May 04, 2004

Avoiding Eurocentrism

Commenting on Bill Poser's observation that the new EU in principle requires 380 different pair-wise translators for its 20 official languages, Geoff Pullum pointed out that multi-linguality helps to fight the otherwise inexorable combinatorics of communication. Considering the 6,000-odd native langauges of the world's population today, Geoff closed with the thought that "we are lucky that such a huge number... can use one of the languages of the great colonizing powers of the past few centuries: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian".

Geoff is absolutely correct, of course, but I must hasten to forestall unmerited accusations of eurocentrism. It's not only the European powers who have facilitated international communication by spreading their national languages along with settlements and political control -- and we don't need to go back to the days of Darius or Asoka or the four Caliphs to find examples.

Today's New York Times has a story about the on-going spread of Arabic at the expense of the languages of Western Sudan, such as Fur and Daju. Elsewhere in Africa, the past few centuries have seen quite a few large-scale colonization projects besides those managed by Europeans. In West Africa, for example, we can point to the spread of Fulfulde and Hausa by the various Fulani jihads, or the spread of Akan languages via the rise of the Asante kingdom and the migration of the Baule people to Cote d'Ivoire, among other cases.

There are many other parts of the world where non-European colonization over the past few centuries has facilitated communication, either by driving smaller languages out of existence or by creating the preconditions for larger populations to learn the languages of the colonizers. The Turks took over Anatolia just a few years before Columbus voyaged to the Carribean, and the Moghuls were colonizing southern India and the Deccan at about the same time that the Spanish and Portuguese were taking over Latin America. It's over the past few hundred years that the Vietnamese have spread south out of the Red River Valley near Hanoi, at the expense of Khmer and a wide variety of smaller languages. The same is true for Han Chinese colonization of Taiwan, at the expense of indigenous Austronesian languages and Portuguese. Japanese provision of wider communications opportunities to the Ainu peaked under the Hokkaido Colonization Commission, after the Meiji restoration in the late 19th century. Han Chinese colonization of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang continues to facilitate communication to this very day.

At this point, I can't resist quoting what Douglas Adams had to say about the Babel fish. You'll recall that according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Babel fish

is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the brain of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

The Babel fish has played a complex and interesting role in Galactic culture, history and theology, but as Adams explains, the basic result is that the "Babel fish, 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."

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 4, 2004 03:53 PM