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A Venezuelan and a Brazilian are seated next to each other on an airplane, and the two manage to make small talk for the duration of the flight, even though they claim to speak different languages. Likewise, a person from Shanghai and another from Hong Kong are seated next to each other but cannot make themselves understood, even though they both claim to speak Chinese. Common sense suggests that two people speak the same language if they can communicate with each other and different languages if they cannot. However, linguist Tore Janson, in his 2002 book "Speak: A Short History of Languages," maintains that mutually intelligibility is not the best test of whether two modes of speech are the same or different languages. Rather, the key is the speakers' own attitudes about the language they use.
For most of human history, people lived in small, isolated groups, and each group had its own identity and language. Some parts of the world, such as Amazonia, the Australian outback and Papua New Guinea, are still like this. However, with the introduction of agriculture between five and ten thousand years ago, we see the rise of nation-states unifying millions of people with a single language. Thus, although the human population has been expanding exponentially, the number of different languages spoken is actually decreasing.
This has been the general trend for at least the last three thousand years. However, there are exceptions. For example, during the height of the Roman Empire, Latin was the native language of millions of people across Europe and around the Mediterranean. A Roman citizen in Gallia could easily converse with a fellow citizen in Italia. However, when the empire fell apart, local speech patterns began to diverge from the Roman norm. At first, people in these regions considered themselves to be speaking Latin, even though they were finding it harder to understand those who came from some distance. They did not start thinking of themselves as speakers of French or Italian until the modern nation-states began to coalesce from the ruins of the Roman Empire a millennium later. Thus, although the evolution from Latin into the various Romance languages was gradual, we can point to a time when people stopped thinking of themselves as Latin speakers and starting thinking of themselves as speakers of French or Italian.
Janson points out two factors in particular that drive linguist unification. One source of linguistic unity is a strong central government. The Roman Empire was linguistically homogeneous, but when it fell, the language splintered into hundreds of local dialects. Later, these dialects regrouped around new political centers. Over the last few centuries, the dialects within the borders of each of the Europe nation-states have been gradually merging towards the central standard forms. Another source of linguistic unity is a single writing system. China provides the classic example of this. Although Chinese is composed of dozens of mutually unintelligible "dialects," all of them are written in the same graphic system. This fact contributes greatly to the general sense that Chinese is a single language rather than a language group.
In recent years, there has been much ado within linguistic circles about the plight of indigenous languages. Some linguists have gone so far as to equate the severity of "language death" with the loss of biodiversity. But to Janson, expressions like "language death" and "loss of linguistic diversity" are hyperbole. He points out that when languages die, it is not because their speakers die but rather because they choose not to pass on their native language to their children. This is the typical case when immigrants are allowed to integrate into the new society, and it is also the case when some other language is politically ascendant. Thus, Janson prefers to talk about "language shift" rather than "language death." In Janson's view, fretting about loss of linguistic diversity is pointless, and anyway there is little we can do about it. After all, linguistic unification has been the general trend for three millennia.
Today, there are perhaps a dozen languages with more than a hundred million speakers and that play a major role in international communication. Among these, Chinese (Mandarin dialect) has the most native speakers, but English has even more if we count those who speak it as a second language. The rise of English as a global language is due largely to the fact that, over the last two centuries, the two global superpowers (first Great Britain and then the United States) both spoke English. Something like a quarter of the world's population can communicate in English, which is an unprecedented event in world history.
In addition, the fact that English is the first language of a number of different countries makes it appealing as a common language for international communication. This is because English is no longer tied to the culture of a single country. Rather, the language has shown remarkable adaptability to local needs, so that nowadays we can talk about "world Englishes"--Indian English, Singaporean English, and so on.
Janson concurs with other linguists, such as David Crystal, that it is inevitable that English will eventually break up into mutually unintelligible dialects as speakers assert their local group identities. This may be true, but Janson may also be forgetting the two factors that drive linguistic unification, political centrality and a common medium of long-distance communication. If the general trend over the last three thousand years has been toward greater political and linguistic unity, why should we suppose that the current political layout will remain as it is over then next few centuries? For example, the development of the European Union after World War II is evidence of growing supra-national sentiment, at least in that region of the globe. Furthermore, the advent of instant worldwide communication is bound to have a linguistically unifying effect.
In the chapter "Did Dante Write in Italian?" Janson relates Dante's efforts to create a standardized Italian language as well as his aspirations for a unified Italian state. Linguist unity in Italy came first, largely built on Dante's model. It was not for another five centuries, though, that Dante's dream of political unification was realized. Here at the start of the twenty-first century, we live in a world divided both politically and linguistically. However, as in the Italian case, there is a trend toward linguistic unification. Is it just a pipe dream, then, to aspire to a time when all people, united linguistically, think of themselves as citizens of the world?