Languages are, of course, one of the prime tools of cultural expression. So it should not surprise us to discover that the decline of indigenous cultures is also having a serious effect on the languages of the world. Indeed, an indigenous language disappears every two weeks. It is estimated that by the end of the 21st century, 5,500 of the current 6,000 languages now spoken will simply be as dead as Ancient Greek and Latin. Behind each language is a culture, the expressive richness of a living tongue and its infinite capacity to reflect a distinct mode of thought. So, when a language dies, it truly diminishes the capacity of our world to think, to know, to be and to do differently – to be truly other than the dominant culture. As John Sutherland pointed out in The Independent on Sunday:
There is no mystery about the root cause of the linguistic holocaust that we’re living through. Take a holiday anywhere in the world. Your airline pilot will, as you listen to the safety instructions (in English), be communicating with ground control in English. Signs in the airport, whatever country you are in, will be duplicated in one of the world’s top twenty languages – most likely English. You’ll see Coca-Cola logos. MTV will be playing on the screen. Muzak will be crooning Anglo-American lyrics as you walk through the concourse to baggage reclaim. At the hotel, the desk clerk will speak your language, as well, probably, as the bellhop. (His tip depends on being polygot.) Go to any internet café and the keyboard code that will get you best results is what you are reading now: English – the lingua franca of our time. . . . The spread of English is the product of naked linguistic superpower.
Sutherland tells us that a favourite axiom among linguists is: ‘A language is a dialect with an army behind it.’ Follow the big armies (Roman, Norman, Chinese, Russian) and you will find the ‘world languages’. The most potent army, in 2002, flies the stars and stripes. It is not...
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