Monday, July 31, 2017


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What's lost when a language disappears? Consider this analogy: Language is to humans as the ocean is to the planet. Simple. No language, no people. Or, looked at another way, how strange would it be if there were just one fish in the ocean?

To those who argue that biodiversity is a tempest in a teacup, the loss of language no doubt seems entirely inconsequential. That view seems too narrow to merit any consideration. If you wore blinders that limited your range of vision to a just a few degrees either side, what would you see? More importantly, what would you not see?

biolinguistics - the evolution of language

Tunnel vision is the name for this condition. By analogy, those people with a limited, literal viewpoint are said to suffer from tunnel vision.

A simple example is found in the French word chapeau. Literally, it means 'hat'. Figuratively, it is an exclamation that means 'I take my hat off to you' or 'good job', 'kudos' and the like. In Canada, the word is also used as a substitute for the name of the province of Quebec.

Every word has both a denotation and a connotation. The primary, or literal meaning is its denotation. The other ideas and feelings that the word invokes comprise its connotation. Quite often, the invoked meaning is so subtle that only native speakers understand the nuance.

The origin of words and language continues to be controversial. Biolinguistics studies this problem; and argues that language is innate, that it is more akin to the color of our eyes than our ability to multiply. This theory states that the basic components of language---grammar and syntax, for example---have evolved just as animals and plants have done. If we are ever to fully understand how we think, and thus why we behave as we do, biolinguistics is the path that will lead us to the answer.

The loss of a language then becomes far more critical than the simple disappearance of some remote linguistic group. Language is who we are. And, as poet John Donne wrote, 'no man is an island, entire of itself ... any man's death diminishes me ...'

Each language lost diminishes us all.

Vive le différence.

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