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revised language paper - comments etc. welcome!

From:Robert Jung <robertmjung@...>
Date:Monday, January 5, 2004, 22:30
[Comments etc. are welcome; this is the latest version.]

The Greatest Gift

Robert Jung

Language is the greatest gift. I believe this because then there would be no
communication or no technology (computers, video games, radio, TV) without
language. We use it every day; without it we couldn't express some things. And
without its diversity, there would be one less thing to study, and life
wouldn't be so interesting. If we all spoke logically, we wouldn't have
anything to laugh about like "That's driving me bananas" to non-English
speakers, misinterpreting of French "demander" ("to ask"), or even
"grammatically" from "grammar" or "interpretation" from "to interpret"
(shouldn't they be "grammarically" and "interpretion"?!). Language is nice to
listen to, as well (choices differ though, of course). But now many languages
are dying (or have already died), and we are losing a lot of diversity. There
are currently 6 809 languages spoken; it is expected that half of these will
die in the next century.

Without language, no thoughts or feelings could be expressed or shared and no real,
advanced learning (or teaching) could take place. Without speech, we would not
be where we are today. Nothing of such magnitude could be told of to others,
too. We would be merely a bunch of robots, unable to communicate, stuck in our
own world. Nothing of such magnitude could be told of to others, as well.
Famous speeches like those of Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists,
famous quotes like " , and we wouldn't be able to laugh at irregularities and
illogical constructions like "grammatically" from "grammar". So it is very

Without its diversity, language would not be interesting or worth studying; this is
what makes it so fascinating. English has over forty sounds, while Pirahã
(spoken in Brazil) has merely fourteen, and Rotokas (spoken in Papua New
Guinea) merely eleven. Finnish uses vowel length to distinguish words (tuli
"fire", tuuli "breeze", tulli "customs/duties/tariffs"); Mandarin uses tone
(pitch) to distinguish words (ma "mother", má "hemp", mâ "horse", mà
"curse"); French uses nasalisation (bon/bonne, tan/tanne), and much more.
English has "he/she", French has "il/elle" and "ils/elles", and Arabic has anta
("you-singular/masculine") and anti ("you-singular/feminine"); Hawaiian has
káua "you and I", máua "he/she and I", kákou "you, he/she/they, and I",
mákou "they and I", ?oe "you-singular", ?olua "you-dual", ?oukou
"you-trial/plural". English uses adjectives ("good"), Japanese uses stative
verbs (ii "be-good") etc. English relies upon word order to express some
elementary grammatical functions ("British left waffles on the Falkland
Islands"). Japanese uses most of its affixes on verbs (Tabesaseraretakunakatta
"I did not want to be made to eat", Tabesaseraretagaranakatta to omotte
orimasen deshita "I did not think he did not want to be made to eat"). West
Greenlandic is an example of extremity (Ininnukalaarniarlungaana "The thing is,
I'm going to my room for a bit", Aamarutissarsiurvissarsiurtutuaasuq "... Who
is the only one looking for a place to prospect for coal",
Irsiqqissaavviginiqartariaqarpugut "One must be able to hear exactly what we
say", and Ilinniaqqikkiarturtinniqartussaq "One who should be sent to further
his studies").

The beauty of language -- the sounds, the words, the differences -- is really
incredible. From the vowel-plentiful syllables of Japanese (English "club"
became kurabu) and Kiribati (Iai uou aia uee ao aua aia ie "They had two
flowers and four sails"), to the insane consonant clusters of Salish
(xl-p'qhwl-tl-pl-l-s kwc' 'Then he had in his possession a bunchberry plant' -
where l- should be l with a bar on top), to the long words one can create in
some languages, to the Chinese tones... These all make language even more
beautiful. And the list goes on and on, of all the differences and "strange" or
challenging-to-understand features of some languages. Such features make up for
the difficulty of learning them; these features are what makes language so
fascinating, and the words themselves are beautiful, too. And after a language
dies, its features are not totally lost. They - and new features - will come
into existence sometime in the future!

In conclusion, I would like to remind you once again that languages are really
quite important; they are not irrelevent because, for example, they are "not
useful in this age of globalization and technology". They are (or were) modes
of speech for some people, and can teach us lessons about how people think (or
thought). Language is a jewel of mankind that should not be lost because of
globalization and the usefulness of English, of French, or of Spanish etc.. The
minority languages do not deserve their current fate. Languages are things to
be celebrated, not killed off. But sometime in the future, the dead languages
will pop up again somewhere, somehow, and new features will come into
existence. That will be a great time; but it is happening now, and has already
done so. So I suppose it doesn't really matter if languages die or not, since
they will reappear in the future! Language is so interesting now, but it will
get even more interesting in the future!