About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (a bad wordplay on Orwell's "double plus good" and old machismo - I'm the realest after all) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear' or 'Unripe language'), the umbrella of several literary projects in Dutch.

This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Why is this in English why everything else in Dutch? Because I want to gun for a much wider audience here. Also, my literary English isn't good enough, otherwise I would always write in English.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

9 widespread myths about language

I am all about words. I’m a content marketeer by trade and I’m a writer in my downtime. I also hold an M.A. in literature and linguistics. Over the years, I’ve noticed lots of people hold bizarre or weird beliefs about language, and this series attempts to tackle these misconceptions.

1.    Knowing more than one language is exceptional

People from English-speaking countries can often get by their entire lives without speaking anything other than English, even when traveling abroad. With a whopping one billion speakers and a position as the primary language of aviation, IT and entertainment, being born into an English-speaking family is like starting life’s game on ‘super easy’ mode.

But in most other parts of the world, multilingualism is the norm. Over half of Europeans speak more than one language, and numbers are even higher for nations and communities in densely-populated West Africa or South-East Asia. Monolingualism is a rather recent phenomenon. People in the Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol or Chinese Empires were very likely to know one or two additional languages beyond their mother tongue.

Another reason for the rise (but not dominance) of monolingualism is language death. There used to be many more languages in the world than there are today. Languages can get erased by violent displacement and depopulation (e.g. many native American languages), the greater prestige and cultural influence of another language (e.g. how English wiped out Cornish and Manx), or by being subsumed into a new ‘roof’ language (e.g. how French is absorbing Occitan).

2.    Perfecting a second language is a matter of skill and application

While skill and application certainly help you get competent and fluent in another language, perfection is almost certainly out of reach if you start learning a new language before you turn 7. That’s because language is not just a collection of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation rules. For instance, each language has its own preferred rhythm and flow, and this can even be different within dialects or regiolects of a language. Like, did you ever notice Australian English sentences always seem to sound like a question?

Even if it is possible to attain fluency in another language as an adolescent or an adult (e.g. as happened for me in English and German), there will always be the small uncontrollable bits that ‘betray’ you to a native speaker. It’s a common trope for spy or diplomat characters in fiction to perfectly speak a second (or third) language, but this is incredibly, incredibly rare. Even if they have the inborn talent to perfect another language, it is unlikely spies and diplomats have the time and resources to devote to this.

An exception is writing. Joseph Conrad, who wrote ‘Heart of Darkness’, was born a Pole in what is today Ukraine, but became an English writer. Apparently he never lost his very noticeable Polish accent in English, even if his writing was impeccable.

3.    Language shapes your worldview

If it is true that your mother language determines how you look at the world, then why do Americans and Brits not share the same culture? Why do the Dutch and Dutch-speaking Belgians differ so much in their cultural outlook and folk psyche, despite living right next to one another? That is because while language is indeed a window through which you look at the outside world, a much stronger determining force is culture. And it is culture that shapes language.

That’s why we can speak of a ‘Swiss’ culture despite the country having four official languages, or why people from Seattle and rural Oklahoma are generally different animals despite sharing the same language. In addition, it’s not because English has lost the distinction between informal and formal 2nd person pronouns that English culture has grown less polite (ironically, “thou” was actually the informal form while “you” was formal, but because of the historical distance “thou” now seen as quaint and super-formal).

Russian has separate words for “dark blue” and “light blue”, but that doesn’t mean non-Russians can’t make the visual distinction between both variants. They just never give it much thought. Similarly, Russian has no separate words for “arm” and “hand”, but that doesn’t mean Russians think fingernails grow on elbows.

4.    Animals have languages, too

With cetaceans as possible exceptions, animals don’t have languages. They can communicate and do so with vigour, but they don’t actually have languages. A language would mean they have a set of arbitrary but consistent signals they can recombine to express any type of meaning. Bees dance to communicate where the next interesting field of flowers is, but they can’t use this dance to discuss mortality or ascribe meaning to the wind.

Similarly, great apes can be taught to communicate with humans to signal their emotions, solve basic logic puzzles or convey needs, but they can’t say things like “I might like a bunch of tasty insects like the ones I found two weeks ago, only a bit bigger and perhaps with shorter pincers”. This kind of modality and abstraction is lost on animals.

The big question is whether there is a correlation between sapience and language. Sapience here is separate from consciousness. It’s pretty clear many animals have a form of sentience, especially mammals and birds. But is sapience a prerequisite for language, or does language create sapience along the way? Unfortunately, we might never know. Our Neanderthal cousins were sapient, what with their burial rituals and art, but we don’t know for sure whether and what they actually spoke.

5.    Human language can be visualized as a family tree

Most encyclopedias will picture language families as trees, with branches springing from common ancestral languages that were once a branch of their own, and so on. A good example is how Latin is the ancestor of the world’s modern Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and a few others. But that’s a gross simplification.

To understand why this tree model is so dumb, let’s take a look at Low German. Low German is a collection of dialects spoken in the plains of modern-day North Germany and some places in the East Netherlands. In Germany, it is slotted under the ‘roof speech’ of High German and in the Netherlands, it is catalogued under the ‘roof’ of Dutch. A reverse example is Serbo-Croatian, which is essentially one language, but has been split into Serbian and Croatian for political reasons.

In addition, languages constantly exchange words, expressions and even grammar. They influence each other as they grow. For instance, lots of distantly related or unrelated languages in the Balkan area share grammatical similarities. Pidgin and creole languages make the picture even murkier. Is Haitian a daughter language of French, or the fusion of French with local (and utterly unrelated) Caribbean languages?

6.    Intelligibility is a two-way street

Having taken Latin for six years and French for eight years at school, with an additional four-year stint working in a predominantly French-speaking environment, I can more or less understand simple pieces of text in modern Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, but not in Romanian, despite all four languages sharing Latin as an ancestors. Throw spoken language into the mix, and Portuguese falls off the list, too. Italian, when spoken slowly enough and with enough context for me to get by on, is in fact so maddeningly close to understandable that my brain sort of freezes over at the utter inability to speak it myself.

Conversely, in the Scandinavian language department, there’s the old linguist joke that all Scandinavians essentially speak Norwegian, but the Danes can’t pronounce it and the Swedes can’t spell it. The reason for this is that Danish had a huge impact on Norwegian writing and spelling conventions and that while spoken Swedish is closer to Norwegian than Danish, the Swedes developed their own spelling and writing conventions.

Third, mutual intelligibility can be just as asymmetrical as one-directional understanding. Speakers of Ukrainian and Belorussian have an easier time understanding Russian than vice versa. A major reason for this is that Ukrainians and Belarussians are exposed to Russian way more than the other way around. But the reason can be historical, too. Dutch-speakers can understand German better than German-speakers can understand Dutch. That’s because in many ways, German is a more conservative language and uses words, structures and idioms that Dutch-speakers don’t use much any more but do recognize, while the innovations of Dutch fly over a German speaker’s head.

7.    Some mother languages put you at a disadvantage when trying to acquire a foreign language

This argument is sometimes used to explain why French-speaking Belgians tend to perform so poorly at foreign languages compared to their Dutch-speaking compatriots. Globally speaking, French has an unusual accent: it places stress on the last syllable of most words. In addition, its ‘phonetic inventory’ (the number of human speech sounds it recognizes as distinct) consists of 38 sounds vis à vis Dutch’s 47. But this is nonsense. English has a comparable phonetic inventory size to Dutch, yet English-speakers tend to perform as abysmally at foreign languages as their French-speaking peers. Also, Swedish is renowned for its ‘musical accent’, which is unusual within Europe, yet they seem to master English and other languages just fine.

Another – predictably wrong – explanation is grammar. English-speakers are befuddled by German’s use of a case system (where pronouns and nouns change endings depending on grammatical function). But to a Russian person, German’s case system is refreshingly simple. It doesn’t even depend on how closely languages are related. Chinese is an ‘analytical’ language, meaning word order is much more important than inflection or conjugation, so English (also a mostly analytical language) is easier for Chinese speakers to learn than, say, Hungarian (a highly inflected language), despite the linguistic and historical distance to both English and Hungarian being almost the same.

A final stumbling block is the way in which you progress through a language. Even for native speakers of inflected languages, analytical languages are easier at first blush: with a basic vocabulary of 200 words in Japanese or English, you can go a long way. But to master these languages’ subtleties in modality and word order is an extremely difficult task. The reverse is true for inflected languages, which are more forgiving for loose word orders and more strict on case endings and conjugations.

8.    We should all learn Chinese


Chinese is spoken by roughly one out of every seven human beings. Makes sense to learn it, right? Not if you consider Chinese is confined mostly to China and South-East Asia. Languages like Arabic, French, Russian or Spanish are, in fact, more useful because they are more widely understood across a broader geographic area.

Acquiring a language based on its number of speakers alone is myopic at best. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many European intellectuals conversed or exchanged letters in Latin, despite Latin being a dead language with zero native speakers. The reason was that Latin was considered a basic language to pick up for any would-be intellectual and was the language of the Catholic Church.

Don’t get me wrong, learning Chinese is certainly a useful pursuit, but the average Chinese intellectual would still rather learn English than to convince everyone else to learn Chinese. And whether you “should” learn a language entirely depends on your motivation to do so. Some Belgian schools offer students the choice between Spanish and German as a third foreign language, with Spanish being vastly more popular. But the economic and geographical reality is that German is much more useful, despite having a fewer amount of speakers.

9.    We’re evolving / should evolve to a World Language

Optimistic intellectuals of the 19th century made many attempts at creating new languages that would be easy to learn for anyone and serve as a world vernacular, chief among them Esperanto. Today, fewer people speak Esperanto than Quenya (J.R.R. Tolkien’s root Elvish language), despite the fact that Quenya is a fantasy language confined to a few fantasy novels. The reason for this, which is something J.R.R. Tolkien latently understood, is because Quenya has a (fictional) culture, and Esperanto does not. Languages with no culture attached to them are doomed to fail.

Another hurdle Esperanto faces is that it’s easy to understand and learn for people whose first language belongs to the Indo-European family, but is just as alien to speakers of Semitic, Khoisan or Sino-Tibetan languages as English is. Creating a language that is easy to learn for everyone simply is not possible, and besides, we already have a candidate for that position: mathematics.

A common trope of sci-fi is some sort of ‘World Common’, an amalgamation of great languages understood by all. This is extremely unlikely to ever happen. While it is true that ‘small’ languages are dying out fast, for all languages to merge into some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, it would take events of a globally disastrous scale to do that. This would necessitate a total breakdown of geopolitical order, mass population displacement and lots of violence.

Conclusion

•    Multilingualism is the norm, not the exception
•    Fluency can be achieved, perfection most likely not
•    Culture, not language defines your worldview
•    Animals don’t have languages
•    Language family trees are very messy and complex
•    Mutual language intelligibility can be very asymmetrical
•    A language’s difficulty depends on your starting point
•    Chinese is unlikely to become the world’s lingua franca anytime soon
•    A ‘World Language’ would require a global super-catastrophe