|THE POWER OF BABEL|
February 22, 2002
| RAY SUAREZ: The book
is "The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language." The author
is John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California
at Berkeley. Well, if science says that after man rose and stomped out
of East Africa, we've been on this multi-hundred thousand-year journey
to just being one kind of people, homosapien sapien, how come while we
were simplifying as an animal and becoming one animal, we ended up with
JOHN McWHORTER: Well, it's the nature of language to evolve in any number of different directions in the various parts of whatever our language is. And so each word, each grammatical structure, each sound, there are all sorts of directions that it might go. If all human beings lived as this great teeming mass of humanity out in some parking lot or some forest, then presumably that wouldn't happen, and we would still all have one language. But once you get an offshoot population, then the changes that happen in the language go in different directions and the changes that are going on back in the homeland. And as a result, after a while, you've got two different languages. Multiply that by all the different peoples that have you in the world, and you see that today we have 6,000 languages. Many would say that at other points in human history there were a great many more languages at any given time.
RAY SUAREZ: Ah. Well, that's one of the most interesting things about the story you tell. It's almost like a bell curve, where there's a rise in the number of languages spoken in the world, and then this drive in the modern world, with modern travel and communications...
JOHN McWHORTER: Precisely.
RAY SUAREZ: ...to simplify, to collapse languages into each other. Are we going to end up with one some day, or a handful, or...
JOHN McWHORTER: Well, it looks like we are going to wind up with a handful, depending on what you call a handful. By many estimates, we are going to have 500 out of today's 6,000 languages alive after 100 years. Basically the big bad Berlitz languages like English, and French and Portuguese and Russian and Arabic and Chinese are gobbling up most of the other languages. It's the linguistic consequence of what you might call globalization. And so many linguists are involved in either trying to keep these languages alive or at least to write down what they were like. So certainly there was a time when probably there were about 100,000 languages in the world, and we're going to get to a point where we will have lost 90% of the ones that are alive today. Some people say that we lose a language every two weeks, for example.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I know whenever I read a newspaper story where the last native speaker of an American Indian language, for instance, dies; or someone who made tapes of a language that now no longer exists, the grammar of it dies...
JOHN McWHORTER: Sure.
RAY SUAREZ: ...And they run their obit in the paper, and I think, "Gee, it's like losing a bird... a kind of bird in a forest."
JOHN McWHORTER: It's exactly like that.
RAY SUAREZ: Or a kind of a fish in a lake.
JOHN McWHORTER: Exactly. You cannot revive it. And it's even worse, because if that language wasn't written down, there's no such thing as a fossil. You know, language... an individual language is not in our DNA, and most languages in the world are only spoken. Only about 200 are written and read on a regular basis. And so that means that if a language dies without being recorded, it is most certainly unrecoverable forever.
RAY SUAREZ: Which makes your job, as someone who has written for us, tried to write for us, a detective story about language. Since there is no fossil record...
JOHN McWHORTER: That's right.
RAY SUAREZ: ...How do you figure these things out?
JOHN McWHORTER: You have to reconstruct a lot. A lot of it is a kind of a deduction that you do. We've seen some languages changing over time, and as a result of that, we can hypothesize how things in many languages got to be the way they are. And there are all sorts of clues that you can combine from anthropology and biology and paleontology, and all of these things allow us to reconstruct how humans evolved. And from some of that, we can make some guesses as to how language evolved.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there some "gee whiz" moments in your research where even you would sort of rock back on your heels when some wonderful little path that a word took from place to place to place, or a path in meaning sort of became evident to you?
JOHN McWHORTER: Sure. It's pretty amazing some of these pathways that you see. The word "silly" in English began meaning "blessed." If you were a silly person, you were somebody who was anointed from on high. Now if you're anointed from on high, then generally it follows that you are an innocent person. And so in Middle English, we often see people describing themselves as silly, when they obviously are not saying that they're a fool, they're saying that they are people who do not have blame. But if you're innocent, then there's a way in which this can be interpreted as that you are weak. And if you are weak, then you probably are not especially bright in many cases, and if you're not very bright, then you're kind of a numbskull. And as a result, through this kind of association, century after century, we've seen a word that began with a religious meaning now meaning that somebody is a dumbbell. And the thing is, silly is not unique. Words turn upside down like that all the time in all languages. Anything that we're speaking now is a kind of a Polaroid snapshot of a process of constant flux.
RAY SUAREZ: Ah. Well, if today's standard English is just really that frozen picture of a sort of army on the march to somewhere else...
JOHN McWHORTER: Good analogy.
RAY SUAREZ: ...what happens to our language if you, as a scholar, look back at what happened to English in the last 400 years, let's say since Shakespeare's late plays, what happens in the next 400 years that has good odds? Do you look at certain words and say, "That's a goner," because we just don't use it that much and it will just sort of slip off the edge, or...
JOHN McWHORTER: You can't ever know. A lot of these things are things that you can explain when you see them happen, but there are all sorts of things that might happen to any given word or any given construction. However, there are things that you can see in standard English where you can imagine where they might go, but the fact is that now that we write English down and we have a sense of there being this standard English that isn't supposed to change, not much change happens. And so, for example, from 1000 A.D. to 1500 A.D., English basically became a different language. Shakespeare could not have conversed with somebody who was speaking old English at all. But then, on the other hand, we could talk to Shakespeare. You know, we would need to fortify ourselves with a drink. We'd miss some things, but we can get it, and that's because of the way standardization freezes a language in amber. So, for example, you might say, for example, that we will say "slow" and then "slow-like." She did it kind of slow-like.
Now, in a language where we didn't have these artificial conceptions, "like" would be on its way to becoming a little affix. Slowly. In fact, that's exactly how the "ly" arose that we have in slowly. Well, English is kind of trying to do that again, but we think of slow-like as the way the thugs talk in "West Side Story" or something like that. We think of that as wrong. But that's the direction that English is trying to go. You see things like that having happened in the non-standard dialects that are almost never written down in the backcountry of England or even in black English here. But those things are not allowed to happen in standard English, so they happen much, much more slowly.
RAY SUAREZ: We have a little fun at the expense of the people who are trying to hold up the standards and keep the barbarians at the gate.
JOHN McWHORTER: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: But you don't give them much of a shot at succeeding.
JOHN McWHORTER: It's just hopeless. I mean, I understand where they're coming from. You know, I'm a neat freak, too. But really, what it comes down to is that history is littered with people who have made comments like that. I think of Swift, for example, way, way, way back, is making fun of people for-- how does it go? He doesn't like the fact that people are saying "rebuked" instead of "rebuke-ed." His idea is that really a cultivated person says rebuke- ed. And of course we still have that pronunciation of that ending in some forms such as "bless-ed." But for the most part, we say "rebuked." We say "walked," not "walk-ed." Well, we read him now and we think, "Well, wasn't that kind of silly? You know, what's wrong with saying rebuked?" Well, it's the same thing with all of the sorts of things that language mavens try to hold back from happening. They're going to happen.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, thanks a lot for being with us.
JOHN McWHORTER: Denada. Thanks, Ray.