You know you’ve been with someone a long time, when not only do they know exactly which buttons to push to annoy you, but when you can see it happening.
Case in point: I was discussing this week’s blog post with the Handsome Sidekick over a cup of tea, last night.
‘Nobody cares about languages,’ he said. ‘What a waste of time. They should just die out. Pointless. We should just all speak the same one.’
‘Argh! It is so NOT POINTLESS,’ I began, then checked myself. ‘And I know you’re just saying this to wind me up.’
And he laughed.
I really, really love language. I love English, a lot, but I also love many other languages. I love that so many other languages even exist. I can only speak English, German and a smattering of French, and with those two, plus English, I can decipher written Dutch (I’m lost if it’s spoken, though) and get the gist of a page of Spanish or Italian. But even through just this small insight into worlds of words other than my own, I’m smitten.
I love language, and I worry about its future. In a sense, there is no use in worrying about it. There is little I can do. Language evolves, either in spite, or in direct defiance, of any kinds of rules we try to impose to prevent it. But I’m not just worried about languages evolving, I’m worried about them dying.
I know, it seems like such a trivial concern. There are far bigger issues: poverty, conflict, pollution. And I don’t want to argue that losing language is life-threatening like those issues. But it occurred to me the other day, that there are some similarities between the conservation of the physical, and the metaphysical. Sometimes we go to great lengths to prevent a species from going extinct, just because the extinction of that species would diminish biodiversity that little bit more. It’s possible that some of the species we save, we could easily allow to go extinct. The space they leave might well be filled by some other species. But we don’t know for sure. The interrelationships of species are something we don’t always understand, and history has taught us that it’s often more complex than it appears. So, for safety’s sake, we are cautious. We don’t want to let something go, and then discover later that it was far more significant than we had first realised.
The diversity I’ve found in language is inspiring. It’s not always translatable, which is one of the reasons I think people dismiss it. I remember reading a line in a poem by Paul Éluard, when I was studying first year French at uni. I wasn’t very good at French, but I really wanted to be, and so I worked hard at the translations we were set each week. This line, though, sticks with me, because I didn’t need to translate it to understand it. It’s the last line of the poem, Ma morte vivante:
‘J’étais si près de toi que j’ai froid près des autres.’*
Oh, it made me want to cry. I both understood what he meant, and I understood what he meant. I felt a real sense of worldliness, that I had shared this person’s grief in his language, rather than having to translate it through to my own. It was not something I would say in English, but I still got it.
Learning German, on the other hand, was a lot more practical and day-to-day. I spent everyday speaking and reading it, so by the time I left, I found I was more likely to think in German than I was in English. I felt so at home there, and I was so very sad to leave. As I said a tearful goodbye to one of my favourite teachers, my music teacher, he replied, ‘Du. Es tut mir so leid, dass du gehst.’**
In German, saying ‘sorry’ seems to carry more weight. You say, ‘es tut mir leid,’ literally: it does pain to me. And I understood that. It did pain to me to go, too.
We use so many words we’ve borrowed from other languages, everyday. How dull and one-dimensional our culture and conversation would be, if we didn’t! I feel like we’re so lucky that we have so many languages on which to draw, to be able to communicate. Learning languages other than one’s own–even learning more of one’s own!–has been associated with the promotion of higher order thinking. So it is good for your brain, to learn a new language. And it helps promote cultural understanding; it keeps alive literature which would otherwise be lost or left not quite fully appreciated. It broadens our experiences, it improves our vocabularies. It provides connections with the past; it is a part of our identity. But I really believe it does something else. It gives us diversity. Without a variety of languages, we humans lack diversity. Like those pockets of wilderness, preserved to maintain some small plant or animal, we need to preserve at least pockets of language, if not huge sweeping plains.
If we let our languages die, then we become less. We can live without the diversity of words, of course. And as far as basic needs go, we only need to be able to communicate those needs and our desires. We could easily lose a few languages–several, in fact–and we would still be able to talk with each other, and write and read. But I just can’t help feeling like the world would be a little less incredible, and that we would only realise what we’d lost, when we couldn’t get it back.
*Roughly: ‘I was so close to you that I feel cold near others.’
**’You [but in a tender sense, not rudely]. I’m so sorry that you go.’