Language On Its Way Down

French used to be the diplomatic language of the western world. Look where it is now... being supplanted by English and Japanese; has quite a few languages more widely spoken than it; in the foreseeable future, French will be a DyingLanguage?. DyingLanguage?s tend not to be the best ones to write poetry in if you want to be understood. If I write a great poem in NahuatlLanguage, once the dominant language of Mexico, it will sound beautiful to a few readers, and it will sound the same as a poem in Gibberish to most of the world. QuechuaLanguage, also very beautiful, is often equally incomprehensible. Now is that really what you want your poems in? FrenchLanguage, being a LanguageOnItsWayDown, is not a good choice either.

She would be a poor poet that chose a language for its perennity.

Okay, so do you read non-translated forms of Beowulf... written in AngloSaxonLanguage, now a DeadLanguage? Would I get very far writing it nowadays?

I have! The late JimJoyce? led me through it over many a dinner of roast beast and wine. Not having studied, I found it hard going, but not impossible with some guidance. Writing in it? People do... it's no crazier than joining the Society for Creative Anachronism - or studying Latin, for that matter.

You might at our company. We have an engineer who has a doctorate in Anglo-Saxon literature, who sometimes writes documentation in Anglo-Saxon, and composes extemporaneous poetry in it from time to time....

IMHO, there is a slippery slope fallacy above. French has lost in importance in international use, true; but it just doesn't follow that it will soon die out in the countries where it is spoken natively.

Actually, most languages alive and well today are not terribly important internationally, and don't seem to have a problem with that. Maybe their speakers just fail to realize the superiority of English... ;-) -- FalkBruegmann
Or of LojbanLanguage.
English is a business language all around the world. English poetry is kept in UK/USA. Everywhere else, it's used to do bureaucratic work, management, money transfers, stock market operations. So I would say English too is a dying language but "Englibusiness" is rising.

I don't think so. "Serious" poetry, maybe, but listen to the radio in pretty much any country and count the number of songs in English...

That's exactly what I meant by "business language". All right, there are tons of great songs in English (I fit them in "poetry") but the rest, pop music et al., is a business. I agree it's spreading around the world, so it may not be really dying. It's only being replaced with a "light" version of English, with less vocabulary, fewer grammar rules, less easy-to-useness. That's why English is the main second language course in many schools in so many countries. English can be a really complicated and deep language, but the "stripped down" version people are learning in other countries (including me, as you may already have noticed), is just perfect for straight-to-the-point, gimme-the-money business talk.

IMHO, it's part of the huge propaganda scheme the US (and UK) has been into for the last century. Make everyone in the world (well, everyone who has power/money anyway) use English. As a poor example, today I was reading the IRC logs of a cracking session on a security website. The crackers were Indonesians but they were using English between themselves (mixed with Indonesian). Why so, because it's cool? I would say that's because English is a mainstream language, so easy to learn (easier than French, Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese, etc.) that it's spreading faster and faster. But at the same time, a new language is evolving and it's not Shakespeare's, or Joyce's, or Longfellow's English. It's a stripped down, executive language.

I am myself a native French speaker (Quebecer, in fact). I like English because sometimes feelings, thoughts or ideas are better expressed in English than French. It's all about the concept behind the word itself. Translation can't always do the work. That's why I watch movies in VO, not dubbed in French. So, anyway, I'm only saying that the "International English" is very different from, say, Allen Ginsberg's, William Faulkner's or Norman Mailer's English. That specific English language is going down. It's not dead, but it's going down the same way OldClassicFrench? is going down.

-- ManuelLanctot

Nobody else has ever used WilliamFaulkner's English. Maybe I'm just saying that because I'm a huge WilliamFaulkner fan and I think his prose style is inimitable. Or maybe I'm saying that because I believe that for all the politics behind languages, ultimately a language is defined by how people use it, not by how it's defined by some ivory-tower committee. English today is a sloppy, polyglot language - largely thanks to colonialism and post-colonialism - which makes it fantastically varied to my ear. I love being able to listen to any of the heavy variants - Jamaican patois, creole, ebonics - and hear a language that I comprehend, and yet do not. Purity is boring. -- francis

But QuechuaLanguage is still alive and well today too... but when was the last time you met anyone who spoke it, even just a few words? It is a DyingLanguage?, but it has a number of native speakers. Same with ValencianLanguage? (A dialect of the same thing as CatalanLanguage?, I don't know which is the language and which is the dialect though). They are dead to the rest of the world, but they still have a noticeable speaking population. That is what I predict for FrenchLanguage.

("A language is a dialect with an army and a navy" - cited by StevenPinker in TheLanguageInstinct)

There's a cultural assumption for you. "I've never met anybody who speaks this language, therefore nobody speaks this language."


So FrenchLanguage will not be the best for poetry unless it is for a specific audience. It is fine for FrenchPoems?.

T.S. Eliot tended to use a half-dozen or more languages in a single poem. Yes, it makes his poetry harder to read. I hesitate, however, to say it makes him a poorer poet or his works poorer poems. There is an enormous amount of power in a poem such as "The Waste Land" ( How many languages can you count in it? Just another data point in counterpoint.

QuechuaLanguage poetry will not reach many people. French poems are better now, but how long will that really last? If I were to post a QuechuaLanguage poem here, not many people would know what it was about. If I post a LojbanPoem here, people will chat about its translation now, but in a few decades many of them will understand it in the original.

But if you found the right Quecha-speaking people and gave them your poem, perhaps they would appreciate it. I say that as long as a language does not die out, it's healthy. Beyond that, counting how many people speak your language doesn't seem so relevant. Yes, more people speak English. Maybe they use it to talk about stupid, banal things. Communication is about depth as well as breadth. Uhh... you're taking the SapirWhorfHypothesis farther than Whorf himself! Every natural language (as opposed to a ConLang) is or was used in daily life - so people likely are just as banal in all of them.

People can write in an obscure language in the same way that they can program in an obscure language. It may not be universally comprehensible, but it may be fun to write, and fun to share in a small, close-knit community. -- NickBensema

But QuechuaLanguage is still alive and well today too... but when was the last time you met anyone who spoke it, even just a few words?

I don't know anyone who speaks Mandarin, either. So it must be dead, or at least dying... I bet there are bits of SouthAmerica? (Peru, right?) where QuechuaPoetry? would go down a lot better than anything in English. Some languages are important locally, some globally. Some are tremendously important to certain groups of people and completely irrelevant to others. This page seems to be based on the idea that language is like the size of a country's navy - there as an index of world-power status. They're much more useful than that...

Peru, and Bolivia. But Spanish poems will get farther than Quechua.

The FrenchAcademy won't let FrenchLanguage die as long as there's a FranceCountry?/FranceEurope?. And afterwards, do you think the Quebecois will give it up without a fight? -- NickBensema

We sure won't! Nous vaincrons! :)

There's still a WalesPlace? though not a WalesCountry?, and they're trying pretty hard to keep WelshLanguage alive... but it's a DyingLanguage? anyway!

Just thought I'd update the comment above to explain what's been happening here in Wales over the last two decades:

Since the mid-eighties, Welsh has enjoyed a healthy revival. Trends published in the seventies suggested that Welsh would be dead today. As I write this (June 16th 2001) here's the state of play:

Many of these achievements have come about through pressure groups with a French-style commitment to the language. In the seventies, we saw some "direct action". (For example, there was a campaign to remove all English-only road signs. - Nowadays these signs are bilingual.)

Welsh can't compete with English but it can survive, just like Danish and Dutch.

The comment above about poetry is interesting, certainly as far as Dylan Thomas is concerned. Dylan Thomas has gained an international reputation as an English language poet and novelist. He never published anything in Welsh which may explain why he doesn't seem to get a great deal of publicity in Welsh literary circles. The highbrow side of Welsh culture takes poetry about as seriously as the Japanese regard martial arts. ;-)

There's just one myth I'd like to dispel:

I am Welsh ... but I do not: What, you mean to say that you don't sing "Bread of Heaven" with all your co-workers on the way home from a hard day's work at the coalface? My dreams are shattered! ;-) Now please excuse me Guvnor, I must go out and buy sam mooah af these laaverly jellied eels, gorblimey. -- EarleMartin (a Londoner)

I 'eard on me radio that Johnnie Depp's new movie is a great one for London cliches. Take a drink every time you 'ear someone say guv'nor... -- NoelWelsh (a diamond geezer)
All right, there are tons of great songs in English (I fit them in "poetry") but the rest, pop music et al, is a business.

Hmmm. So "pop music" can't include "great songs"? I'd beg to differ. In Mozart's day, his music was very popular, no? Was Shakespeare specifically trying to create great works, or trying to pack the seats at the Globe? I would say that much of what we now call "great works" started out as the "pop culture" of its day. And, someday, that portion of our "pop culture" that stands the test of time will become "great works" for our descendants. -- MikeSmith
Real questions: How can we tell authoritatively that a language is dying? How can we tell that a language will die (particularly when some languages can be "revived")? And at what point is a language dead? Pretty much every language mentioned on this page can be read/understood by at least a few living individuals.
"Okay, so do you read non-translated forms of Beowulf... written in AngloSaxonLanguage, now a DeadLanguage?"

All languages are dying languages. Languages change and, over time, evolve into completely different languages. Anglo-Saxon evolved into Middle English and then into Modern English. Modern English writings will be as incomprehensible to those speaking "English" in 1000 years time as Middle English is to those speaking Modern English today.

not necessarily. While English has mutated so much in 1000 years that it would be hard for an anglo-saxon to converse with a modern English person, other languages have barely changed over this time period. Old icelandic, I believe, is very similar to modern icelandic. on the other hand English probably will change as there doesn't tend to be much pressure in English societies for 'pure', we just borrow or invent new words willy nilly.

I once heard the story of a radio talk show host that received a call from some nutjob talking about how people were misusing English, how the meanings of words were changing and people weren't using the proper expressions anymore. The talk show host decided to play along, and agreed with the caller completely, but didn't think the caller went far enough. The host then called on the listeners to reverse the GreatVowelShift?.

Can I still get annoyed at nonsensical expressions like double negatives, or "I could care less"? Please? See EnglishLanguagePrescriptiveness. Also AmericanCulturalAssumption; everyone else says "I couldn't care less", which is correct.

If you studied modern linguistics rather than language pundits, you'd quickly find out that there is nothing nonsensical nor illogical about double negatives. They are used in almost all languages worldwide as a means of emphasis of the negative. More generally, repetition (especially reduplication) means emphasis in general, in all languages.

Here's an example for you: wiki wiki. It means "really fast", where wiki means "fast". (Hmm, why does that sound familiar? :-)

The cliche that "a double negative is at best self cancelling and at worst nonsensical" is a very recent invention (by pre-modern grammarians), and there isn't a single bit of scientific evidence to support it.

Scientific evidence for the logical proposition that not(not x) == x???

[You didn't really read the above, did you? Modern logic was invented by Frege and Boole, among others, and it was not until that invention that it became "self-obvious" that not(not(x)) = x. Why do you assume that human languages, which evolved at least tens of thousands of years before the invention of mathematics, must inflexibly reflect a branch of math that is less than 200 years old? Do you also scold people whose speech doesn't fit with the theorems of integral and differential calculus? "What do you mean, 'instantly', you fool!?!? You should say 'in an amount of time that is smaller than any arbitrary positive non-zero real epsilon in the limit of L'Hôpital's rule!'!!!"]

n.b. -- "I could care less" doesn't use double negation, but rather seeks the additional effect of sarcasm. See also "Like I really care."

Every language that isn't on its way down right now will be eventually. Languages are constantly in flux. English is no more permanent than Latin. it is possible for languages to be static over a very long time - see my comments above about Icelandic. Of course, one could take the view that a language needs to adapt to remain successful, which would certainly explain why English is so wide spread - it seems to be the quickest changing language. -- JamesKeogh

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