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Date: 13/06/17

Strange Tongues

Those of you who enjoy pondering a little on the nature of language might enjoy this essay from Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University.

One thing he doesn't touch upon which I've had thoughts about down the years is the oddity of some languages - Germanic and Slavic ones out of the languages close to hand in Europe - in putting an adjective before the noun. Surely it makes better sense to say what a thing is before you go on to describe what sort of a thing it is?

I mean, take this sentence:

"He went to get a pair of black shoes"

Now compare it with the equivalent in Welsh:

"Mi aeth i gael pÔr o esgidiau du"

(Literally: (he) went to get a pair of shoes black")

What would happen if you got cut off in mid sentence? At least with the Welsh you would know what it was he went to get. In English, you would know that whatever it was was black, but you wouldn't have a hope in hell of knowing precisely what it was that was black, e.g.:

"He went to get a pair of black...."

Well, what? A pair of black rocks? Black mambas?

Actually languages are, of course, not remotely logical, and part of the reason for the failure of such as Esperanto as I see it is that the more-or-less logical operation of them simply feels wrong to anyone (that is to say, everyone) brought up to speak a 'natural' language, one which has developed, changed, augmented or regressed over many generations. This is also why such as Google Translate and similar mechanistic methods of conversion often have hilarious results (or not hilarious at all if you remember the tale of how the catastrophic war between the Vl'hurgs and the G'Gugvuntts broke out). Or as Peter Ustinov said about the tonal nature of the Chinese languages, "You can say the most terrible things in them if you don't have a musical ear".

In all seriousness, languages are part of the immense richness of civilisation, and the death of a language - be it through neglect, imposition or simply diminishing numbers - is a diminution of the culture of the whole world and yet another step on the way to a mindlessly mushy conformity which must at all points be resisted.

(With thanks to the folks at BoingBoing for the link. The title of this piece is an oblique reference to this song by the late, great Vivian Stanshall)