Languages—Bridges and Walls to Communication
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN MEXICO
“No history can give us an idea so exact of the vicissitudes of a people, of their social organization and their beliefs and feelings, as an analysis of their language.”—MARTÍN ALONSO.
THROUGHOUT history, language—its origins, diversity, and dynamic nature—has fascinated scholars. Indeed, their fascination has even been preserved—just as most historical records have been—thanks to language itself. Undoubtedly, in language humans have their ultimate means of communication.
At the present time, some linguists estimate that about 6,000 or more languages are spoken in the world, not including local dialects. By far, the most widely spoken language is Mandarin Chinese, with more than 800 million speakers. The next four most spoken languages, not necessarily in this order, are English, Spanish, Hindi, and Bengali.
What happens when different cultures and, of course, their languages suddenly come into contact with one another? On the other hand, how does isolation of groups affect their language? Let us see how bridges—but also walls—to communication are built.
Pidgins, Creoles, and Lingua Francas
Colonization, trade between countries, and even confinement in concentration camps have caused people to feel the need to bridge the communication gap because of having no language in common. So they began using a reduced, or simplified, form of language. They took away grammatical complications, used fewer words, and limited these to areas of common interest. In this way pidgins were created. Pidgin, as reduced as it may be, is a language with its own linguistic system. But if the need that generated it disappears, it may die.
When pidgin becomes the main language of a population, new words are added and the grammar is reorganized. It thus becomes a creole. Creoles, as opposed to pidgins, express the culture of a people. Today dozens of pidgins and creoles—based on English, French, Portuguese, Swahili, and other languages—are spoken in the world. Some have even become prominent languages within a country, such as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea and Bislama in Vanuatu.
Other bridges promoting communication are lingua francas. A lingua franca is a common language used by groups whose mother tongues are different. In the Central African Republic, for instance, speakers of various local languages can communicate by means of Sango. Among diplomats, English and French are languages used as lingua francas. Pidgins are lingua francas, and creoles can be also.
In different regions inside a country, local varieties of the national language may be used, which are called dialects. The more isolated the region, the more marked the differences may be. In time, some dialects become so different from the original language of the area that they become another language. In some cases it is not easy for linguists to distinguish between a language and a dialect. Also, since languages change constantly, dialects sometimes die out from disuse, and with them dies a piece of history.
Language is a divine gift. (Exodus 4:11) The fascinating process of change in language shows how flexible this gift is. We may also learn from language that no one group of people is superior to another, for there is no such thing as an inferior language. Just as with other divine gifts, language is equally available to all people, no matter what their culture or the place where they live. Since the very beginning, languages of all peoples have been complete enough to serve their purpose. Each one of them is worthy of respect, regardless of how many people use it.
Historical and Social Factors
The gregarious nature of mankind is reflected in language. Thus, when there is contact between cultures—a common occurrence—the languages of those cultures retain evidence of such contact for generations.
For instance, through its many words of Arabic origin, Spanish, considered a modified version of Latin, retains a record of the eighth-century Muslim conquest of Spanish territory. The influence of Greek, French, English, and other languages on Spanish can also be traced. Moreover, in the Spanish spoken in America, traces remain of the ancient inhabitants of the continent. For example, Spanish there contains many words from the Nahuatl language of Aztec Central America.
Just as a mother tongue identifies individuals with a certain nation and even with a region, language usage can identify people with a group, such as a profession, a trade, cultural and sports groups, or even criminal organizations. The list is practically endless. Linguists call these special variations jargon or slang or sometimes even a dialect.
However, when there are animosities between nations and ethnic or cultural groups, language ceases to be a bridge. It can become a wall that adds to the divisions between people.
The Future of Languages
Communication is a complex matter. On one hand, the modern tendency is toward breaking down linguistic walls, primarily on account of mass media. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, English is now spoken as a primary or a secondary language by 1 person in 7. Thus, it is the most widely used lingua franca in the world. People’s use of it has allowed for wider communication and the exchange of beneficial information.
On the other hand, linguistic walls have contributed to division, hatred, and war. The World Book Encyclopedia states: “If all peoples spoke the same tongue, . . . goodwill would increase between countries.” Of course, such goodwill would require a much more profound change than the mere use of a lingua franca. Only the wise Creator of language could cause all people to speak one language.
The Bible, God’s main means of communication with humans, clearly shows that soon God will eliminate this present wicked system of things and replace it with a government ruling from heaven—his Kingdom. (Daniel 2:44) That government will unite all mankind in a peaceful, righteous new system of things here on earth.—Matthew 6:9, 10; 2 Peter 3:10-13.
Even now, a pure spiritual language—the truth about Jehovah God and his purposes—is uniting millions of people from all languages, nationalities, and former religions. (Zephaniah 3:9) Thus, it would seem logical that in his new world, God would further unite mankind by providing all peoples with one common language, reversing what he did at Babel.
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The Origin of Languages
The all-wise Creator, Jehovah God, has employed language in the heavenly angelic realm. (Job 1:6-12; 1 Corinthians 13:1) When he created humans, he implanted in them a vocabulary and the ability to expand it. There is no evidence of any primitive human language consisting of grunts and growls. On the contrary, consider what the Encyclopædia Britannica explains about Sumerian, the oldest known written language: “The Sumerian verb, with its . . . various prefixes, infixes, and suffixes, presents a very complicated picture.”
About the 20th century B.C.E., contrary to God’s command to spread out and “fill the earth,” humans made an effort to control all society at the Plains of Shinar, in Mesopotamia, and began building the religious Tower of Babel. Language diversity originated when God confused their common language, thwarting their dangerous and hurtful plans.—Genesis 1:28; 11:1-9.
The Bible record does not say that all languages descended from the original one. At Shinar, God introduced many new vocabularies and thought patterns, resulting in a variety of languages. Thus, efforts to trace a parent language from which all others developed have been in vain.
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At Babel, God confused the language of rebellious humans