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SAY WHAT? LINGUISTIC VARIETY ABOUNDS

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QUESTION: Why are there so many languages?

ANSWER: The real question is, why don't the Russians learn an easier language? They forgot to put in vowels! It sounds a little like English spoken backward. "Perestroika" said backward is "I buried Paul." Check it out.In any case, the question is, why do people still speak, for example, Manx? Yes, there's a language called Manx. It has, according to the journal "Linguistic Geography," "half a dozen" fluent speakers. That would be six, yes? And what do you bet half of them aren't even good conversationalists.

The strange fact is, in the British Isles, where you'd think people had a perfect excuse to speak English, they speak all sorts of tongues. Cornish, for example, is an entirely separate language, no doubt named after the hen. It has a couple hundred speakers. About a half million inhabitants of Wales still speak Welsh, a like number of Frenchmen speak Breton. In Scotland there are 80,000 speakers of Gaelic, and in Ireland there are 340,000 who speak a completely different version of Gaelic that is sometimes called simply "Irish." Even though Welsh is spoken by people living geographically right next door to people who speak English, Welsh is a Celtic language and English is Germanic. English has more in common with Icelandic or Flemish or Afrikaans than it does with Welsh.

All over the world, people are struggling to understand one another. In Spain, Basque is not even distantly related to Castilian. India has 150 languages and only 30 percent of the population speaks Hindi. On the relatively small island of New Guinea there are hundreds of languages. There are about 3,000 languages around the world. Why so many?

1. It's hard for two people to sound alike. We are clumsy mimics. This may seem like an obvious comment, but if you pause for a moment you'll realize that this is the perfect explanation of a worldwide phenomenon. It takes relatively little isolation to get a good accent going, and with a little more separation that becomes a dialect and then a separate language.

2. People like to have their own code, because they want to be different. Language is probably the most powerful tool for social organization. If you want to restrict who's in the club, or make members dependent on the club, you establish a code language and enforce it.

Both of these explanations imply that two or three or even 100 languages can sprout out of a common source, that languages ought to multiply over time rather than decrease in number. That's exactly what has happened. For example, English is related to Sanskrit - the ancient language of India. There is a whole class of languages called "Indo-European," which share common grammatical structures and similar-sounding verbs, and which span a vast distance, from Iceland to India (but which do not include some languages in between, such as Basque). Take the word "birch." In German it is "birke," in Lithuanian "berzas," in Old Slavonic "breza" and in Sanskrit "bhurja." Close enough.

Linguists and archaeologists think the Indo-European languages may have descended from an original tongue, spoken by people who came from some long-forgotten homeland, the "Urheimat," to use the German term. No one knows where this homeland was.

Colin Renfrew, author of "Archaeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins," says the languages were slowly spread from east to west along with the techniques of agriculture. The first farmers in Europe lived in Greece and Crete around 6500 BC, and by the year 3500 BC there was farming as far west as Scotland.

This doesn't mean that no one knew how to speak before they knew how to farm. It is presumed that all modern humans - the Homo sapiens who came along as recently as 35,000 years ago - had language skills that set them apart from earlier humans, such as the Neanderthal. Before the farmers fanned across Europe there were already people living there, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, but they would not have been as prosperous as the farmers, and as they became a numerical minority of the population their language would have been supplanted by the new Indo-European tongue.

Now we are seeing a reversal of the old process of language dispersal and differentiation. English is in an imperialistic phase, encroaching on the territory of other tongues. As of 1986, about 400 million people spoke English, second only to Mandarin Chinese. English is the language of international business. Airline pilots around the world speak in English to the control towers. The Welsh language, by contrast, is spoken by half as many people today as at the beginning of the century. Moreover, languages get watered down by English words, a process called "code mixing." That eventually leads to "code switching," in which the speaker stumbles or struggles in the original language and switches into English.

Language decline signals the homogenization of the world. Within a couple of decades it will be almost impossible to find a single person - even a Stone Age tribesman in Borneo - who hasn't ordered the Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny's and been forced to decide between two bacon and two sausage or four of either meat.

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