I’m a linguistics geek. I fully confess that the comparative study of languages, that baseline to which we understand and perceive our worlds fascinates me. It’s led me down a lot of odd paths, one of which has been a rather dilettante-esque study of the Indo-Europeans. Yesterday, after languishing on my bookshelf for ages I finally completed J.P. Mallory’s ”œIn Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth.” It was an excellent book””but the archaeology made my eyes water over at times. It’s an summation of the available information up to 1989 and a rough hypothesis of where the proto Indo-European homeland was. And Mallory makes a strong case for the Pontic Steppe, which is also my preference. Of course, after the fall of the Soviet Union a lot more information””and archaeological sites””became available. Sadly the money was not commensurate with the opportunity. Regardless, I am looking forward to reading David W. Anthony’s, ”œThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World,” in the very near future.
More after the jump.
I’m not going to review the book, as there are plenty of those out there in the scholarly literature. I’m simply going to comment on one sentence in the book. Mallory writes, ”œAs Ernst Pulgram observed thirty years ago, there are three ways by which we might imagine a language to expand: the migration of complete populations, infiltration of an area by small groups; or diffusion. . . The last hypothesis has never been encountered.”
That got me to thinking about the definition of the word ”˜diffusion: the spread of linguistic or cultural practices or innovations within a community or from one community to another.”
I think we might very well be witnessing the global diffusion of English. Now, I’m not a language supremacist, or an absolutist, by any means. Languages die. Languages change. New languages are thus born out of old ones. It’s a story almost as old as human evolution, and possibly as older. I’m also very ambivalent about preserving languages on the brink of dying. If they die, they die. Certainly, I applaud the work of people who seek to document the literature of said languages, verbal and written, but the life and death of languages is much like the change of the seasons: timeless and irrevocable.
What I find fascinating about the idea of language diffusion is that it wasn’t possible fifty years ago when Pulgram made his comment. The technology wasn’t in place. But now with the internet? After visiting 54 separate nations on this planet and hearing at least that many different languages it always blows me away that so many people in the world speak English. And many people who speak English have little exposure to English speakers. In some places there is infiltration, like Korea or Japan where American soldiers are based. In others there is some small scale immigration, but none of it is wholesale. At least not anymore. Not after Australia and North America were populated by English-speakers, that is.
And so we live in an age where English has diffused across the globe, into the farthest nooks and crannies of China, into the jungles of Sumatra and the wilds of Anatolia. And there English is, breaking into the thought patterns of foreign tongues, sometimes like an unwanted guest, but always there. It’s fascinating to consider what the languages of the world will look like in two or three hundred years. Will they have become homogenized, or will they have broken up into so many news ones?