Wanted Languages: Dead or Alive
I was reading about the demise of the old Cromarty dialect in Scotland recently. Retired engineer Bobby Hogg died at age 92 taking with him the traditional living language of the north-east tip of the Black Isle, just north of Inverness. With this man passing our last opportunity to understand many things has also gone.
David Ross of the Herald in Scotland wrote ‘He could still close his eyes, see the boats heading out to sea and hear the unique speech pattern that set his people apart.’ What does this mean in broader terms ? What significance does a language or dialect hold ?
Most likely, all the oral tradition unique to this community has been lost, at best the finer nuances and subtleties carried in the living language have now been committed to speculation and guesswork. My personal take is that a language is an index of it’s culture and stored in the words and phrasings are representations which provide unique insights particular to that area or people.
In other words, humans are the storehouses of knowledge and when they die, we are collectively poorer.
To couch it in more familiar terms, imagine if it were the last Glaswegian who had died – think about all the people in the future trying to understand the knowledge and traditions of the great city ? Think of the loss of all the links to older language and history which would be obscured or lost forever. Just think of the loss of humour… a travesty.
It is tempting to dismiss the old for the new if we take on the ideas that everything of value is held in either digital form or transcribed into another language such as English. These fallacies encourage all sorts of major collective losses. I contend that a living language is the first and most important resources for knowing the past, followed secondly by written language (books which form the vast bulk of our records) and thirdly by the digital realm which represents the newest, and potentially the most powerful, storehouse.
What is the point ? Besides all the cultural and historical reasons to learn and keep languages, I have been talking with Antonella Sorace, Professor of Linguistics and founder of Bilingualism Matters. She says that “it is important for the health and ability of the brain to speak more than one language; Any language, it does not matter which one; even if it is a dead language, learning and speaking it has a dramatic effect on brain function…”
Having invested her life in the study of the effects of language on brain function, she is driven to communicate the benefits of multilingualism to people in the UK and beyond. We lose out in the UK as culturally we don’t invest in language learning as much as other countries do; we are predominantly monoglots !
This is probably due to the fact that the UK is an island and that the international language has become English. English is in fact a whole mish-mash of many other languages, having absorbed words, phrases and literature from almost every culture it has met with.
Our law is largely based in Latin having inherited it from the Romans, Greek has heavily influenced English due to its widespread use throughout the clerics of the church communities, Arabic has been incorporated due to its brilliant development of mathematics, sciences and philosophy; the whole of the UK had French as it’s formal language for well over a century; German is firmly rooted in English, through it’s close cultural links…
In fact the hotch potch which William Shakespeare helped unite by including expressions from all the dialects holds in it vast arrays of odd words absorbed from, what feels like all cultures and all times. Codified into the living language we use day to day is a huge amount of ‘cultural DNA’ which when unpacked an analysed helps unlock hidden histories at a glance.
Speaking a language provides a neural-net Rosetta stone that enables us to understand our world in greater depth and meaning. It is a practical way to help us know how our modern world has come about and exercise our brains into new capabilities intellectually.