April 09, 2004

Language, understanding, war, and Babel fish

Bill Poser discusses the fallacy that linguistic diversity is divisive. Other oft-cited cases are the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid 1990s. The warring Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda speak the one language. Likewise, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are just different names for the same language. People who assume that linguistic diversity is divisive may be confusing linguistic identity with ethnic or sociopolitical identity.

In August 2002, Wayt Gibbs wrote a piece in Scientific American called Saving Dying Languages. It included a full-page geographical plot to show the degree of correlation between locations of endangered languages and regions of greatest biological diversity. I wish someone could do a similar plot but with a linguistic uniformity score for each region of the world superimposed over a conflict index.

David Crystal considers this issue in his great book Language Death and mentions other cases of conflict in regions of linguistic uniformity. In a footnote, he quotes a section from the The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the mythical Babel fish, a universal language translator which, "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

(Look up this quote using Amazon's full-text search)

Posted by Steven Bird at April 9, 2004 08:31 AM