Guest Post by Ed Freeman, Honorary Visiting Professor of Linguistics at the Univerity of Antarctica
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a retired United Nations English translator and sometime teacher of English as a foreign language. I also do tend to go on a bit. So, speaking as a translator, a linguist and a language teacher, I believe it is really wrong for us to denigrate or deny equal status to any minority language.
In my experience, the one world, one language school of thought is most often espoused by people who in practical terms don’t speak more than one language. To put that into perspective, bilingualism (at least) is the norm in this world, not the exception; and everyone who speaks English competently as a second or other foreign language is (at least) bilingual, and therefore has (at least) one over on everyone who speaks only English.
Monoglots, again in my experience, quite often succumb to the unfortunate tendency to use language as a criterion for dividing people into two categories: people who speak the same language as them, and those who don’t. Nothing logically wrong with that – unless they make the further assumptions that people in the second category are Other, and are therefore second-class, and – somehow the same as each other. This is the mentality of those who go to other countries and persist in thinking that everyone there is a foreigner, and cannot wrap their heads around the fact that they themselves are the foreigners there.
That mentality is also why the maps of foreign parts with borders drawn on by the former colonial / imperial powers are so often ignorant and insensitive as well as arrogant… take Kurdistan, for example, and pretty much everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. “They all look the same to me”, right?
As for languages in courts: it’s one of those pesky human rights that if you’re had up in court, you must be able to understand the proceedings, thus court interpreters. Naturally, this throws up the occasional absurdity – but it is a right you attack at your peril.
Languages have to be used, in courts, for example, to have status, meaning to stay alive and develop, to not fall out of use. Use’em or lose’em, basically. Using them as a medium of education and in the media is a great good and necessary thing, and – in education in particular – is terrific brain exercise.
Languages also have to evolve: no one grows up speaking Classical Latin anymore, but they do grow up – many, many millions of them – speaking at least one of its descendants. Nothing can stop living languages developing and changing, however hard people with conservative psychologies may try. Change is the only constant along the arrow of time, so to speak, but some of us have a problem recognizing and adapting to that.
That is why it is so silly to try to impose some fuddy-duddy old fogey’s peculiar ideas on how English (or any other language) should be spoken or written, especially when the fusty old fogey in question lived and died years and years ago, and anyway wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. A couple of technical terms: the notion of “grammar” as how you “should” write and speak (and pronounce) is called “prescriptive” linguistics; the science of linguistics is about what people actually do say and how they say it. To simplify the subject a bit, we can call that “descriptive” linguistics.
It’s a shame that I cannot write this piece in Scots; maybe some people could, but I am not fluent enough in it. Or maybe it’s not so much a shame after all, as too few of the Scots reading this are fluent enough either. We change the way we speak depending on who we’re talking to, and not just out of politeness, but in order to be understood… if there is a will to communicate, people will find it. Think pidgins, think our vast repertoire of gestures – it’s not called “body language” for nothing. Watch people, watch what they do, don’t just listen to what they say.
I once observed a couple of (probably) Tanzanian women in Arusha (most likely speaking Swahili, but not necessarily – it could well have been Chaga, Rusha or one of the Kilimanjaros, say, or some mixture of all of them) looking at bolts of cloth for dressmaking held up for their inspection by a guy peddling a hefty armful of them around the place – and I swear I understood exactly what they were saying to each other just by observing their body language, even though they were so far away that I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. “No, I can’t see you in that one, it’s just not you” (index finger against right cheek, head tilted one way, then the other with shift of weight onto the other foot, look at cloth, look friend up and down, shake head regretfully) – and so on and so forth. Women are more expressive generally than men, in both speech and body language.
For a bit of light relief, here’s a memory of mine. I once tripped over a word in a translation from French that I was doing. The word was “baemmselemm”. I took this to a Cameroonian French translator colleague, because I thought he would have some local knowledge, and because Cameroonians are generally at least bilingual; educated people are more likely to speak the official languages, which are French (majority) and English (minority), and are of course an ex-colonial imposition.
However, French and English are handy to have and serve a useful purpose in a domestic, a West African and a global context too. Cameroon, you see, holds the African record for the number of indigenous languages – about 250. Have a read of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Cameroon (shortened URL https://goo.gl/v7xHnE) and be amazed.
So, my Cameroonian colleague looked at me pityingly and said: “Say it out loud”. It became clear that the witness whose statement I was translating, and whose profession was described as “baemmselemm”, was an itinerant street trader: “buy’em, sell’em”, right? The original source of the term is Anglophone West Africa, then hijacked into the typically cheery Cameroonian mixter-maxter of Cameroonian French and Cameroonian English known as Camfranglais.
On the subject of communication, the Scots language, and Standard Scottish English, I would not have been inclined, and would not have been permitted, to use “outwith” in a UN translation, though it would have been ideal for translating “en dehors de la portée du traité” into “outwith the scope of the treaty”, for example. English is read by many people who are not native speakers, and one should never set out to blow other people’s linguistic fuses, not in a UN context, anyway.
Cultures make their own decisions about national/official languages. In Cape Verde, for example, Cape Verde (Portuguese-based) creole is the language in common use, but Portuguese (Portuguese Portuguese, not Brazilian Portuguese) is the official one, used in (some) formal education and so on: CVC, on the other hand, is described as a language of national identity.
Now, on the subject of body language(s), we mustn’t forget that another recognized minority language among us here in Scotland is British sign language. If you are deaf and are had up in court, you may need an interpreter to sign for you. But don’t expect your own BSL to do you any good in the States, where they use ASL. It won’t do you any good either in, say, Estonia, where Estonian sign language is also its own thing. No, in Estonia they would have to find you a couple of interpreters to do relay for you (as it’s called in the profession): one to translate out of spoken Estonian into English, and another to sign the English into BSL.
Not that I would mind very much, personally, if all those drunken English-only louts from the UK who regularly create trouble and stag parties in peaceful foreign parts were arrested, charged, brought before the beak, sentenced and imprisoned without a word of English spoken and with no notice taken of anything they might want to say in that language… say in Tallinn, where they would hear Estonian spoken around and at them as the official language (Estonian is in the Uralic language group, like Finnish, and is not Indo-European at all), though on the streets they would also hear, as minority languages, Russian, Swedish and German in particular (which are in fact all Indo-European but in two different groups/families within it). That would, of course, be lost on them, if they spoke only English – all just different indistinguishable, incomprehensible flavours of Foreign.
Here’s another example: in Kenya, there are approximately 47 tribal languages (I simplify) in two main language groups: Bantu and Nilotic. There are two lingua francas / linguæ francæ, Swahili and English. Bantu and Nilotic languages are in two completely different language groups, like Cantonese and Navajo. English in Kenya is quite distinctive now, and its use in East Africa is, of course, a relic of the – very shameful – colonial period. If you are a smart young thing in Nairobi, you will also speak Sheng … which is a sort of cool, hip youth slang based on both English and Swahili, with the aim of bamboozling wrinklies such as Concerned Parents over assignations with a view to sex, booze and rock’n’roll. On the subject of sex, it should be no surprise to anyone that the near-universal human desire for it can lead people to want to learn chat-up lines in foreign tongues…
Swahili, by the way, is originally a creole of a Bantu language or languages of the East African coast and the Arabic of traders (and slavers) from the Gulf, who would come and go with the monsoon. Bantu languages and Arabic, a Semitic language, are again in two completely different language groups – isn’t the human capacity for language amazing? Defining, even.
We can call Swahili a creole because kids grew up speaking it as their mother tongue. That’s the criterion for differentiating between a creole and a pidgin. Swahili long, long ago developed into a well-established literary language, and has been used for official purposes for a long time too, and has all the necessary processes at work within it for developing its own grammar and vocabulary. With all that going on, it is hardly a new kid on the block, and we can stop calling it a creole. There is a point of view that English itself is the descendant of a process of creolization between Norman French (Indo-European, Romance) and Saxon (Indo-European, Germanic)
So my Maasai pal Ntosho grew up speaking Maa (Nilotic) and was educated in that, and also in Swahili (Bantu + Semitic) and English (Indo-European). He also speaks Kikuyu (Bantu), the language of the largest ethnic group in Kenya, and was cheerfully absorbing Kamba (also Bantu) from another of my guys when I last saw them. I must ask him sometime if he knows any other Nilotic languages – and remember, people can (passively) understand a language without necessarily being able to (actively) speak it.
I make that five languages in which Ntosho is fluent. An ordinary Kenyan guy – well, actually, he’s pretty d*amn smart, is Ntosho – speaks all those languages that are not his mother tongue without the benefit even of bilingual dictionaries to help him learn: too expensive, no bloody good, or simply non-existent – and with no formal education beyond primary school. In fact, even monolingual dictionaries may not exist: very few languages are as well documented as, say, English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Arabic…
Gaelic, English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Hindi – are all in the same Indo-European language group, and are of course not mutually comprehensible, generally speaking (taxi!). Mutual comprehensibility between languages is on a sliding scale, actually, from 0% to 100% – Spanish and Portuguese are closer to each other than French and Romanian, say.
Mutual comprehensibility is not necessarily symmetrical either: as an example of asymmetry – and ostentatiously ignoring the dialect/language question – in the UK we all understand Estuary English, but folk from the Smoke find Glaswegian impenetrable, at least to begin with. Between Geordie and Lunnon, the same applies – but quite often Geordies and Glaswegians cannot understand much at all of what the other is saying, at least until they get their ear in, or adapt their own speech to their audience – and that is something you can do without necessarily being aware of it.
The cut-off point between languages and dialects is neither sharp nor easily definable, and over time, dialects evolve into separate languages – such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian (Romance), or Czech, Serbian, Ukrainian and Russian (Slavic). This is not a process that anyone can stop by bureaucratic fiat.
If you don’t absorb a foreign language as a child, it’s harder, of course, but it’s hardly impossible! Did I mention the practice of exogamy? That on its own may lead to widespread bilingualism.
Speaking other languages has the useful side-effect, by the way, of deepening and honing our understanding and appreciation of our own mother tongue. That is over and above the extremely beneficial side-effect of coming to understand other cultures on their own terms, and recognizing our shared, innate humanity – and our shared, innate, defining capacity for language.
By the way, there are reportedly about 170,000 Navajo speakers in the US, so relatively speaking that’s a much smaller community than our Gaels are to the rest of us Scots. The history of the native Americans after the European colonization of their lands is, of course, even more dismal than the history of our Gaels here in Scotland. In world terms, though, and even now, Gaelic is not a particularly “small” language: many, if not most, are “smaller”.
Diversity is a strength, not a weakness, and we should celebrate it, not denigrate it. You have to be all in favour of some boring and repellent ideal of social/societal homogeneity before you can come up with crass notions such as “racial purity”. A desire for that kind of homogeneity is a necessary condition for horrible consequences to follow but, thank God, it is not a sufficient one.
People with conservative psychologies do not like change, and they do not like unpredictability either. They have heightened fear responses compared to us easy-osy types – and homogeneity promises predictability. That’s what all that “British values” talk from May and her frenemies in the regime is about, with its implication that Others – foreigners, people without our trademark melanin deficiencies, people who are disinclined to wear crucifixes – do not share them, cannot be trusted, and should be treated with deep suspicion as a potential threat.
That last was about the creation of difference where none exists. Now let us look at the failure to recognize difference where it does, and to value it rather than try to eliminate it. We Scots cannot, in all honesty, complain about the Westminster regime and the British Establishment failing or refusing to recognize that we, as Scots, are not simply English aka British people who share “British values” even if we talk a bit funny and live in some provincial region of North Britain, dismissing our different history and culture as irrelevant or non-existent, imposing their historical and cultural narrative on us – no, we cannot complain about that while at the same time doing the analogous thing to Scotland’s Gaels and their language, and their historical and cultural narrative.
And don’t forget literary traditions either: the Icelanders, for example, would never want to see their sagas exist only in English translation. Indeed, how would a monoglot English speaker feel if the whole corpus of English literature were available only translated into French? Something is always lost in translation (ask me how I know). That is the core deficiency of the “one world language” idea.
As for different languages as causes of conflict: human beings have a bloody, terrible tendency to turn the slightest thing into a casus belli. Religion, sectarianism, pernicious political ideologies, and abusive temporal and spiritual power on the human side, and land, resources and wealth on the physical side, are far more explosive causes of conflict than language. In relatively recent history, there was no significant language difference between the Confederate and the Union states in the American Civil War; no difference in language between Honduras and Guatemala when they fought their 100-hour Football War; and Hutu and Tutsi alike speak Kinyarwanda…
In Kenya, intertribal/interethnic conflicts are frequently about cows and grazing rights, and one lot will forever be trying to pinch some other lot’s cattle, and vice versa – cattle are also wealth, don’t forget. So it is with the Pokot (aka the Pökoot) and the Turkana. Yes, those Turkana – the ones who live around Lake Turkana of the early human fossils.
The Pokot, on the other hand, are Kalenjins, i.e., also Nilotes, and here’s a snippet about them: (shortened URL) https://goo.gl/y1ctAE.
“Kalenjin” is a description for a number of closely related Nilotic languages.The story I heard about the origins of the term “Kalenjin” goes as follows: when the Europeans first showed up, if the locals didn’t run away from us because they thought we had some kind of horrible skin disease that turned us the colour of plucked chickens, the Europeans would ask who they were and what language they were speaking. Things, however, got garbled: “What is your name? Who are you?” – was misunderstood as a request not for a personal name, but for the name of the person’s tribe, because people there would normally start with that bit of information, not their given names. So – earnest European explorer asks his question, and the reply comes: “Pokot”, or “Nandi”, or “Kipsigis” or one of the others, and the European then asks “What language do you speak?”, and receives the answer “Kalenjin”. Which means, “I just told you”.
If you’re interested in hearing some Swahili spoken, you could have a look at this video from the Nairobi Daily Nation / Taifa Leo – https://youtu.be/jjfppRMCop. *The clip is about a rare event – the Pokot gave the Turkana some of their cows back!
For your information, the old guy in the fancy shirt to the right of the MP is carrying that red/green candy-cane thing as a symbol of authority – he’s a tribal elder. There is a woman behind him at one point in a red tartan plaid (shuka, in Swahili); she could be Turkana – the Turkana speak Turkana, which is no surprise, a Nilotic language related to Maa, and those tartan shukas are kind of typical of Maa speakers – or maybe she is Samburu, who do speak Maa – who knows. If I had been there, I would have asked a Kenyan, because a Kenyan would have spotted more clues, or I might have asked her myself – did I mention that the Turkana practice exogamy? And did I mention Border reivers? For those of you who’re interested, here’s a link to some stuff about Maa: (shortened URL) https://goo.gl/PbErFN.
To return to the subject of differences in language as causes of conflict, to those (particularly monoglots) who believe that they are I would concede only that even if violent conflicts may be exacerbated by language differences, they are rarely if ever caused by them. Either way, the solution to the problem is to have more language learning, on both sides of the dispute, not less. In practice, using a third language, common but not native to both sides, to do your peace talks in is actually asking for trouble and confusion, and using the language of one of the parties but not the other is politically unwise. You need not just interpreters, but more learning and less ignorance, more language skills, not less or fewer.
Perhaps the greatest problem, though, lies in the presence or absence of the will to communicate: with apologies to the non-hearing among us, without that will to communicate, people will have a “dialogue of the deaf” regardless of which language or languages anyone speaks. With it, a way can always be found.
If you’ve persevered this far, you deserve a reward. Here’s one of my two foster sons singing one of his own gospel songs: He always did have a smile that would light up the room. It is shot in a village I know well; they adopted me as a sort of honorary elder, and gave me a Maasai name.
*Grateful thanks to Ed for this learned, interesting (and highly readable) post. If some of the links don;t work once published please let me/Ed know.