A Common Misunderstanding

I recently attended an interview with the great filmmaker and writer Werner Herzog over at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. It was a wide-ranging discussion full of insights and laughs, with Werner being his usual charming and quirky self. But he said one thing that I disagree with, something that I’ve heard several times before. He lamented the extinction of human language. He went so far as to say that the loss of human languages was as grave a threat as the loss of animal species.

Werner is not wrong about this happening. Some of the numbers from The Language Conservency:

Right now, 9 languages a year, or one every 40 days, cease to be spoken. By 2080, the rate will rise to 16 languages per year. By the middle of the next century, we will be losing our linguistic heritage at the rate of 26 languages each year—one every two weeks. If we do not tackle the problem of language loss, more than half of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.

Yes, it is happening. And I think this is a very good thing.

Change is scary. So much so that when change happens, we tend to get scared right away without asking ourselves whether or not the change is an improvement or a catastrophe. We tend to assume catastrophe. We are wired this way.

It makes sense. To be here at all means the world was amenable to our existence. Change might threaten this. But may I suggest a thought experiment when we notice something is changing: play the film in reverse.

Let’s imagine some weird sci-fi scenario where every day we woke up and some portion of the human population could not speak with some other portion. New languages were appearing at a rate of 9 a year. Growing to 16 per year. Folks who could formerly speak to one another were now needing to do a lot of work to translate their thoughts. Languages and cultures were becoming more distinct and fractured. Human culture became less global and more tribal, shrinking and shrinking as the number of new languages continued to explode!

This dystopian nightmare is how deities were said to have punished humans in our religious myths. It’s the Tower of Babel, a story in which we lose our collective power because we can no longer communicate, coordinate, pool our thoughts and wisdom. The loss of language is a reversal of this punishment. It’s a coming together, a union of the human spirit and soul, a growth of communication and understanding. The opposite would be far worse.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preserve and record human languages for prosperity if possible. They are unique and interesting, and it’s a worthwhile hobby to spend some energy on. But the gnashing of teeth is a bit overdone.

A big change that poses a major problem for us is global warming, but here again it’s worth employing our thought experiment. By many estimations, we should be going into another ice age right about now. Industrialization may have staved that off, and in fact may have made future ice ages unlikely to ever occur. It’s easy to imagine the effects on civilization if the change in temperature that we are concerned about was heading in the opposite direction. Glaciers would encroach and then topple cities, gouging out the very land on which they rest. The habitable zone would shrink, compressing mankind toward the equator. We would be racing to expel greenhouse gasses to stop the cooling and save all the ecosystems destroyed by the gathering ice and shrinking seas.

We aren’t going through that, thankfully. The change that’s happening is far from ideal, but it might not be as bad as the inverse. Trees and plants have more food in the atmosphere, rather than less. Ice is receding rather than marching inexorably toward our homes and cities and fragile ecosystems. We will likely find that we can limit the rate of warming and find a stasis, and that future warmings and coolings will be solvable problems.

Or we might discover in some distant, hopeful future, that change in and of itself is not the worst thing imaginable. We are just wired to think this is so, and to mutter about it incomprehensibly amongst ourselves.

12 responses to “A Common Misunderstanding”

  1. While climate change is a problem and it needs to be delt with, I believe that another ice age would be far more devastating. Lucky for us, we stumbled into the knowledge of how to prevent an Ice Age. Now we just need to learn how to control the thermostat.

  2. I sometimes think social media algorithms are a form of this. Sending groups of people deep into a self affirming pathway until they lose the ability to understand people from outside / within other algorithms.

  3. I have to disagree respectfully (although to be fair I document endangered languages professionally, so I’m obviously not entirely objective). Studies have shown that language shift is often attended by various social diseases, such as mental illness, alcoholism and other substance abuse, etc. More disconcerting is the knowledge that is being lost: oral epics, oral histories, and the products of thousands of years of experimentation on things like plant medicine. When languages die, these things inevitably die with them, because these types of indigenous knowledges are as deprecated as the languages in which they are transmitted.

    I have no objections to people learning a common language for whatever reason and don’t think that language death is at all unnatural. My main concern is that languages are disappearing far, far faster than we can document them and the knowledge they contain. As Bob Dixon says, if every Linguistics department required each PhD candidate to document one language as part of their program, the prospects for preserving this part of our shared human heritage would be quite rosey; unfortunately, I doubt that one in twenty are doing this.



  5. Dear Hugh, I love your books, but I am not sure that the idea like “fewer languages would mean fewer conflicts” can be defended against experimental facts. I’ll leave that to sociology majors if they want a topic for a dissertation ;-)

    My 5 cents:

    – I use up to 4 languages in my life and work, every day. I can attest to the fact that there are certain situations, problems and ideas that are better dealt with in German, for example, than in Portuguese. English has also its moments, btw ;-)

    – This results in a completely different approach to my own human existence. That experience is something that I cannot fully fathom (let alone describe in words), but the best approximation would be to say that every new language that I have learned so far is for me like a new dimension in space. Would could that mean, if it is true in any way? For most of the people from the United States (as an example), to speak English and to speak Spanish would mean that your mental patterns have two dimensions. Now imagine adding another dimension to that two-dimensional space, and you will get a feeling that comes with mastering another language…

    – I also believe that being multilingual has improved my ability to understand other people. Once you are aware of the abyss that lies between the mental patterns that are mapped between two languages, it is much easier to find a way to reach another human being, regardless of the communication path (at least in my experience). And, more importantly, you are much better equipped to understand the misconceptions and fallacies of the culture/language in which you grew up. Immersing yourself in a foreign language and culture is perhaps the best antidote to tribalism – of which the recent war in Israel is just another sad fact.

    – Also, never forget Paul Valery’s quote: “War: a massacre of people who don’t know each other for the benefit of people who know each other but don’t massacre each other.”
    When and if conflict occurs, other factors are crucial – and the language barrier is only a barrier if the conflicting groups instrumentalize it as such.

    Or simply put, if language is the only factor in the game, any kind of civil war would be impossible.

    Your turn now ;-)

    1. Right, some constitutionally multilingual societies (e.g., Canada, Switzerland, Singapore) are almost boringly stable, and some of our most bloody conflicts (the US Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda) have happened in effectively monolingual countries between speakers of the same language.

      1. There is an ancient quote from a Roman general that goes something like this: “The only thing worse than a civil war is to win it”. While I can’t remember his name, anyone with even a remote connection to a civil war can understand why. During the 1990s, I spoke with many simple, ordinary people from the former Yugoslavia who had experienced the ravages of civil war. Not one of them wanted to see a conflict again, anytime, anywhere. They didn’t even wish a war upon their worst enemies.
        This ought to serve as a lesson to both politicians and flag-wavers alike. Alas, personal experience is the only way to understand the true cost of war.

    2. The genocide in Palestine is not a war.

      One side has a military. One side has running water.

      1. One side possesses superior resources, weaponry, and is presumably more inclined to employ them, leading to increased casualties through the deployment of bombs, mortars, bullets, and imposed shortage of fundamental necessities like water and food. This is the true essence of a war – any war. Only this time it is perhaps more in your face than usual.

        Every war is a murder with a big “M”, so, (mostly) a state sponsored mass murder. I am indifferent to the legal definition of genocide, although it is crucial one in a court, along with the terms “occupier” and “occupy” (a side note: I could not despise more the people capable of killing a defenseless human being, but I do not see even a modicum of chivalry in a so called “fair fight”). Even if you could separate civilians from the combatants and give those two groups in the conflict the same weaponry, supply lines and command/control capabilities, there is a reason why the military wants to recruit young men: only young men are strong enough and stupid enough to endure a war. But they will bear the scars afterwards, and their souls will continue to burn. No one goes through a war unchanged.

  6. Annette Martinak Avatar

    Spot on!! Would you please run for office? We need thinkers like you!

  7. Agreed

  8. Hector Blanco de Frutos Avatar
    Hector Blanco de Frutos

    Hiello Hugh.
    I have to disagree, but I think the scifi scenario you propose is flawed.
    I don’t think there is a problem in a situation where 9 (or more) languages appear every week. The fact a group of people start to speak in those new languages doesn’t mean they abruptly stop to speak and understand the older language they used to communicate.
    For example I can speak two languages natively (spanish and catalan), and the fact I speak one doesn’t mean I can’t speak or understand the other. In fact, at work we can use the two alternatively even in the same conversation.
    In my view, more languages mean more culture richness. Of course, not at the expense of narrower communication capability.

    By the way, I’m glad to participate on your blog. I’m a happy new reader of your books.

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