Cultural Caviar

Choose Your Words Wisely

January 04, 2017

That may be because the Japanese are terrible at learning English. Although six years of English-language instruction is mandatory in Japanese schools, few students seem to actually develop any level of functionality with English.

Perhaps the Japanese don’t really want to learn English because they suspect that, while Americans have lots of cool-looking stuff, American ideas tend to be naive and would quickly prove self-destructive in a country less immense and isolated than the USA.

In America, it’s widely assumed that the global spread of English will unleash an unprecedented era of creativity. And yet history suggests that universal languages lead to stagnation, while differentiation of national languages encourages progress.

The nations of early modern Europe, for example, leaped ahead as their elites increasingly abandoned Latin for the vernacular of their lowly townsmen. The Italian Renaissance largely began with Dante’s decision to write in Tuscan Italian rather than Latin, while the English Renaissance stretches from Chaucer composing in humble English rather than in Norman French to Shakespeare’s triumphant post–Spanish Armada nationalism.

Another extraordinarily creative age in human history, classical Greece, began with the writing down of the Homeric works, which provided the culture with defining national epics.

Cultural progress appears to need some regional standardization of language, but not too much.

In contrast, the spread of Latin across Western Europe seemed to bring on stagnation. Likewise, the diffusion of Arabic across the Middle East and North Africa eventually led to backwardness, as Arabic script’s high aesthetic standards were deemed too fine for the newly invented printing press.

Something similar may be happening in China at present as Mandarin displaces other spoken dialects, such as Cantonese.

Freeman Dyson, perhaps the last survivor of the legendary generation of physicists who contributed to the WWII war effort, offered a general theory in his 1979 book Disturbing the Universe of why national languages are superior to universal ones:

It is true that a world with a universal common language would be a simpler world for bureaucrats and administrators to manage. But there is strong evidence…that plasticity and diversity of languages played an essential role in human evolution. It is not just an inconvenient historical accident that we have a variety of languages. It was nature’s way to make it possible for us to evolve rapidly…. Biological progress came from random genetic fluctuations that could be significant only in small and genetically isolated communities. To keep a small community genetically isolated and to enable it to evolve new social institutions, it was vitally important that the new members of the community could be quickly separated from their neighbors by barriers of language.

The coming global monoculture of English could be highly productive…until it’s not. Monocultures in agriculture aren’t terribly resilient to unexpected problems. The potato, for instance, provided much of Ireland’s calories until blight struck in the 1840s.

What could go wrong if everybody who is anybody in the world gets their media ideas served to them in English?

The most likely is the most obvious: The English-language media would indoctrinate the world with the self-serving idea that any ideas that conflict with the dominion of the English-language media, such as that humanity would be better off with national diversity, are crimes against the sacred value of diversity.

Sure, conformity in the name of diversity doesn’t make much sense, but when did that stop anybody?

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