Babel is one of those pre-historic, mythic, biblical references which has been transformed into the title of a movie, countless software programs, and quite a few companies. Still, most of us remain fuzzy about the actual origin. From Wikipedia:
According to the narrative in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built to reach the heavens by a united humanity. God, observing the unity of humanity in the construction, resolves to destroy the tower and confuse the previously uniform language of humanity, thereby preventing any such future efforts. An interpretive account of the story explains the tower’s destruction in terms of humankind’s deficiency in comparison to God: within a religious framework, humankind is considered to be an inherently flawed creation dependent on a perfect being for its existence, and thus the construction of the tower is a potentially hubristic act of defiance towards the God who created them.
Crazy shit, right? God doesn’t want people to get along and so she doesn’t allow them to communicate. (As a side note, this is also what God does when she doesn’t want a relationship to work.)
The Babel Fish, meanwhile, comes from a book we can all agree is fiction, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Again, from Wikipedia: “The Babel fish is a fictional species of fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, that can instantly translate any language to any other language.” Hence the name for AltaVista’s popular translation service. (Both Google Translate and AltaVista’s Babelfish use software by SYSTRAN, a company founded back in 1968 in my old stomping grounds of La Jolla. Google is now developing their own translation system with a different approach.) It’s fun to daydream about the future possibilities of machine translation just like it’s fun to envision multiculti publications which are simultaneously available in dozens if not hundreds of languages. But, as we’ve realized at Global Voices, making those inspiring fantasies become reality is a different story.
It’s important to note, as Patrick Hall and Ethan Zuckerman previously have, that this latest data mark a change from the days when English was by far the dominant language of the web. But just because the English slice of the pie is decreasing, does that give us reason to celebrate an increase in language diversity?
Marinate on this: according to the Endangered Language Fund, there are currently around 6,000 languages spoken in the world, half of which will disappear by the end of this century. That number is more of an interpretation than a statistic; after all, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” Fifteen minutes of clicking through Ethnologue will give you a better idea of just how many languages are spoken in this small world of ours and how many are disappearing.
But here’s the really tough question: is the internet – and more specifically, the blogosphere – accelerating or buffering the loss of languages? And here’s an equally tough question: why does it even matter if we lose languages? Isn’t it a good thing if we all speak the same language? Isn’t that the Babelian ideal in the first place?
Let’s start in Flagstaff, at Northern Arizona University, one of the many college campuses I once called my own, and where I had planned on taking Navajo language classes had I not moved back to San Diego. In an anthology titled Stabilizing Indigenous Languages, Joshua Fishman asks, “What Do You Lose When You Lose Your Language?” His main points:
- The individual experiences angst when adapting to a new language (worried about getting metaphors right, that his/her children will speak better than (s)he, etc.)
- Language is the glue that holds culture together. When language is lost (for example, Navajo on the reservation), then the culture unravels. What would German culture be without the German language?
- When you lose language you lose the original accounts of the myths and literature that are critical in defining the group’s morals and values. Sure a myth can be translated into another language (like the Epic of Sundiata), but just imagine Cervantes no longer available in his native Spanish or Shakespeare no longer available in English. I’m sure there are many fine translations of both Hamlet and Don Quixote, but anyone who wants to experience the literary genius of both men must read them in their original languages.
- Language has implications for kinship and how we relate to our ancestors. When we don’t speak the same language as our ancestors (for example, I speak neither French nor German), then we feel less connected to them.
But Fishman, early on, is willing to admit that both culture and language are constantly changing. When an individual or even a group of individuals decide to stop speaking their mother tongue … or their mother’s mother tongue, life, it goes on. And, often times, life goes on with a financial incentive. Languages have economic values. There is more of an economic incentive to learn English than Spanish and more of an economic incentive to learn Spanish than Zapotec. And so, when a young Zapotec speaker starts wondering how he can make something out of his life – as we all do at some point – he considers moving to Mexico City, where there are more employment opportunities. When he realizes he must learn to read and write to get a job, he decides to learn to read and write in Spanish, not his native Zapotec.
And when his sons and daughters grow up in a working class neighborhood in Mexico City, they probably don’t spend too much time worrying about the fact that they don’t speak Zapotec or that they’re not in tune with their ancestral culture. It’s much more likely that they’re downloading mp3’s and trying to figure out how to study abroad in the US.
In fact, those of us who seem to be most concerned with the loss of indigenous languages and cultures tend to be White and wealthy and, some would argue, with too much time on our hands. This is a point made over and over again by “Thor“, a linguist lecturer, and roving ESL wanderer. His focus is less on the loss of language diversity and more on the self-interest of those who are leading attempts to stem it. Why should I concern myself with the impending extinction of, say, Kurrama? What does the loss of that language mean to me, to its speakers, and to the rest of the world? Furthermore, isn’t there a gross paternalism for me to lament the fact that Kurrama speakers are switching to English while also recognizing that the shift will open up more opportunities for them?
Friend and Global Voices colleague, Ethan Zuckerman has written eloquently about the importance of supporting efforts to preserve Swahili in the digital age. But we should also remember that the spread of Swahili (a Bantu language with heavy Persian, Arabic, and Portuguese influence) across East Africa has led to the decline of dozens of lesser-known languages throughout Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, just like English, Spanish, and Russian, Swahili fits many of the characteristics of a ‘colonial language.’ From Wikipedia:
With the declining use of ethnic languages in Tanzania and the rise of Kiswahili as a first language, the number of Swahili native speakers can be estimated to be about 40 million, while general speakers number over 100 million.  Swahili has become a lingua franca in much of East Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is now the only African language among the official working languages of African Union. Kiswahili is also taught in the major universities in the world, and several international media outlets, such as the BBC, Voice of America and Xinhua have Kiswahili programs.
There is little doubt of whether or not Swahili will survive into the digital age. There is already a firmly established Swahili blogosphere telling stories, debating issues, and offering valuable tips and resources. There are also many bilingual speakers who serve as bridges between Swahili and English. But what about Kahe, Kisankasa, and Maraba? Will those languages survive into the digital era? Highly doubtful.
Should more be done to preserve them? If Makwe speakers in Mozambique decide to concentrate on becoming literate in Portuguese rather than preserving Makwe, does that result in more good or bad? If we most certainly cannot maintain 6,000 different languages in our increasingly global economy and conversation, then where do we focus our efforts?
To end on a note of optimism (anyone who has made it down this far, bless your heart), we should remember that Welsh was once considered a soon-to-be-extinct language. There is now, however, a strong Welsh blogging and Wikipedia community. Hebrew was once also thought to be a dead language until revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Now, Hebrew also has a strong blogging and wikipedia community. Will the same hold true for Zapotec and Garifuna?
Only time will tell.
(Those of you interested in the preservation/sustainability of indigenous languages, I highly recommend the blog Living Languages.)