Friday, April 2, 2010

the future of language

Language is an animal. It prowls, it lurks around the corners of the mouth, around streetcorners, it stalks softly through reams of sounds, before pouncing - swiftfooted - on pages of prey.

So if language is a species, then its grammatical structure and lexicon - its DNA, if you like - are passed down from generation to generation, mutating each time. This Darwinian metaphor for language is pervasive; already the press are talking about languages 'dying out' as if they were endangered species. Some languages have already become 'extinct'. If we can bring the bison or the orchid back from the brink, can we save our languages from extinction too?

I suppose keeping zoo animals in captivity is the equivalent of preserving 'dead'languages in a locked-away library. Semioticians have talked of a linguistic 'ecosystem' in which languages, like organisms, are interdependent. Tongues interact as animals and plants do; they feed off each other; they mimic others' strengths and pounce on their flaws; they give birth to new generations of communication like textspeak or slam poetry. When the lingosystem's balance is upset by invasions, religions or technology, languages (like organisms) can become endangered and indeed extinct.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the technological revolution of late. English is the global language, particularly because it was the Internet's mother tongue. Arabic and Chinese are becoming increasingl popular in the West because they open the gateway to business in the East.

Meanwhile, dying out languages like Welsh have been put on the endangered species list. Just as we encourage endangered species to adapt to new environments, so Welsh speakers have adapted their silvertongue with a new tool: Internet vocabulary and a plethora of webpages. It's not a Welsh of mythic beauty, it's a mutated Welsh of a modern age - to survive, it will have to adapt.

'Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.' Derek Walcott, the Fist

homeland and hiraeth

Language is a funny fabric. Words are shapeshifters, changing to fit the speaker's intentions. Yet a word can also be incredibly specific, pinning down a precise concept that's difficult to translate. 'Home' is one of these words. Do nomadic languages have a 'home'? And if so, does it describe the nomads' temporary housing, or does it denote something far more important, one of the few stable factors in nomadic existence: the home that one has among family?

Explaining my longing for home is difficult in Paris. My home doesn't exist in France, or indeed in French. 'Home' is translated as 'Chez soi', or 'ma maison', but neither of these explain the specific feeling of love, and warmth, and comfortableness that I feel. 'Homesickness' is inadequately translated as 'nostalgie' or 'le mal du pays'. Faced with this inadequacy of wording, is it any wonder I feel so tongue-tied in Paris?

The other day, I stopped a well-to-do woman on the street to ask for directions. 'Je ne parle pas aux étrangers,' she snarled. 'Did she mean she didn't talk to strangers, or to foreigners? Was she being racist, or just careful?

'Etranger' has two translations in English: a stranger, and a foreigner. In English, a foreigner can be someone you know well, but in France you would still call them an ' 'étranger'. Even after living in Paris for years and years and years, you will always be an 'étranger' - a foreigner, and thus a stranger to this strange city.