Trippingly on the Tongues

July 6, 2013 § 1 Comment


storyoflangThe Story of Language (Pei, Mario)

A polyglot speaks many languages. A linguist studies human languages, or maybe just one language – its structure, syntax, semantics, and phonetics. A philologist studies language in written historical sources – he combines literature and history. An etymologist studies the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. A semiotist studies signs, symbols, metaphors, analogies, and the meaning of language. They seem to have a large area of overlap, as professions. On the evidence of this book, Mario Pei is all of them.
The Story of Language is a pioneering effort, written in 1949, the first in the English language to explain the scientific study of language to the lay public. Until then, language studies were the esoteric preserve of a few European theorists – a von Humboldt here, a Saussure there, a William Jones elsewhere – and by the 1940s, the public was probably more familiar with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity than the fact that language could be studied as a science. To them, their language must have seemed an eternal, unchanging and vital component of their unique identity, bearing no relation whatsoever to that spoken by the people living a hundred miles down the road, who were, by that fact, slightly untrustworthy strangers. It was no coincidence that the book was written at the end of a World War, nor that it was written by a man of Italian origin, nor that he was an immigrant to the United States. When circumstances bring different people together, they eventually find things in common – and the mid-20th century did an admirable job of bringing people together. Not surprisingly, language studies blossomed around this very time, becoming central to several sciences. Indeed, language was now recognized to sit squarely at the crossroads linking history, philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, logic, psychology and physiology.

Pei’s book tries to do justice to the vastness and majesty of the field, surveying entire families of languages, exploring their commonalities and dissimilarities, occasionally lingering on a single word, chewing it and rolling it around as if savouring a delicious morsel, before leaping forward to the origins of phrases, surnames, mannerisms, cultural oddities, and so forth.

The flow of fascinating trivia is continuous. Did you know, as I now do, that the Latin for motor-cycle, as coined at the Vatican, is birota ignifera lattice incita, or ‘two-wheeled vehicle driven by fire-bearing juice’? This reminds me of loha-patha-gamini, the Sanskrit neologism for a train (Traveller on Iron Road, if you please) Or that the Arabic word for Western Europe, Feringhistan, is a throwback to the times where the Arabs clashed with the Franks (Even today, the word ‘Firang’ is common Hindi/Urdu slang for a white man) Or that the Book of Common Prayer employs a series of double word phrases, like ‘to acknowledge and confess’, ‘ dissemble nor cloke’, ‘assemble and meet’, ‘pray and beseech’, ‘mortify and kill’, ‘perceive and know’, ‘power and might’, because one of these is Anglo-Saxon in origin and the other Latin, and there were people then who understood one and not the other. Or that in a certain Burmese dialect, the word ‘ma’, pronounced in five different tones, spells out the sentence “Help the horse; a mad dog comes!” In Otetela of the Belgian Congo, ‘my father’ is ‘papa’; in Georgian, ‘deda‘ means ‘mother’, and ‘mama’ means ‘father’. I could go on and on, but I recommend you read the book yourself.

Interspersed judiciously with all this is an equally fascinating collection of theories surrounding language. The possibility that humans could have evolved a gestural system of communication instead of spoken language is discussed. Darwin’s theory is put forth, that language was originally mouth-pantomime – the vocal chords trying to imitate hand-gestures. Leibniz’s and Alfredo Trombetti’s hypotheses are referred to, that all languages evolved from a single tongue, as is EH Sturtevant’s wonderfully radical theory that since all real intentions and emotions get themselves involuntarily expressed by gesture, look or sound, language must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving.

One of the greatest linguists of all time, Afzal Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Abū al-Reḥān Albiruni, (Latin Alberonius), fluent in Khwarezmian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac and Berber; incomparable traveler and memoirist, polymath, polyglot and generally a stud. (portrait courtesy Wikipedia)

One of the greatest linguists of all time, Afzal Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Abū al-Reḥān Albiruni, (Latin Alberonius), fluent in Khwarezmian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac and Berber; incomparable traveler and memoirist, polymath, polyglot and generally a stud. (portrait courtesy Wikipedia)

While Pei’s repertoire is wide-ranging and encyclopaedic, I did detect a greater familiarity with the Indo-European family of languages, especially the European branch of the family. “The three great branches of Indo-European (Germanic, Romance, Balto-Slavic) have at least five existing relatives, of which one, Indo-Iranian, is as numerically extensive as they,” he says, rather dismissively. This isn’t as bad as Lord Macaulay’s sneering “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,”  but I expected better. I speak four Indian languages myself, three of which have roots in Sanskrit (which I learnt as well) and the interconnections and differences between these tongues are as rich in history and nuance as any other that Pei discusses. It would have been lovely to speculate on whether the Mumbai slang word for salary, ‘pagaar’, which comes from the local Marathi, is linked to Latin pacare or pagare (to appease, to pay) via the Portuguese in nearby Goa. A window is ‘ventana’ in Spanish, but ‘janela’ in Portuguese; it is ‘khidki’ in Hindi and Marathi, but ‘jannal’ in Tamil, and ‘jaanla’ in Bengali – but there were no Portuguese in the neighborhood. Why, I wonder – sadly, Pei does not enlighten me.

Pei’s Eurocentricity extends to other domains. “In antiquity,” Pei declares, “Each nation had its own form of musical notation, but from the 11th century, thanks chiefly to the inventiveness of Guido d’Arezzo, a monk who lived in Italy but was probably of French birth or origin, our present system spread to all civilized lands until it is now indeed internationally used”. Not so – Indian classical music does not employ the Do-Re-Mi scale, and is nevertheless not uncivilized, and there must be several other musical genres that can say the same thing. But one must grant that Pei wrote the book in less enlightened times, and was actually rather forward-thinking for his generation. But Pei dates his book in one more way.

The first half of the 20th century was obsessed with the concept of a single world language. Churchill, Shaw, Eleanor Roosevelt and others made passionate pleas in favor of one, believing that it could somehow bring about world peace. Pei devotes four whole chapters to this line of thought. He reviews the possible alternatives and suggestions – including Esperanto, Interlingua, Basic English and natural languages like English and French – and while he finds them dissatisfactory to a greater or lesser degree, he agrees with the general principle, and forcefully urges the world’s governments to agree on a single global language. “Left to their own devices,” he says, “linguists might bicker on forever, and since what language they select is not one-tenth so important as their selecting it, a definite time limit should be imposed on their labors.”

I find this disappointing in several ways. There is profound naivety in the assumption that all human conflict boils down to the simple misunderstanding or mispronunciation of certain words. There is naivety as well in the assumption that political consensus can be built around a single alternative, and further naivety in the assumption that governmental consensus is sufficient to change human behaviour on a global scale.

But it goes beyond naivety. Human unity was never going to be forged on the basis of homogeneity, but on that of acceptance of heterogeneity, on that of the understanding that identity has multiple facets, including but not restricted to language, skin colour, political and religious affiliation, gender, profession, sexual orientation, tastes in music and movies, and preferred brand of beer. To say that exactly one of these dimensions is the defining characteristic, and then, to expect all mankind to comply with a single choice thereof – this is the very definition of inhumanity, the basis of failed experiments like Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. What is most disappointing is that a man of such erudition, a man who was fluent in English, Italian, Latin, Greek, French, Sanskrit, Old Church Slavonic, Portuguese, Russian and German, should deem it in any way desirable to do away with diversity and point humankind in the direction of a single language. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

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