale photo credit)


Owen Gray said...

Another take on "The White Man's Burden." Foolishness dies hard.

ChrisJ said...

Dies hard and dies slowly.

Simon said...

The variety of language is part of the diversity and beauty of our world.

Ciss B said...

What is truly sad is that most don't see the lack of understanding they show in these ideas and concepts! Reclaiming a language for the various indigenous peoples gives reality to their existence after we invaders tried to take all away by making them "fit," in within our societies, as we took over their lands.

I especially like your comment, "Our cultures are our whale "songs," because it really says it all with a sensitivity that those linguists often lack!!

ChrisJ said...

Thanks Ciss. You are too kind calling this stuff just sad - although it is. I get so angry when I read such blatant, ultimately racist ideas.

ForestGuardian said...

A very good post on a fascinating topic. Language is indeed the root of culture for many, and is a requirement for that culture's very survival. Sadly, ancient languages have little means of sustenance in the modern world, and are perhaps doomed to fade into the annals of history, preserved only in educational archives. Many facets of indigenous people's history and livelihood might still make it out alive, so to speak. However, as elders have said, they would not be true to original form; they would be mere translations.

ChrisJ said...

Forest Guardian,

Yes it is sad, and sad to think of what we've lost. More could "make it out alive" as you say if we had less attitude like that of J McWhorter.