The Conflict of Language Purity and Language Evolution

Many people across the world feel that their mother tongues or national language is threatened by the presence of English as a universal lingua franca. Over the years, the growth of the US as a superpower, and the preponderance of Great Britain in the Imperial Age as a major power has driven English into the communities of many countries. Languages import words from English to accommodate technological advances, and in a rapidly advancing age, some languages may find it difficult to keep up.

In an effort to keep languages alive and in use, communities across the world advocate a sort of linguistic purification, in which all imported words of English origin (or other ones for that matter) are not accepted as a part of the standard language. Due to the nature of language evolution, which (as I see it) is to tend toward simplicity, efficiency, and conciseness, this view of language presents a bit of a problem.

A policy to purify language is inherently difficult to legislate anything regarding language, as it is hard to change the way one communicates every day. In places like India, where there are multiple, distinct regional languages, it would be an extremely difficult task to change even the use of Hindi, as has been proven in the past. Movements to stop using words of Arabic and Persian origin held some ground for a time in India, but ultimately fell apart, due to the difficulty of using Sanskrit-ized Hindi. Sanskrit, as a classical language that fell out of use long ago, has not had any time to develop in the modern era, which accounts for a lack of technological vocabulary. Also, it hasn’t been exposed to much colloquial or public use over an extended period of time, and therefore, the structures in the language have not simplified to suit modern use. It made little sense to import a slew of difficult-to-pronounce words into the language of everyday life and thereby slow down communication. Sure, given time, it might have worked, but Sanskrit was well past its time, and it was largely reserved to the higher classes of Indian society and liturgical use, even in its heyday. Therefore, most academic discussion in STEM fields in India is often conducted in English rather than Hindi, making it more a language of the masses than one of science and technology. This has occurred in a similar manner for the regional languages.

Despite complaints that a language is no longer, “pure”, it is important to recognize that the import of words into a language does not necessarily mean the language itself will die. Borrowing words does not imply the replacement of the language, as demonstrated by languages such as Hindi and Tagalog. Hindi developed a flourishing and beautiful literary tradition under Mughal rule and borrowed many words from Arabic and Farsi, and the language is still in rather lively use today. Tagalog’s use of many Spanish words allowed it to develop a significant urban use, as these words allowed communication about modern technology and life. As a result, Tagalog is alive and well in the Philippines.

Therefore, I believe that it is counterintuitive and counterproductive to promote or impose “purity” of a language. As much as I’d hate to admit it, it cannot be helped that English is used instead of other languages in academic fields.The only reason that English has it all, is because much of modern technology was developed, documented, and researched in English-speaking, or at least Western, countries. However, I think that this allows languages to develop in other ways. The English language and the proliferation of technology across the world has brought many societies up to speed, and open up a number of opportunities for those societies to innovate themselves. When those innovations were brought to nations without those things, such as Britain brought things to India, they were a sort of anachronism, and the languages experienced a jump in time, so to speak. It is important to recognize the nature of language evolution and that it cannot be stopped or rewound.

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The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.

A Commentary on the English Language

Despite the fact that English is my best language, I find that it is incredibly troublesome as a world language. People feel compelled to speak English because nations like America and Britain speak English as the official language, but the fact is the English is damn hard. The only simple tenses are the preterite and present tenses. Pretty much everything else requires a helping or auxiliary verb, such as willhave, or might. Moreover, the most common and useful verbs follow no specific pattern in conjugations. For example, using normal logic to try and fit patterns into English, the verb to tell conjugated in the past would be telled. But no, it is toldEnglish is incredibly irregular and annoying to try to understand if you’re not a native speaker. We have all sorts of weird idioms that don’t really have equivalents in other languages. Sure you can argue that this is the case for every language, but English, I feel, is the worst offender. And personally, English is not even particularly pretty, musical, or rhythmic.

It is for this reason, to improve communication, and simply as a courtesy to other non-English speaking nations, we either adopt a simpler, even a constructed, language to speak for business and trade purposes, much like French in the 13th to 17th centuries, or we further encourage the education of our citizens in foreign language, which I think would be accomplished by extended foreign language requirements even in college or, more easily, high school. One year more, I think would help a lot. But, this is just my opinion. I would love to hear your comments!