Wednesday 27 October 2010

Putting languages to work

Languages are fascinating things: everybody talks about them, and nobody knows what they are. Try? Question: “What is English?” Answer: “English is the language spoken in... oh. I see.” The next question might be: “Er... is English one language?”

This is also a very good question, which means that we have no answer to it either. Some people talk, for example, about Englishes (this is not a typo; there is even an academic journal with the word in its title). I particularly like this word, because it serves to dodge the difficulty of defining what English in the singular is: if you can’t define something, just give it another name and then start talking about that name. By the same logic, there must also be Spanishes, Swahilis and Chineses, among big languages, and Danishes and Finnishes, among tiny ones, only we didn’t know we could call them so.

Some people will say that Englishes in the plural must mean that there are many (different) Englishes; others will argue that giving the name Englishes to different uses of English simply shows that they are all in fact the same thing, English. Some will insist that Old English is also the same English; others will counter that saying so amounts to saying that Latin and French are also the same language. You can check out the sound and text files of Beowulf, the Old English epic, to try to work this out for yourself.

Since we don’t know what “a language” might be, we have no way of telling how many languages there are either. I will talk about the number of languages that a multilingual can be said to have (or not have) in a future post but, for the time being, have a look at the Ethnologue. This is the most authoritative reference on world languages, and its introductory page explains why counting languages is a tricky matter. Notice that the database includes sign languages, in which we can be multilingual too, and about which I will have something to say in my next post. A very entertaining collection of facts (and myths) about languages is Mikael Parkvall’s book, Limits of Language.

The reason why we can’t define language boundaries is that there are no language boundaries. Just take a walk across a walkable border between two countries. If you stand here, you use language X; if you move one inch towards there, you use Y. (If you straddle the border, you risk becoming multilingual.) But in practice, on the ground, you use neither X nor Y, you use something that sometimes reminds of X and sometimes of Y. The clear-cut correlation of languages with countries has nothing to do with the nature of language and all to do with the nature of political decisions. The reason why there are no language boundaries is that languages are working tools. Very, very flexible ones, and very, very user-friendly. They don’t just change from century to century and from continent to continent, they change all the time and everywhere for the simple reason that we are using them all the time, everywhere. When we use, we adapt.

Did “using neither X nor Y” ring a bell? Multilinguals are often accused of doing just this, and of doing it because they are multilinguals. They should stick to each of their languages, the recommendation goes, and respect the integrity of each. But, honestly, what is the integrity of something whose boundaries you cannot pinpoint, even for monolingual uses? We find reason to create uses of language every day, whether we have one language or many. We discover, invent, borrow useful things, and we naturally do the same with language that allows us to talk usefully about them. To mention but words, phlogiston, leeching or telegram were household items in their time, just like DNA, collider or cyberspace are in ours. Or robot, ombudsman, typhoon, and other international words. We need these words because they do a job for us, which is what languages are there for: to be put to work in order to serve our needs.

Languages at work mean languaging (not a typo either), a word that I also like very much because its -ing neatly reflects the dynamic nature of human language use and language management. It would be surprising to find a multilingual whose linguistic repertoire were boxed up into watertight single languages. As surprising, in fact, as finding clear-cut language boundaries to match political boundaries, where people move across as they please. Languages are not museum pieces and we, the users, are not their curators. Languages are living things because we are alive.

Treating languages as possibilities, and multilinguals as fully-fledged participants in exploring their resources, is not a daunting task. The infinite variety found in single languages has not hindered prolific research and discussion about monolingual uses of language. There should therefore be no problem either in producing as much data about multilingual uses. The usual excuse that multilingualism is just too “complex”, as if monolingualism were “simple”, is a bad excuse.

I’ll have to leave the issue of language standards to another day. First, because standardisation is a Big Endeavour: infinity is of course unmanageable, but must somehow be made to behave itself; second, because infinity, being infinite, doesn’t end here. If you think that language variation is enough to keep us busy for life, what can we say about the other variation that necessarily comes with it? I mean all those other languages, like frowns, eye contact and overall physical posture which, like linguistic variation, also depend on cultural norms. This is what we find out next.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Talking bodies and listening eyes. Saturday 30th October 2010.


  1. "...nobody knows what they are"
    "...Since we don’t know what “a language” might be"

    Language (Oxford, 2012): "The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way."


  2. Anonymous: the Oxford definition that you quote concerns “language”, not “a language” or “languages” – and leaves out sign language. You may find these two posts of interest to you:

    Language and language

    Talking bodies and listening eyes

    Thank you for your contribution to this discussion!



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