There are around 6,000 languages in the world today. At least there were until January. Then Carlos Westez died. Westez, more popularly known as Red Thunder Cloud, was the last speaker of the native American language Catawba. With him passed away the language itself.
The death of Westez was mourned not just by professional linguists, but more generally by advocates of cultural diversity. Writing in the Independent of London, Peter Popham warned that “when a language dies” we lose “the possibility of a unique way of perceiving and describing the world.” What particularly worries people like Popham is that many other languages are likely to follow the fate of Catawba. Aore is a language native to one of the islands of the Pacific state of Vanuatu. When the island’s single inhabitant dies, so will the language. (Ironically, the status of Gafat, an Ethiopian language spoken by fewer than 30 people, has been made more precarious thanks to the efforts of linguists attempting to preserve it. A language researcher took two speakers out of their native land, whereupon they caught cold and died.)
Of the 6,000 extant languages in the world, more than 3,000 will disappear over the next century. Linguist Jean Aitcheson believes that “this massive disappearance of so many languages will be an irretrievable loss.” Popham compares this loss to the “death of untold species of plants and insects” from rainforest destruction. Warning of the “impact of a homogenizing monoculture upon our way of life,” he worries about the “spread of English carried by American culture, delivered by Japanese technology” and the “hegemony of a few great transnational languages: Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Hindi.”
Yet the whole point of a language is to enable communication. A language spoken by one person is not a language at all. It is a private conceit, like a child’s secret code. Carlos Westez might well have had “a unique way of perceiving the world,” but it was so unique that only he had access to it.
It is, of course, enriching to learn other languages and delve into other cultures. But it is enriching not because different languages and cultures are unique, but because making contact across barriers of language and culture allows us to expand our own horizons and become more universal in our outlook.
Cultural homogenization is something to be welcomed, not feared. The more universally we can communicate, the more dynamic our culture will be. It is not being parochial to believe that were more people to speak English—or Spanish, Chinese, or Hindi—the better it would be. The real chauvinists are surely those who worry about the spread of “American culture” and “Japanese technology.”
The idea that particular languages embody unique visions of the world derives from the romantic concept of cultural difference, a concept that underlies much of contemporary thinking about multiculturalism. “Each nation speaks in the manner it thinks,” Johann Gottfried von Herder argued in the 18th century, “and thinks in the manner it speaks.” For Herder the nature of a people was expressed through its Volksgeist—the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Language was particularly crucial to the delineation of a people, because “in it dwell its entire world of tradition, history, religion, principles of existence; its whole heart and soul.”
Herder’s Volksgeist became transformed into racial makeup, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential, and the basis for division and difference within humankind. The contemporary argument for the preservation of linguistic diversity, liberally framed though it may be, draws on the same philosophy that gave rise to racial difference.
“Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial for a Breton or a Basque to be a member of the French nationality, admitted on equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship . . . than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world.” So wrote John Stuart Mill, more than a century ago. “The same applies,” he added, “to the Welshman or the Scottish Highlander as members of the British nation.” It would have astonished him that, as we approach a new millennium, there are those who think that sulking on your own rock is a state worth preserving.