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I was going through my stack of podcasts today and I decided to listen to a discussion between the linguist John McWhorter and the linguist Ben Zimmer, and at one point McWhorter addresses the issue of linguistic diversity, and wonders aloud if perhaps we wouldn’t be better off with one world language, though more as an intellectual thought experiment than in any seriousness. His arguments are laid out in this article The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English. McWhorter recounts how the piece resulted in his cameo appearance as one of history’s greatest monsters in a book by a linguist who is fighting language extinction.

You can listen to Zimmer and McWhorter’s exchange on the topic yourself:

Over the past two months there have been many responses to my original post “Linguistic diversity = poverty”. I need to reiterate something on the record: I am not a writer for Discover Magazine, and what I say on this blog does not go through any editor. With that out of the way a common issue that has cropped up repeatedly is that people have transformed my contention that we should be calmer about letting nature take its course with dialects on the edge of oblivion. Instead of what I did say, some people report that I argued that I think languages should be “banished”, or that coercion should be used to give rise to Globish. Not at all. I didn’t say that, if you said I said that, please update your blog post to indicate you misunderstood me.

A second issue is that people keep calling me a “Social Darwinist.” Really the way that it’s being used is very similar to conservatives referring to people on the Left as “Marxists.” The reality is that most Leftists today are not Marxists. Marxism is a very specific set of movements with philosophical commitments and beliefs about the world. But it’s a nice way to impute some negative historical baggage because of Marxism’s connection to totalitarian Communism, and the general influence of Marxism on the broader Left (e.g., most European Social Democratic parties have Marxist roots, even if they eventually repudiated or distanced themselves from those roots). Similarly many of my critics throw around the term Social Darwinist as if it’s ju-ju which can explain my oh-so-evil-rotten-heart. It connects the fact that I’m a political conservative with Nazism, but doesn’t go so far as to transgress into the realm of Godwin’s Law. One of the things that set Greg Downey off about the aspersions I cast toward linguistic anthropology specifically was that I stated that they were Talmudicists. But I think that’s kind of an insult to the rabbis at this point after seeing the range of responses, really many of the critics who know I’m oh-so-evil are no different from the shamans who they may have studied, and have now seemingly developed an instinct to label individuals taboo.

At least Greg Downey did some leg work attempting to refute my contentions (though it’s a little funny how many people think that his refutation was the last word even when he admitted to its provisionality). Most of my critics retreated into their academic-pidgin and were comfortable implying that I was an unsaved heathen, leaving it at that. But there is something Dr. Downey said which I think is worth exploring again:

I won’t keep writing on this subject, but I once had a student in my Intro to Latin American cultures class who got really upset when I said that I thought Latinos in the US should just be allowed to speak Spanish without being harassed. He got irate. He said his ancestors had been forced to speak English, to give up their native tongues. I asked him, ‘Would you like to be able to speak Gaelic or German now?’ He said, ‘Of course.’ Fortunately, he realized what I was getting at, that the same sort of identity erasure that he regretted, he was ready to visit on someone else — he was a deep guy and a thinker, in spite of our political disagreements, and he really helped me to better understand my role as a teacher.

When I read this I was a bit confused. In The Anglo Revolutions it is stated that the Gaelic speaking peasants were mostly English-speaking when they arrived to American shores. I don’t know if the literature citation (there was one within) is correct, or representative of the linguistic history, but Greg’s interlocutor may simply not have known what he was talking about in regards to his ancestors. Now, one can assert that the English forced the Gaelic speaking Irish to speak English, but I’m not sure we should take this as a given (depending on what you would refer to as “force”, since Gaelic did not have an official status from what I know and so would be implicitly at a disadvantage). Second, from what I recall when the American Germans arrived in the 19th century to these shores most of them would have spoken a German dialect, not German, as their native language. In today’s Germany, as in today’s Italy, the regional dialects which are really separate languages without much of a written tradition (if at all) are dying, in large part due to interregional marriage and the passing on of older generations who were more comfortable in dialect than standard German or Italian. I don’t know the details of the conversation between Greg Downey and his student, so perhaps they addressed these nuances, but the point is that the issues aren’t as plain as they’re made to seem, and the identities which outsiders perceive and want to defend in the interests of justice and free choice are often more complex when you scratch beneath the surface. A good example of the preservation of German in the United States is among the Amish, and the “German” they speak amongst themselves is a specific dialect, not standard German. The main coercion involved in the decline of American German was the closure of German language schools during World War I (though the Irish American Catholic hierarchy were also enemies of German language Catholic schools). But if those schools had not closed it may be that most knowledge of German today would be of standard German, not the deeply rooted dialects of the ancestral Heimat of a given people. To perpetuate German dialects abroad one would have to maintain ethno-religious endogamy, as Amish communities have. Even marrying across German dialect groups would probably have resulted in the transformation of standard German as a lingua franca which eventually pushed aside the ancestral dialects (which again, are actually sister languages from a common Germanic ancestor).

My point is exploring that particular aside in detail is that I know these are complex issues, and often knotty. My high-priest shamans wielding the magical formulas of academese, i.e., Wielders of Words of Power such as Privilege, Social Darwinist, Eurocentric, etc., are often aware of complexity and how easy it is to problematize. But when the layers of complexity settle on one which is congenial with their normative framework the labors of the wizards are done, and the mists which obscure the possibility of positivism clear away! If you read this weblog you know that I am aware of the complexity of ethnographic, historical, and religious issues. But unlike most people with such an awareness I’m frankly Eurocentric in my values and do not see the perpetuation of collective indigenous identity as one of the world’s greater utilitarian goods (though I don’t think it can necessarily be dismissed, I’m no longer a full-throated individualist in my utility calculations). It’s not because I’m ignorant, it’s because I’m a heathen, willfully rejecting the Good News.

I suppose that makes me a monster of some sort in the eyes of many, but I want to look to one case where I am broadly sympathetic to the perpetuation of a specific indigenous identity: that of the Kafir Kalash. They’re a population within the Human Genome Diversity Panel, and from what I have read their inclusion was conscious, as L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and company wanted to get samples from isolated populations which were on the verge of disappearing through assimilation. There is some genetic interest in the Kalash, though I think we’ve squeezed most of the juice out of that already. Linguistically they’re not an isolate, they speak an Indo-European language which is ambiguously placed between the Iranian and Indo-Aryan families. Rather, their uniqueness is attributable to the fact that the Kafir Kalash are the last practitioners of the Indo-European pagan tradition in the modern world. In other words, the tradition of the Rigveda, the Iliad, and the Edda. Arguably both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism derive from Indo-European paganism, the former as a negation, the latter as an evolution. But it seems to me that Zoroastrianism as we understand it today can not be decomposed without a comprehension of its long interactions with Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. As for Hinduism, it is a matter of scholarly debate how much of the religion truly derives from the Vedas, and how much from indigenous South Asian religious traditions which pre-date the Aryans. Some of the same issues crop up for the Greeks and Roman religions, whose influences from indigenous Mediterranean cults were clear (e.g., many of the Greek gods have obvious Near Eastern origins, such as the Artemis and Dionysus). And frankly, the same probably holds for the Kafir Kalash. We have no other Indo-European peoples who maintained a continuous pagan tradition down to the modern era to compare with, so we do not know what is a shared derived characteristic, and what is a unique characteristic of the Kafir Kalash. Nor do we know what characteristics may have been lost among the Kafir Kalash which were common among other Indo-Europeans.

But let’s stipulate that the Kafir Kalash paganism is sui generis, and an authentic representative instance of the religious expression of the ancient Indo-Europeans. From a cultural perspective this is arguably precious. And, we know that in modern Pakistan today the Kafir Kalash are under grave threat. Their homeland is in the sphere of influence of the Pakistani Taliban. Their current existence as a religious group is a matter of historical contingency, their Nuristani cousins across the border in Afghanistan were forcibly converted to Islam 100 years ago. And coercion is not the only issue, large numbers of Kafir Kalash have converted to Islam in a Pakistan where being a non-Muslim, let alone a pagan, is simply very difficult. Their numbers have been bolstered by their high birth rates.

So how do we save them? One suggestion I made is that those who care about cultural diversity should allow for the wholesale transplantations of groups under the threat of cultural genocide. The Kafir Kalash are certainly one of those groups. But here is where the real world would clash with our intentions: I suspect bringing the Kafir Kalash into the Western world would result in their conversion to Christianity, or perhaps even Islam, rather than the retention of their ethnic paganism. As an analogy, many of the Hmong transplanted to the USA are converting to Christianity. Only a small minority of Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, or Maori, maintain their indigenous religious traditions. I believe that the paganism of the Kafir Kalash may be mostly a function of the fact that they’re extremely poor and geographically isolated in Chitral. This was certainly one reason Muslim rulers had not bothered to conquer and convert them; there was little fiscal upside, and the logistics were difficult in the pre-modern world. Bringing the Kafir Kalash out of Pakistan would prevent their cultural genocide through coercion, but I’d be willing to bet good money that their ethno-religious cohesiveness would disappear in a consumer society (this is an issue which Western Mandaens are facing right now).

Working out how one’s norms intersect with the world as it is, and the consequences which entail, is a difficult slog. In a world with finite resources and variations in the probabilities of success of a range of actions I do not believe decisions are quite so clear and distinct. Especially when it comes to human beings the law of unintended consequences crops up. It is often easy to sketch out the Light and the Dark, the Saved and the Damned, but the world is not so cooperative. Well, at least as long you’re not a physicist….

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Languages, Linguistic Diversity 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"