Re: Languages, "modern" and otherwise

Susan L. Nielsen (snielsen@OREDNET.ORG)
Thu, 22 Aug 1996 20:21:20 -0700

Gary Goodman queries, perhaps scratching his chin in speculation:

>So perhaps the Latin example is not a bad starting place -- what effects
>upon European culture in general and within ethnic and national groups
>did Latin have? And does it offer clues to what the 'Englishification'
>of the globe that seems fairly certain will bring us from an
>anthropological point of view?

Certainly, one consequence of the use of Latin by the Church was
to keep works of learning out of the minds of the people. Without
Latin, which was taught, of course, only by clerics and only to
the favored few, no individual seeking to understand the world
had access to the thoughts of prior generations of scholars. When
Galileo, for instance, published his heretical words in Italian,
they were far more dangerous to the Church than they would have
been had he written them in Latin. No wonder he had such troubles.

If the effect of the use of Latin by clerical scholars was to
cloister knowledge within the Church, the effect of publication
in the vernacular was entirely opposite. The use of vernacular
languages (Romance languages for the most part early on (an
irony for Latinists)) for discussion of scholarly material
was intolerable, but, like the rising tide, irresistable. It
is certain the Church heard the great sucking sound almost at

During the period rightly known as the European Dark Ages, a
great deal of science and history was maintained in the vernacular
of the Middle East: Arabic. Without the scholars of Islam, much
more would have been lost to western science and philosophy than
the Church was, at last, able to suppress. It was the eruption
of learning into common languages that gave us the Renaissance
in Europe.

If learning, proliferated into diverse languages in the
Renaissance, permitted wide exchange of ideas and new insights,
is there a danger in the trend to concentrate scholarly material
into English now? I would think not. English is not a language
of the special few. It is, if anything, the most cosmopolitan
of languages, absorbing with facility that which its users
require from other languages. As it becomes more and more common
for information to be exchanged across national borders and, now,
even across the space between planetary bodies and orbiting
vessels, it makes sense that it be carried by a single idiom,
whether it be English or some other. At this moment, it does
appear that English is the default setting. This is not to address
the matter of its tendency to colonize other languages and cultures
-- the prospect of loss of uniqueness and identity to an invading
language is a real one for speakers of any idiom associated
with distinct ethnic self.

Susan Nielsen

Susan Nielsen, Shambles Workshops      |"...Gently down the
Portland, OR, USA                      |stream..."                   |           -- Anon.