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THEORY: language replacement [was Re: Time machine]

From:Thomas R. Wier <trwier@...>
Date:Friday, July 12, 2002, 23:32
Quoting Joe <joe@...>:

> > This reminds me of a joke: > > A time-traveller from some university visits the future, and comes back > > and gives a report. He says there's both good and bad news for linguists. > > The good news is that there'll still be hundreds of languages, with > > plenty of diversity in syntax, morphology, phonology, and semantics. > > The bad news is they're all called "English". > > I wouldn't be surprised.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's view), this is contrary to all current knowledge about how language replacement occurs. Pace Mark Rosenfelder's otherwise good piece on when and why people learn languages, historically all the clearest examples of language replacement have occurred when large numbers of immigrants moving into a region begin to outnumber the native population. This is not the only factor; hierarchical social relationships and to a much lesser extent ideological beliefs can also affect whether a people wants to maintain or give up their traditional language, but these take second seat to the economic motives that drive the great masses of people to learn a new language. In the case of English, by far the majority of people speaking English live in countries originally settled by English speakers (England, Australia, New Zealand) or where no other language ever achieved demographic preponderance (the US). The cases where elite and colonial relationships played an important role (India, Malaysia, Scotland, Ireland, much of Africa) vary in their degree of speaking English, and it is often very difficult to determine the extent to which hierarchical relationships played a role since those hierarchical relationships in all cases also included the actual presence of English speakers in the colonized countries -- something that is, in principle, not necessary for a hierarchy. To this day, all the excolonies of Great Britain (and to a lesser extent, the United States) still have significant numbers of settlers from Great Britain, as we have all seen in the troubles surrounding the election of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. It is difficult, in other words, ever to imagine language replacement occurring without a large number of speakers of the replacing language actually present on the ground. If this is the case, what reason is there to think -- barring the very unlikely reemergence of actual 19th-century style colonialism on the part of anglophone powers -- that English will become the sole language of the world? I think there is none. (I wrote the following commentary on Mark Rosenfelder's article before to this list: <>) ===================================================================== Thomas Wier "...koruphàs hetéras hetére:isi prosápto:n / Dept. of Linguistics mú:tho:n mè: teléein atrapòn mían..." University of Chicago "To join together diverse peaks of thought / 1010 E. 59th Street and not complete one road that has no turn" Chicago, IL 60637 Empedocles, _On Nature_, on speculative thinkers