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If everyone can read this, we're too close

Half the world's languages are about to go silent, taking their wisdom with them

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When there's trouble in the ecosphere, the frogs know it first. When there's trouble in what I'll call the ethnosphere, it shows up in language: portents like hastening language loss, and the rise of a linguistic monoculture.

In his distressing new book, "Language in Danger," Andrew Dalby notes that half of the 5,000 languages currently spoken as someone's mother tongue will disappear in the 21st century. "In each of those cases," he writes, "a culture will be lost." That's one language every two weeks, and Dalby is not optimistic about our chances of turning it around.

Should we care? Isn't consolidation of minority languages a sign of progress toward universal understanding? Is it a problem, for instance, that, at a 1991 inter-Baltic political conference, representatives chose to speak in their broken English, despite the fact that all were fluent in Russian?

English increasingly plays the role of "compromise language." There are 1.8 billion "competent" users of English in the world today, which means the language is "approaching the position in which it is spoken by twice as many people as any other language," Dolby writes.

The story of English enveloping minority languages is a subtext to the history of European migration, discovery, conquest, and political expediency. It's a story similar to Latin and Greek spreading through whole regions. Gaulish and Punic also had their day as "languages of power." When citizenship in an empire has its privileges, language is often the price of initiation. Fluid international tourism and multinational corporations accomplish the same effects today. Money talks the majority language. Can uniformity in thought be far behind?

While we gain verbal convenience, what are we losing in alternative or minority conceptions of the world, philosophical nuances, and cultural diversity? One must ask an ironic question: What gets lost when nothing can get lost in translation?

To prepare a context for our concern, Dalby tours the language family trees around the globe, showing linguistic evolution at work. He contends that the loss of any language is as direct a threat to our cultural survival as clear-cutting is to biodiversity or a depleted ozone layer to the biosphere.


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