April 2010 | Home
For generations of Michigan alumni, senior canes unlocked the vaults of memory. Plus video.
To save its season, U-M's ice hockey team had to unify itself around an unlikely hero.
"We hope that, having found overwhelming evidence of who the real killers are, the prosecution will consider bringing to justice the killer who is still out there walking the streets," said U-M law professor David Moran.
As part of our movie issue, we look at U-M grads who have made a mark in the film industry.
How much should we fear a "scattering" of the English language?
An online magazine for alumni and friends of U-M.
April 14, 2010
In Genesis, people decide to build a tower up to the heavens for two reasons. One, to make a "name" for themselves as great builders; the other, so they would not be "scattered" on the face of the earth.
They make a heroic beginning, but divine forces punish them by confusing their tongues so they cannot understand each other. The Tower of Babel has been a monument in Judeo-Christian imagination ever since. Most people think the story is about pride: the audacity of making a "name." But there's also the other side and that's fear: that people will wander away and not find their way home without a tall beacon to guide them back.
Lots of ideas swirl around the Tower. What was the language spoken before the tongues were confused? Some have thought it must be Hebrew, but in the Renaissance one thinker promoted the idea that it was Dutch. (Guess what language he spoke.) Another notion was that people got better or worse languages depending on the degree of their guilt in forming the prideful plan. One Italian used this approach to explain why Italian was a better language than German.
In 1756, Samuel Johnson reviewed an American book and noted that it was not free "of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed." He took it for granted that before long, people in the colonies would be speaking a language unintelligible to people in Britain. A century later, in 1877, an expert on the history of English, Henry Sweet, estimated that in another hundred years "England, America, and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages, owing to their independent changes of pronunciation."
English has not been subject to the principle stated by Johnson and Sweet: that diffusion leads to corruption and unintelligibility. When the Normans invaded England, they soon gave up French and began speaking English. Only in Ireland, in the fourteenth century, did English begin to decline as settlers from England assimilated to Gaelic. A law passed in Kilkenny declared that they should resume speaking English, and, if the men entered into marriage or other sexual connections with Irish women, they would forfeit their property or even their freedom. It didn't work, of course, but soon English revived.
In America, there were fears that German would displace English, first in eastern Pennsylvania early in the nineteenth century, and then in the heartland coming to a climax during and after the first world war when German schools, church services, and newspapers were shut down by official action. Nowadays there are efforts to suppress the use of Spanish, and they are similarly unnecessary since the spread of English steadily continues.
Nowadays most people who speak English speak other languages as well. Visiting South Africa, I asked teachers what languages they used fluently. The white teachers said English and Afrikaans and perhaps another language to talk to the people who tended their yards or cooked their food. The black teachers said English, Afrikaans, and three or four other languages, and they spoke them fluently. In the South African constitution there are now eleven official languages, and there are more that do not enjoy "official" status.
Fear of confusion and unintelligibility persists. English speakers, however, have little to worry about if the past can be said to predict the future.