Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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The Fate of Languages

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There are about six thousand living human languages spoken in the world today. Estimates by language catalogers of the number of existing languages vary by about 10%, since it depends upon how one defines what distinguishes a language from a dialect.

The vast majority of Earth languages are in danger of imminent disappearance.

According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, which publishes the annual report Ethnologue: Languages of the World, nearly half of all spoken languages no longer have any children speakers. Within the next half-century, it is likely that 95% of all extant languages will become extinct. We are in the midst of several decades of rapid language loss, and this tendency will only be exacerbated in the future. Linguist Michael Krauss, who specializes in the study of endangered languages, believes that only about three hundred of the world’s languages are safe in the long run from the effects of cultural globalization, electronic media expansion, decline of family and community traditions, and government or majority persecution of minorities.

In North America, the number of surviving indigenous languages has been reduced from about 300 to 210. Michael Krauss believes that, during the next generation, that number will decrease to twenty. All but 35 of these 210 living North American languages are spoken only by people over the age of fifty (the generation of grandparents). Once vibrant Native American languages such as Navajo, Crow, and Hualapai, are in rapid decline. The few which have children speakers are Native American languages in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Hawaiian language is near total extinction. Hawaiian is a once-flourishing Polynesian language that deteriorated steadily throughout the twentieth century due to the imposition of American English and English-only legislation (Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900 and a state in 1959). On the tiny, privately-owned island of Ni’ihau, the Hawaiian language is protected like a rare species in a natural wildlife preserve. There are thirty Hawaiian-speaking children. Outside of Ni’ihau, there are no Hawaiian speakers under the age of seventy.

This fate of disappearance lies in wait not only for aboriginal languages and those with less than one million speakers (those tracked by endangered language organizations). It is the catastrophic destiny of the languages – like German, Japanese, Italian, or Serbo-Croatian – with the largest number of speakers in the world. The accelerated propagation of global digital technology and global media culture (the worldwide triumph of pan-capitalism) brings with it the accelerated predominance of American English or pan-English. The result is a two-tiered system, with English as the global language or master code, implicated in a cyber-age colonial relationship with a regional or local language. (Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, “Time Warner’s Psychic Surgery on the Global Village”) This hypermodernist system no longer entails a relationship of domination, or elimination of one of the system’s elements by the other (Hawaiian is exterminated by American English). It is rather a relationship of insidious contamination or virus-like infiltration by the stronger element of the weaker.

The ascendancy of pan-English makes all languages (including, perhaps, English itself) into endangered languages. What endangers a henceforth local language like German is not a flat-out perdition of speakers (German has the ninth largest number of speakers of any language in the world, with about one hundred million native speakers and twenty million second language speakers), but rather a rapidly intensifying implosion or erosion from within stemming from the epidemic proliferation of pan-English terms in the interior of the German language. When a German speaker talks in an advertisement, movie, TV program, or on the Internet, she sprinkles her utterances liberally with pan-English words (or at least with words she believes to be English). When a German speaker talks about business management, computer software, digital technology, telecommunications, financial markets or services, fashion, “avant-garde” music, televised sports, window shopping, consumer appliances, home accessories, or “personalized” emotions (Ich habe ein Happy Feeling), she freely supplements her speech, in every sentence, with substitute or designer words pulled down from the terminological celestial sky, the ur-language of pan-English.

English words (or words which are believed to be English) are used in the German language in any domain or situation where the speaker wishes to enhance the prestige of her discourse by holding up a sign of globalized professional, technical, or consumer knowledge. It is a discrete signal of belonging to one of the higher, more “socialized,” charismatic, or futuristic systems of value. Since the word, however, is outside its living English context, and is not integral to any German context, it is like a fish out of both waters in Denglisch. It becomes a pure sign without denotation, an entropy-increasing factor driving the German sentence into an uncertain, nebulous condition. The use of the pan-English word in the German sentence is an illustration of “the medium is the message” or the “implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign.” (McLuhan, Baudrillard) Increased information, far from stimulating an increase in meaning, is directly destructive of meaning and signification. The medium of the employed pan-English word is a formal gesture towards the elevated status of the master code or ur-language. Its semantic denotation is confused and chaotic. Its message is the medium of the word itself in its acoustic, alliterative, and material form. The annexing of pan-English words, under the sign of more information, turns communication into a field of uncertainty, complexity, and indeterminacy.

One Response

Dear Shapiro

As I have embarked upon the task of preparing a study analysis on “Globalization: Beautueous Beast” I have to deal with the fate of cultural identity of so many nations on earth. And thanks for your article on this endeavour.
Kind Regards
dr. anwar