Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Anglocentrism gone mad

Today's post is based on an article in The Times a few Saturdays ago, which I can't link to without involving you in the 'To pay or not to pay?' debate. And you know how I feel about paywalls. It is an Opinion piece about the loss of languages.††

English is not the centre of the universe, though the writer of this article seems to think otherwise. The basis of what he says is right and lamentable, and the article is perhaps laudable for saying it. Language is a key to the way we think, and every lost language is a lost key [that's me, not him, in case you're thinking of publishing The Wit And Wisdom of Bob Knowles]:
...[W]hen a native language dies, a lot of other things disappear too [ed: a bit like saving a species saving a whole ecosystem...] . Place names and family names become inexplicable. Local traditions vanish because people no longer have the words to describe  their customs. The names of plants, birds or animals unique to a particular region go too – so the natural world has to be re-catalogued all over again in incongruous Latin or English.... Let your native language die and part of you dies with it.
He might have said, I've just thought,  'Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.'

So far so true, so lamentable in content, and so laudable as journalism (if not brilliantly written); is inexplicable the right word? Yes, a linguist might explain a toponym, but what matters is that it has become meaningless – it's explicable all right, given a footnote or two. And why does anything have to be 're-catalogued all over again' (which is a bit like 'déjà vu all over again')? And is Latin's incongruity to the point?

The writer has a strange attitude to Latin in other ways:
,,, [W]e owe the glorious multiplicity of English to the mingling and mangling of Latin with all those tribal tongues. [ed He has mentioned the extinction of 'many Germanic and Celtic languages' by Latin.]
 WTF? We owe the glorious – erm... something ('multiplicity' is surely not the word: 'multifariousness' perhaps) – to a lot more than the naïve equation  
Latin + tribal tongues [whatever-the-hell THEY are] = English
And what does this Little Englander think Latin did throughout the rest of Europe? French, Provençal (+ N dialects, where N is a large number) Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, Sardinian... need I go on?

Well I shan't. #WVGTbook calls.

Update 2013.06.19.18:20
PS And I'm sorry, I recognize the difficulties of verse translation, believe me, but there's a time and place for it. That place is not in the closing lines of a piece on the loss of languages – particularly when the column-width makes it impossible to format it as verse: when there's no such consciousness (this is verse, so expect a dodgy translation). For the record, I'm not a speaker of Guernésias, but I'm pretty sure (OK, absolutely certain) that these words –
Que l'lingo  seit bouan ou mauvais
J'pâlron [ed
. sic  –  looks ver-r-r-ry suspect to me] coum' nou pâlait  [ed. sic –  those  verb inflexions look REALLY odd†] autefais.
don't mean
Whether the lingo be good or bad
I'm going to speak like dear old dad.
No 'dad', no 'dear', no 'old'.

Update 2013.06.19.22:40 Added this footnote: 

† And here's why, if you really want to know. There are systematic features of Latin-derived verb endings. There are in some cases exceptions, but they tend to be noted in philology texts; examples from minority languages are  the stock-in-trade of philology – I explained here how and why I know a single word of Gascon. If there were a language that had -ron as the first person singular in the future form of a first conjugation verb (-er verbs in French, -ar verbs in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and so on‡) I'd very probably have heard of it. 'Nou' looks like we, which would make the ending -ait first person plural – which I'd very probably have heard of.  If one language had both oddities....

Update 2013.06.20.17:10 Added this meta-footnote: 

‡ And you at the back, yes you, the smart-arse who's thinking 'First conjugation? The Latin for TALK isn't first conjugation.  It's the semi-deponent loqui [whence 'loquacious'].'  The verb I'm talking about is the Vulgar Latin PARABOLARE [whence parler,  parlare, falar... etc (presumably also the Guernésias pâler {in which the infinitive ending is a guess})] Phew, three levels of parenthesis in a meta-footnote. This is navel-gazing of the first order.

Update 2013.06.21.09:45 Added this PS:
Yesterday's copy of The Times reported on an event that is tangentially relevant to the issue of the loss of minority languages – it was a local cricket match abandoned  because one side was 'gaining an advantage in an ungentlemanly way' by speaking Welsh.'  It couldn't be, I wonder, that the English-only-speaking side were losing hand over fist, and wanted a way to save face...?

The story had a fairly obvious filler in the form of a jokey translation into 'Welsh' [I'm always dubious about this sort of thing] of cricket-related terms.  One that struck me was 'Win the Ashes', which struck me at the time as a suitable name for the undertaker at Llaregub – a friend of Dai Bread (GEDDIT?) There's a reason why throwaway lines are called that.

Update 2015. – Added this note

I've found the article on a site devoted to another minority language: Manx.

Update 2017. – Brushed up, and deleted old footer.

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