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Languages Are Humanity’s Most Perplexing Achievement

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Languages Are Humanity’s Most Perplexing Achievement


The defining trait of humanity, language is the bedrock of all its achievements, from social relations to culture to technology, due to its ability to convey meaning, reference objects, events, and ideas across time and space, and enable the propagation of knowledge.

However, in their diverse development and spread, languages can have complex challenges, especially for people seeking to ascertain their use, learn a new one, and or even understand how their language differs from another one, even when these are part of the same “language family”.

Take Indo-European — the world’s most expansive though with around 450-odd languages, it is far behind the Niger-Congo/Atlantic-Congo (1,400-1,500 odd languages across most of sub-Saharan Africa) and Austronesian (1,200-odd across Pacific Ocean islands and even Madagascar). However, even the Indo-European name is misleading — it is found on all continents, beyond Europe, and even in India, there are two other prominent language families that span a considerable area.

But in diversity, it is stunning — spanning from Icelandic to Sinhalese, and from Portuguese to Nepali, and containing at least six with the most speakers (Spanish, English, Portuguese, Hindi, Bengali, Russian). Yet, the differences between most of its members, which, centuries back, was just one language — Proto-Indo-European, is downright perplexing — especially for those of us attuned to English.

Russian and Latin, along with some other non-Indo-European languages like Chinese and Japanese, lack articles such as a, an, or the, while Irish and Icelandic — and non-IE Arabic — have definite articles but no indefinite articles, while Scandinavian languages and Romanian have indefinite articles, but use suffixes for definite forms.

Then, while English — and Armenian and Bengali — have lost their noun genders, French, Swedish, Lithuanian, and Hindi still have them but reduced from three to two, while the Slavic sub-family (Russian, Czech, Polish, etc.) still has a complicated gender system by imposing on the inherited distinctions contrasts of animate vs inanimate or personal vs nonpersonal.

Take the case system governing nouns and noun modifiers like determiners, adjectives, numerals, etc. — English has only three and for pronouns — subjective (he/she), objective (him/her), and possessive (his/hers) or nominative, accusative and genitive as earlier known, while Hindi-Urdu has three for nouns (nominative, oblique, and vocative) and five for pronouns (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and oblique).

Proto-Indo-European, however, had eight, and so IE languages Marathi, Sanskrit, and Assamese — and Mongolian (Monglic family), as well as Kannada, Tamil, Telugu (Dravidian family), while Armenian, Czech, Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian and Ukrainian (all IE) have seven, Bengali, Latin, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian at least six, Romanian and Ancient Greek five, German, Icelandic, Modern Greek, and Irish four, Arabic three, and Persian two.

Compare it with IE’s neighboring Finno-Ugric family whose members like Hungarian have at least 18 cases and Finnish has 15.

There are so many other differences in the declension of verbs (remember memorizing the different ends for I, you, they, and the plurals thereof), the syntax (the placing of subject, verb, object), and so many more aspects to bewilder the senses.

You must be an expert linguist to make sense out of all this but even linguistics is a very specialized field and presupposes knowledge of differentiating between a voiceless alveolar trill and a voiced epiglottal affricate in consonants, or case of vowels, between close central unrounded and open-mid front compressed and the like. These are just words, and it climbs up from there.

However, there are several accessible books for those who seek to understand how languages develop and diverge. Let’s see a half dozen of them.

An engaging overview is offered in British classicist Simon Pulleyn’s “The Secret Life of Language” (2018), which features a wealth of information but with simplicity, clarity, and wit.

He starts with the difference between communication and language and the changes in the human anatomy that made speech possible. Next up are various constituents/features of a language. The various language families — and their prominent members, and then the writing systems, the language ecology, covering dialects and language death.

A deeper, but still lucid, look is offered by American linguist John McWhorter, who, in “What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be)” (2011) questions common assumptions about language, especially about its purity, provenance, and propriety — and why written forms are not superior to spoken ones. Slightly dated but still incisive, Laurie Baker and Peter Trudgill’s ‘Language Myths’ (1998), offers a gamut of scholars examining issues like comparison of languages on aesthetic or ease, whether media is ruining English, and do women really talk too much?

For an idiosyncratic look at various European languages, Dutch scholar Gaston Dorren’s “Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe” (2014) offers 60 vignettes on various languages, including ‘exotic’ ones like Breton, Sami, and Gagauz as well as their families. It, however, stresses it should not be taken as an encyclopaedic as short portraits of some languages are interspersed with others focusing on some quirk or personality attached to it. From these, we find which present language is closest to Proto-Indo-European, why the ‘mature’ French has a mother fixation, why Spanish sounds like a machine gun, and why Norwegian is most democratic in nature.

After this, Dorren spreads his sight across the world. In ‘Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages’ (2019), he gives an account of those with whom you can converse with three-quarters of the global population, but also how they reached their status and why they stand out. Starting with Vietnamese — in fact, 14 of the 20 are Asian tongues (Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, and Arabic but also Javanese, Punjabi, Bengali, and Tamil — all three trans-border), and one is African, each chapter starts with some facts about the language, how its alphabet or characters look like, how are its words formed, its grammar, the history of the language, and the people who speak it.

If you are interested in why languages rise to prominence — regional or even global — and then decline, British scholar Nicholas Ostler in ‘The Last Lingua Franca: The Rise and Fall of World Languages’ (2011) offers some engaging history in profiling the cases of Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, Persian, some others, and finally English. Provocatively prophesying the fall of English too, he contends nothing will take its place with the rise of appropriate technology, especially machine translation (MT) technology.

ChatGPT and some other AI innovations now throw up more questions about humans and languages — let’s wait for experts to provide clarity. (IANS)

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