The warning phrase “mind your language!” has never seemed so apt. On 23 May 2002 a stark report hit Scottish political circles like a bombshell. It outlined the chronic decline of Scottish Gaelic, the ancient tongue of the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides. A century ago, 200,000 people spoke the language. Even 20 years ago, 80,000 were fluent. Now the number is 50,000 — just 1.5 per cent of the Scottish population.
That 50,000 figure is crucial. According to linguistic experts, it is the bare minimum needed to sustain a language. But, unfortunately, many Gaelic speakers are the wrong side of 70. You don’t have to be Mystic McTavish to work out the consequences. Having survived centuries of supposedly unsympathetic government from Westminster, Gaelic seems doomed to die early in the brave new age of Scottish home rule.
And when it goes, a whole dimension of Celtic culture will become, literally, a closed book. The irony, and potential shame, is making Scottish politicians squirm. But not quite as much, it would seem, as the expense alternative: artificially propping up Gaelic from here to eternity at astronomical cost to Scottish taxpayers.
Scotland’s dilemma is acute, but far from unique. Every fortnight, somewhere in the world, a language dies. The catalogue of loss is astounding. Hundreds of native Australian and North American languages were crushed in the mid-20th century by well-meant educational and “assimilation” programmes that were reversed far too late. Dozens of minority European languages are disappearing, despite the politically correct endeavours of Brussels bureaucrats. And even comparatively enlightened African governments are corralling their multilingual populations into speaking just two or three officially approved languages — simply for administrative convenience.
The impact on mankind’s linguistic diversity will be either lamentable or catastrophic, depending on which expert you ask. A comparatively optimistic prediction is that just half of the 6,000 languages now spoken will survive the present century. But pessimists fear far worse. Already, half of the world’s population speak just 11 mother tongues between them. Mandarin Chinese is top of the list; English and Hindi (or the closely related Urdu) roughly equal in second place, Spanish close behind. These are what the experts call “tall building” languages, and they are taking over the world.
But if you look at the number of people who can handle a language competently, as well as those who speak it as their mother tongue, you soon see that there is really only one great white shark in this pool:English. Today nearly two billion people — a third of the world’s population — have the ability to read Shakespeare (or, more pertinently, perhaps, a Microsoft manual) in the language in which it was written. Just as Latin steamrollered its way across Europe 2,000 years ago, crushing dozens of local languages, so English has become the lingua franca of our times.
Some visionaries foretold this trend decades ago. “People seem to be drunk with the wine of English,” Mahatma Gandhi complained (in English!) in 1946. “They speak English in their clubs, in their homes, everywhere. They are denationalised.” But even he could not have predicted how much mass communications, global travel, Hollywood, international sport and the Internet would speed up the Englishing of Earth.
The language is now ubiquitous in the most unlikely places. German and Italian schoolchildren on exchange trips communicate with each other in English, much to the annoyance of their teachers. The Dutch are debating whether to conduct all higher education in English, since that is the language of reference books and doctoral theses.
And (at the other end of the intellectual spectrum) connoisseurs of the Eurovision Song Contest will have noted that 16 of the 24 entries for last weekend’s mighty kitsch-fest were delivered entirely in English, and nearly all the others used English refrains or phrases. Only the French, God bless ’em, stuck rigorously to their native tongue.
“One world, one dictionary,” boasted Bill Gates when he launched Microsoft’s Encarta World Dictionary. Let’s hope that mankind never descends into that totalitarian abyss. But “one world, one language” seems just a generation away.
Naturally, such a thought horrifies linguists and multiculturalists alike. Three months ago, Unesco published an Atlas of the World’s Voices in Danger of Disappearing, and its alarmist message has been reinforced by a string of doomladen books: Vanishing Languages, by Daniel Nettler and Suzanne Romaine, Language Death by David Crystal, and (just this month) Language in Danger by Andrew Dalby — the titles speak for themselves. All take as self-evident the view that (as Crystal puts it) “if diversity is a prerequisite for successful humanity, then the preservation of linguistic diversity is essential, for language lies at the heart of what it is to be human”.
But if such a view were self-evident, Gaelic and a thousand other minority languages would not be in such trouble. In fact, one usually hears precisely the opposite opinion expressed, especially by British and American tourists: that the sooner everybody learns to speak English, the better it will be for world peace and global prosperity. No more misunderstandings. No more wars. And no more time and money wasted on duplicating news, entertainment and official documents in umpteen different tongues (the European Union’s bureaucratic machinery alone spews out 1,500,000 pages of translations each year).
Even the great Victorian educationalist Matthew Arnold acknowledged the inevitability of one-world, one-language. “The fusion of all into one homogeneous, English-speaking whole, the breaking down of barriers between us, the swallowing up of separate provincial nationalities, is a necessity of what is called modern civilisation,” he wrote in 1867.
So what’s so wrong with mankind converging on one language? After all, if we acknowledge that languages are living entities, should we not also accept that weaker ones will wither and die? They are tools of communication, not holy grails. If they have been discarded because they no longer equip their speakers to live full and prosperous modern lives, why attempt to keep them alive by expensive artificial means?
The linguists come up with many answers to that question. The first, and most persuasive, is that (as Dalby puts it): “Every language that disappears for good is likely to take a culture with it.” And not just a culture, but also an irreplaceable depository of knowledge, particularly about the natural world.
What’s more, when a language dies the unique mental processes enshrined in its grammar die with it. So the potential range of human thought becomes just that bit more circumscribed. Thus (according to this argument) the globalisation of English may have an even more pernicious effect on mankind’s creativity than the globalisation of commerce or entertainment.
The world’s stock of useful words is diminished, too — and that matters more than one might think. It is astonishing how often “tall building” languages, even ones as loaded with synonyms as English, enrich themselves by plundering the vocabularies of “little” languages. Just consider some of the words we use all the time: “juggernaut” comes from Hindi, “anorak” from Inuit, “chocolate” from the Aztec language Nahuatl, “phoney” from Shelta (the secret Gypsy language), and “trousers” from poor, beleaguered Gaelic. Indeed, 99 per cent of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary have been pinched from other languages. And we smirk when the French talk about le weekend!
The linguists even tackle the question of whether wars would be easier to avoid if everyone spoke the same language. Most unlikely, says Dalby. Just look at the recent conflicts in Ireland, Rwanda, the Balkans — all fought between people speaking basically the same lingo. Look at what Germans did to German-speaking Jews, or Stalin did to millions of his compatriots. The fact is that if evil men are intent on inflicting violence on others, a shared language is no hindrance whatsoever.
But supposing we accept that the linguists are right, and that the imminent death of thousands of languages is a tragedy to be avoided if possible. What next? It is certainly not impossible to revive a dying language, or even a dead one, where there is enough nationalist fervour or community pride. The classic example is Hebrew, brilliantly resuscitated by the new nation of Israel. Hawaiian has also been successfully revived in the past 20 years by islanders keen to counter the rampant Americanisation of their culture. Nearer home, Welsh has been vigorously and, at times, violently reinstated. And the ancient Celtic language of Cornish has enjoyed an even more remarkable renaissance. Not so long ago we were told that the last Cornish speaker — the redoubtable Dolly Pentreath, of Mousehole — died 200 years ago. Now 3,000 people are studying the language, and 500 speak it fluently. Indeed, the first Cornish-language feature film, Hwerow Hweg (Bitter Sweet), was released this spring. One can only wish it Hap da, as they say in trendier parts of Penzance.
But reviving a dying language takes a great deal of time, money and political will. The big question that Scotland must answer is whether to lavish all this on the preservation of Gaelic, which already receives £15 million a year in various sorts of support packages. Last week’s report (A Fresh Start for Gaelic, written by a ministerial advisory group chaired by Professor Donald Meek, of Edinburgh University) called for the establishment of a Gaelic development board, bilingual road signs and Government literature, a training programme to provide hundreds more Gaelic-speaking teachers, and even a new Act of Parliament to give Highlands and Islands children the “right” to a Gaelic education.
The trouble is that the extra expenditure which this programme would incur for the benefit of 50,000 people could just as easily be spent on, say, founding and sustaining a Scottish National Theatre — which would play to hundreds of thousands each year. And the Gaelic cause is further undermined because many Lowlanders maintain that the unsubsidised Scots, Lallans (spoken by 1.5 million people), is the more rightful “national language” of Scotland.
There is another problem: experts point out that even where a community makes a big effort to rescue a minority language, it is not often passed on successfully to the next generation. Ireland is a typical case. The newly established Irish State made a strenuous attempt to revive the Irish language between 1930 and 1960 (including imposing one hour of compulsory Irish teaching on every schoolchild every day). Yet the proportion of native Irish speakers continued to decline. However much the Irish resented the way that their rulers in London discriminated against their native language in earlier centuries, they still pragmatically recognised that English was their path to prosperity.
So the outlook seems bleak for those who prefer to live in a world of rich linguistic variety. Or is it? The one fact about Latin that everybody knows is that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this imperiously imposed language splintered into the gloriously diffuse prototypes of modern French, Spanish and Italian. Couldn’t the same happen to all-conquering English in the coming centuries? Indeed, isn’t English already splintering? The authoritative researchers at the Observatoire Linguistique already classify English as three separate languages.
Dalby says not. He argues that, unlike the surge of Latin through the Mediterranean world 2,000 years ago, the modern advance of English is buttressed by the formidable panoply of the mass-communications industry, and that this industry will tend to pull the various strands of English together, not drive them apart.
I am not so sure. The various “Englishes” you hear on the streets of Glasgow, Delhi, Brisbane, the Bronx, Cape Town and Jamaica strike me as well on their way to becoming mutually incomprehensible languages. The days of the old minority languages may well be numbered, but mankind’s genius for devising new patterns of speech, new dialects and, eventually, entirely new languages, is as untamable as the winds or waves.
Out of what we now call English could spring the half-dozen new languages that will dominate the 22nd and 23rd centuries. An intriguing prospect — for our great-great-great-grandchildren. Just don’t tell the French.
Top 11 languages (native speakers)
Mandarin Chinese 800m
Top 11 languages (competent speakers)
Mandarin Chinese 1000m