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Dead Languages

Linguistics fascinates me, but there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable: something that embarrasses me when linguists try to act as public intellectuals. It is the fence that linguistics draws around what count as linguistic phenomena. It seems to me that the distinction between descriptivism and prescriptivism is untenable; prescription too is a phenomenon of language, and one of the things that any honest description must describe.

As a corollary, the distinction between natural and artificial languages is untenable. Literate languages are part natural and part artificial, in varying proportions. Latin has become more artificial than natural, but it is not a dead language; its artificiality sustains it. Sumerian is all natural and all dead; no one reads it except to translate from it. No one writes in Sumerian – and what you wrote in Sumerian, if you had that whim, would be philological caprice, not real Sumerian. But with diligence anyone can learn to write Latin; and what they write is real Latin, because Latin has been immortalized by the prescriptions of its grammarians, who cut free their language from the Tiber by making it answerable only to written, explicit, portable, unowned rules.

The Latin model is not ideal for English. (It is not even ideal for Latin, whose grammar is modeled after Greek.) But our Latinate grammar is not a cage; it is a trellis. It supports the whole structure of English literature. It is not a limit on English, not a smothering weight. It is, itself, the English language. It has not prevented English from fracturing into dialects, but it has preserved over and above those dialects a true, nuclear English. I dare call it true because English as we know it is not the product of any natural development. English too is an artificial language; a consciously and self-consciously made hybrid of Englisc, French, and Latin. The great writers and translators into our English, Mallory, Browne, Bacon, Burton, Florio, North, Urquhart, Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, did not use the English they found: they created the English we know. I do not believe that anyone in their time, even they, spoke as they write. But we speak their language, not a descendant of the argot-pidgin-creole-cant-jargon-lingoes (likely closer to Chaucer) that would have been heard in the London of their time.

How can a language be both artificial and natural? There is an English-language literature, not several streams of British and American and Commonwealth literature, and English is fit to be the universal auxiliary language of commerce and science, only because of its rules and its models. The English language is still vital, and thus changeful on the tongue, particularly in its vocabulary; but most new words will die, becoming quaint or obsolete. While they live, they may serve probation to become part of the language; but likelier, they will never be cut free from their contexts, and if they come to be written at all it will be only for color.

Here is one way that linguists make themselves obnoxious – when they condescendingly insist that vogue words, obviously destined for rapid obsolescence, halfway to quaint even before they are current, represent the future of the language. The fact that linguistics has no such category as fad is one of its deficiencies. The successions of fashion are unlike the forces determining national costume or native dress; likewise, the changes of a written language belong not to the order of cultural change, but to the order of revolutions and discoveries – of change in worldview, where prescription is the necessary basis for consensus.

Dialects, whatever the charm they have to linguists, cannot be entered into by outsiders. They presume and enforce a shared background, a particular geographic, racial, cultural, and economic set of coordinates. Our dialects are all the seeds of potential languages, as the proto-Romance accents were to Latin. But they will not last. There will always be a new crop of dialects and jargons, a new harvest of what they have to offer English. But, once harvested, they wither to make way for the next crop.

Because English is immortal and universal as it is captured in books, English literature is being fed into by countries with nothing else but English in common, and by the best minds of these countries, who know that what they write in their mother languages is only for their brothers and sisters; but what they write in English is for the world and forever.

Latinizing missionaries who stretched native languages on the rack were able to give them Bibles in their own languages. Linguists produce accurate descriptive grammars which make beautiful epitaphs to those languages. Bahasa Indonesia has preserved Indonesian language at the cost of Indonesian languages; the French created France out of the possessions of the Bourbons by suppressing regional dialects; the Arabic world is a world only by its devotion to the language of the Koran.

All rules seem arbitrary until they are gone without; all systems of rules suffer rot, once useful provisions becoming shibboleths; but a language without rules is a house on fire. Fire is a kind of life, breathing and eating; but it is too much life, and it leaves only ashes. A language is not safe, not hospitable to literature, until it has been settled prescriptively, not by itself but by learning from the grammarians of, and translators from, older languages.

The great puzzle of linguistics – why are the oldest languages the most complex? Greek is more complex than Latin; Sanskrit is more complex than Greek. The great puzzle of prehistory – what were people doing in the millennia between the arrival of Homo sapiens and the dawn of civilization? If they had all the same impulses we do, for creation and invention, what did they create? What did they invent? These puzzles may be the same puzzle. Their inventions, their creations, were their languages, refined and restricted with the same joy in the possibilities of form that would later diversify poetry.