27 February 2012

The best language in the world

Voltaire once claimed to have heard a lady in the French court say
"What a great shame that the bother at the Tower of Babel should have got language all mixed up; but for that, everyone would always have spoken French."
(This is the version quoted in David Crystal's book Language Death, but from the slightly old-fashioned tone, I don't think it's Crystal's own translation.)

She's not the only person to say something like that though.  Scottish folklore claims Gaelic to be "the language of Eden", and I'm sure many other languages say the same more or less the same thing.

The thing is, anyone will find his or her own language to be the most complete, logical and natural thing on the planet -- the frustration of people who can't express themselves in their own language is not directed towards the language, but where a structure exists in the native language and there is no easy translation to a second language, that is perceived as a gap or a flaw.

In consequence, then, most people tend to be a bit bigoted when it comes to language.  When there's any degree of personal distance, many open-minded people would agree that it's a good thing to save a language from dying out.  So say to someone from the UK that Quechua is a valuable thing, and they'll nod.  The mere name "Quechua" sounds exotic, but seeing as most people here have never encountered the language, they don't have any natural inclination towards or away from it.  But if someone has encountered a language, it's pretty likely that they're going to consider the language "wrong", because it doesn't do what their language does.

Many sound wrong.  Welsh is despised for its hissing LL and its CH.  Dutch sounds to many people as though it's someone clearing their throat.  Russian and Polish seem all hissy and slippery.

Others build their sentences in a funny way.  To people who've tried (and failed) to learn German, it's a bundle of unnecessary endings on nouns, and verbs that always arrive late.

And yet French gets away with it.  Why do all the differences between French and English stop it being disliked?  It's because we've been acculturated to believe that French is sexy, charming, sophisticated and intelligent.  Unless we've been acculturated to think badly of the French, as is often the case.

This is the first and most difficult hurdle that any would-be language learner has to get over.  We must learn to see the things that a new language does differently not as "mistakes", but as a valid means of expression.

For me, this means looking at the structure, playing around with it in my head, looking for an angle from which it makes more sense than English.  When I look at languages which use an idiom equivalent to it pleases me in place of I like it, I acknowledge that the speaker is giving the credit to "it", whereas in English, it's all about me.  Both make equal sense -- it pleases me discusses the properties of the thing in question, I like it is talking about my opinion.

And learning to accept that different does not mean wrong is a lesson that improves every aspect of our lives.  Racism, sectarianism and all other kinds of bigotry are essentially an extension of a tribal instinct -- we protect "us" by rejecting "them".  But it's an instinct that we have to manage in an increasingly pluralistic, urban society.

Learning languages makes us better people.

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