July 04, 2006

On Cultures "Without a Language"

Bill Poser is rightly horrified, in his post "Cherokees Without a Language?", about the Asian Pacific Post article that claims that the Cherokees "were so backward that they did not even have a language of their own". But I can guess how the article's author made this silly and offensive mistake: I bet it arose from the linguistic innocent's all-too-common assumption that no written language = no language at all. People who distinguish between "the English language" and "a mere dialect" (i.e. a nonstandard dialect) are often making this same mistake; and it also underlies the belief (held by most non-linguists) that only Standard English -- namely the English that kids, at least American kids, learn to read and write in school -- has grammatical rules. Ditto for the belief that Greek, which has an unbroken written tradition stretching back well over 2000 years and a broken written tradition of over 3000 years, is an older language than, say, Basque, which (except for some names in inscriptions from the first two centuries CE) was not written until the 11th century CE and had no standard orthography until 1964. Beliefs like these may be especially offensive when applied to Cherokee, given the illustrious nature and history of its writing system, a syllabary that is believed to have been invented by Chief Sequoyah in 1819.

Posted by Sally Thomason at July 4, 2006 10:48 AM