Excerpts from The Language Imperative
"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."
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
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
now spoken only by very small populations...? Or would that be
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin