Languages rub against each other all day long. New York City, where I live, is like India that way. It is filled with different languages, and I don’t just mean English and Spanish. On the subway, I see people reading Chinese every day. People are chatting in Slavic tongues, and ever since one of my books was translated into Korean I’ve regularly been noticing signs with Korean characters. What is the result of this mixture?
Plainly, we get new words. You cannot be a New Yorker and not know some Yiddish words. It starts making you feel plugged into the human universe. Once I was attending a Bar Mitzvah, reading the prayer book, looking at all that Hebrew, and thinking it was a very foreign language. I said to myself I wasn’t going to quit studying the Hebrew words until I find one I could relate to. And there it jumped out at me: baruch. I suppose the Arabic word is barak, and I know the Swahili word is baraka, meaning blessing. It’s like six degrees of separation. No matter how far away people seem their words entangle us.
Yet words separate us too. I routinely stand in line waiting to pay a cashier while she chats at length with a customer in a language I don’t understand. A third party laughs. I am outside the charmed circle.
This entanglement and separation has been going on for a very long time now. Nicholas Ostler’s book Empires of the Word provides a social history of language in written form. Five thousand years is a long time, and yet for this blog it is extremely recent. Speech was already very old when writing was a new invention. Nevertheless Ostler’s book (which makes for great reading on its own terms) provides much material for thought in connection with this blog. He introduces what he calls language dynamics,
“how language, in all its evolving variety, organizes not just the human mind but also the large groups of human minds that constitute themselves into societies, which communicate and interact, as well as think and act.” (p. 559)
This is a particularly important idea on a blog that urges a fundamental relationship between joint attention and speech. Our basic model is not Rodin’s thinker manipulating logical symbols in his head, but the interaction of speakers, listeners, and their topics. The history of language dynamics has been “little explored” (to use Ostler’s phrase) and yet it is crucial to understanding what can change and what is stable over long periods of time. Ostler investigates written language because he has evidence about its nature over a very long time, but the principles he finds provides a good place to start when thinking about speech as well.
Ostler’s first and perhaps most startling point is that language can be very stable. He goes back to the beginning of writing in the Middle East and finds:
The only stability this society has enjoyed has been in the substance of its ruling language. Akkadian, the language spoken by Sargon I, the first Assyrian king in 2300 BC, is a close relative of the Arabic spoken by his successor in this same land, Saddam Hussein, in AD 2000; another close relative, the Middle East’s old lingua franca, Aramaic, bridges the gap between the decline of Akkadian around 600 BC and the onset of Arabic with the Muslims around AD 600. They are all sister languages within the very close Semitic family. (p. 35)
During those 4300 years every kind of conqueror has come in speaking Persian, Greek, Latin, Mongolian, Turkish, and English. Greek, for example, was brought in by Alexander and used by the Romans too, in that part of the world. It was a language of great prestige and classical literature and their culture was very appealing. (“The Greeks were the masters of luxury, and it took little higher discrimination to want more of this. The Latin word pergraecari, ‘to Greek off’, meant devotion not to high thinking but to high living, feasting and drinking.” p. 253) Yet the language evaporated from the area of modern-day Iraq like so much dew:
There is an interesting pattern to the Byzantine losses in the mid-seventh century [i.e., in the face of the sudden Arab enthusiasm]. The places that held firm were precisely those where Greek was the majority language, spoken by the people at large and not just the elites. (p. 260)
These facts seem to say much about the place where writing was born. It has seen many powers come and create a layer of authority over the common people, but no larger, shared society seems ever to have been built. Maybe the elite did not care to share with the folk, maybe it was the other way around but it appears to have been a rare event when the folks on top and on bottom spoke the same language.
It seems there are all kinds of languages: classical languages that are retained for the traditions they express, prestige languages that are used to associate oneself with some greater power, trade languages (often pidgins) used between people who exchange goods but do not share personal lives, and majority languages spoken by the “people at large,” something used in their homes and intimate lives. There seems to be no particular reason why these varieties of language should have waited until writing came along. When thinking about speech during prehistoric times we should at least be open to the possibility that these speech variants existed.
We know that a trade in ochre existed a hundred thousand years ago. Presumably, the trade included negotiations that sometimes had utterances on the order of, “It’s a deal,” and probably, “You insult my mother with such a small offer.” Did the traders share a common language? Did one side use a prestige language that the other side accepted? Were they perfectly bilingual, able to use each other’s tongue at will? Maybe they had a pidgin that enabled them to trade without getting to know one another’s noncommercial ways. Presumably we shall never know the answer to these question, but at least we can keep in mind the range of possibilities and understand that each answer implies a different kind of society.
Ostler’s critical thesis is that a language does not grow through the assertion of power, but through the creation of a larger human community (p. 556). I think I want to add that to the list of this blog’s central ideas, along with the notion that the function of language is to enable joint attention, and that verbal interchanges pilot attention. When children begin speaking today, they are becoming part of a larger human community, and until shown differently, we can assume this was always true. When mother and child exchanged the first words, however many eons ago, they became part of the first human community and as their speech spread the community grew.