Excerpts from The Language Imperative

From the Preface, on pages vii to viii

"According to Chomsky, a Martian sent to Earth would conclude we speak a variety of dialects with mutually unintelligible vocabularies -- but dialects, nonetheless, of a single Earthish tongue."

(Kalbfleisch 1994)

Could this be true? Could it be that -- in spite of the seeming multitude of differences between English and Kwakiutl, Navajo and Japanese, Albanian and Hawaiian -- every human being could accurately say, "I speak a dialect of Earthish"?

Let's assume for a moment, for purposes of discussion, that it's true; let's suppose there is in fact a language that we could (a bit more gracefully) call "Terran." What might that mean for humankind? Does it matter? Would it be important and significant, or would it only qualify as a tidbit of information to include in trivia contests?

If it's true, we clearly need the answers to a number of other questions. For example:

Does it matter which of these Terran dialects is your own native tongue?
Are some of the Terran dialects better than others -- more useful, more beautiful, more powerful, or in some other way more desirable?

If you happen to have native or near-native fluency in more than one "dialect" of Terran, are you blessed, or burdened, or neither? That is, do bilingualism and multilingualism have significant effects on human minds and lives, and if so, what are their consequences?

Are there good reasons to work toward eliminating many of these language differences? Should we perhaps try to get rid of the hundreds of varieties now spoken only by very small populations...? Or would that be a mistake?

These questions aren't trivial. ... If languages are powerful and important, perhaps we should be more careful with them than we are. Perhaps we should be worried about losing any of our ways of speaking. Surely we ought to know more about what we're doing before we make decisions in this area of our lives.

From Chapter 3: Medicine and the Power of Language,
on pages 75-77

Case Study: The Menopause Transformation

Menopause is a normal stage in every woman's life if she lives past fifty or so. It may in many ways be a nuisance and an embarrassment and an inconvenience. But no one would feel obliged to see a doctor just because they were going through a normal stage of life, however annoying they might find it. Think of young human males; they go through a stage when their voices are "changing" and they often find that extremely annoying and embarrassing and inconvenient. But no one expects them to go to a doctor and request treatment for their condition. ... But look at the following dialogues:

WOMAN: "Is there something wrong with me, Doctor?"
DOCTOR: "No. You're going through menopause."
WOMAN: "Well, thank goodness for that! I was afraid I was sick."

WOMAN: "Is there something wrong with me, Doctor?"
DOCTOR: "Yes. You're suffering from hypoestrogenemia."
WOMAN: "I am? What does that mean?"
DOCTOR: "It means that you have an estrogen deficiency. But don't worry; we have very effective treatments for it now. I'll write you a prescription, and if you'll stop by the nurse's desk on your way out she'll give you some information that you can read that will answer all your questions. And then I'll need to see you again in a few weeks to check on how you're doing with the medication, whether we need to make any changes in the dosage...that sort of thing."

Calling menopause "hypoestrogenemia" and/or "estrogen deficiency" is nothing but talk. Naming, that's all it is. But any literate adult speaker of English who hears the word "hypoestrogenemia" knows immediately that it refers to a disease or disorder, and understands that "estrogen deficiency" definitely means "something is wrong with you." SHAZAM! ABRACADABRA! ...

Telling a woman that she's "going through menopause" doesn't do anything remarkable; if it has any effect, it's probably one of reassurance. Telling her that she is "suffering from hypoestrogenemia" or "is hypoestrogenemic" and "has an estrogen deficiency," on the other hand, activates an entire cultural construct with effects that will dramatically change her personal reality. ... She has a new role in life, created by the Menopause Transformation; she is now A Patient, and in medical terminology she is eligible to assume the "sick role." ...

Creating this disease of hypoestogenemia, whether from scratch or by transforming menopause into a disease, is close enough to magic to inspire respect in anyone watching the process. The woman in question is precisely the same woman she was before the incantation was pronounced over her by the doctor; her situation is precisely the same as that of a woman who is told only that she's going through menopause. But her life is not the same, nor is the life of her family and intimate circle the same. It's no accident that the register of English spoken by most physicians is called "MDeitySpeak." The doctor says, "Let there be hypoestrogenemia!" and there is hypoestrogenemia.

From Chapter Four: Business and the Power of Language,
on pp. 126-128

Past attempts to establish an international language, much less an associated international culture, have always failed, but the Internet shows signs of doing what no amount of effort along those lines has ever been able to do before. The language of the Internet is truly an international language, and it looks like written English. But it's not the same English that we're used to, it's Netglish, and its presuppositions are different. Questions such as "Where is your company located?" and "How long will it take everyone to get to the meeting?" and "How much does your widget cost?" and "How large were your profits last year?" -- questions that are the heart and soul of off-line business -- are often irrelevant for this new variety of English. ...

We're now watching the establishment of an International Internet Culture that is different from the culture of any one nation. That culture is being transmitted -- misleadingly and dangerously -- in Netglish, and huge numbers of the people actively involved in this process are people who native language is not English of any variety. ... In Netglish, all the concepts of time and space and scheduling are suddenly changed; the idea of what the words success and profit mean are changed; the sought-after goal is not money but attention; products and services are literally given away for free; privacy has to be redefined drastically; everything is turned on its head. Whether this revolution will be allowed to take place or will be stopped in its tracks (assuming that it can still be stopped, which may be an absurd assumption) nobody knows.

From Chapter 7: Why Not Have Just One Language?
on pp. 214-216

All the constructed languages have failed to establish themselves as world languages, although the progress of Esperanto over the past century -- especially outside the United States -- is impressive. ... The movement for an international auxiliary language is the concern of only a small percentage of humankind, and that percentage doesn't appear to be very effective at ramrodding their own tastes through to wide acceptance. Should be be sorry about that?

I'm not sure we should. ... The human race has not yet sat down and seriously considered these three crucial questions:

1. Would the existence of a global language spoken by every human being mean that all human beings would then share in a single global culture encoded in that language?

All the popular literature about proposed IALs seems to take it for granted that there can be such a thing as a language that is culture-free, in the way that sequences of numbers and symbols in mathematical formulas are allegedly culture-free. But the first thing human beings do when they learn an IAL is start giving it cultural trimmings -- organizations and institutes and newsletters and badges and so on. ...

2. Would it mean that the perceptions of all human beings would be shaped in significant shared ways by that language?

In every human language there are things that are easy and convenient to talk about, and things that are cumbersome and inconvenient to talk about. Things that can't easily be talked about tend to be forgotten and neglected, or restricted to a handful of fanatics who are willing to make the effort. Whether the linguistic relativity hypothesis is valid or not, WorldSpeak would have this feature, too, and we don't know which parts of life it might foreground and which parts it might shove into obscurity.

3. If the answer to either question is yes, is that all right? Do we want that?

Perhaps; perhaps not. We don't know the answers to those questions within the boundaries of single nations, much less for humankind as a whole.

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