Everybody’s talking

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Isn’t language simply miraculous? We talk and write and use it to communicate, to express ourselves, to discuss, debate, consider, and make statements about who we are and what we believe. People may like to point out that various animals can communicate, some pet lovers even believe their cat or dog understands every word their owners say, – and they may be right. But until a cat or dog or horse manages to write a poem, an opera, a novel, or even a bawdy limerick, there can be no doubt that people have a gift that is unique and precious.

Think about what you’re doing right now. You are looking at black marks on a page, gathered into groups, divided by other black symbols, and you are understanding the meaning of what they represent. Is that not amazing? It’s not even as though you have to slowly consider each letter in relation to every other letter and symbol to decipher what they are meant to say. You just fly through the sentences (you can even recognise that they are separate sentences) and not really have to pause for thought.

Of course, the content of the sentences may cause you some trouble, the clumsiness of the writing may be an impediment, or the depth of the thoughts being expressed may be an issue, but that is not the fault of the letters as they are arranged on the page; that is down to the writer. It is also true that some people find the task of reading difficult because of other reasons, such as dyslexia, or some other issue; but, overall, language is something that we have to share, an extremely precious gift without which life would be almost completely worse.

But it is so much more than that. How many different languages are there in the world today? How many variations of each one? I spent the past few weeks back in Ireland and I was again reminded of how language expresses culture, history, character in a way that is different in each nation. Anyone who can speak more than one language knows how much fluency in one provides insight into the culture, way of thinking, mind set and worldview of those whose native language it is. Being able to speak another’s language adds incredibly to an understanding of that other, because it is more than syntax, sentence structure, or vocabulary that is different from language to language. I am also reminded of what that Irish genius, Oscar Wilde, said about the peoples on North America on the one hand, and Ireland and Britain on the other: “We are two peoples divided by a common language”.

People on either side of the Atlantic speak English, but not the same version. Individual words for specific things are different (garbage or rubbish, truck or lorry, etc.). Even within one country there are massive variations of the language spoken, whether regional dialects or pronunciation of words. This is why subtitles are so important when watching movies or tv shows from other English-speaking countries! The funny thing is that you can see that even subtitles get it wrong quite often: apparently some accents are even hard to decipher for technology.

Many of these variations are disappearing, however, as mass media, and especially movies and tv, tend to encourage a homogenization of language across borders. This is not an unusual development. The fact is that languages are becoming simpler over time. Sometimes this is a deliberate act, as with Noah Webster and his American Dictionary, where he popularised a simpler way of spelling words, now considered “American” (e.g., center rather than centre, honor rather than honour, program rather than programme).

But the oldest languages are the most complicated in terms of word endings, tenses, vocabulary, etc., as is clear from the three oldest literary languages in Europe, Latin, Greek, and Irish. In older languages, words change in spelling according to their case: genitive, accusative, dative, etc. In English, by contrast, nouns remain the same regardless of case, as English is a far more recent language than Irish, for example.

One other fascinating point: the oldest languages seem to have a common ancestry. Irish, as a Celtic language, is closest in structure and vocabulary to Sanskrit, the ancestral language of the Indian sub-continent. Indo-European languages share a great deal in that way. And consider: similar analysis of other major tongues, French, Italian, Spanish, etc., lend themselves to more discoveries like this.

As language becomes more homogenous, maybe we’re get to a point where we can all understand each other, have insight into each other’s culture, thinking, world views. Maybe then we can explore another saying, this time by Blaise Pascal in his native French: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” – “To understand is to forgive.”

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