George Herbert claimed that “the eyes have one language everywhere,” meaning that we see the same thing regardless of our race or location, but verbal processes differ markedly. That’s why today I’m celebrating two language heroes: Tashi Wang and Nachman Blumental. Tashi is in Chinese prison for promoting his native Tibetan tongue, and Blunmental wrote a dictionary of Nazi euphemisms for death-camps and the holocaust.
First let’s consider Elizabeth Stokoe, a professor of social interaction at Loughborough University, who said, “We all talk, but we don’t really know how.” She was interviewed for theGuardian.com by Ian Tucker who asked about negotiating with potential suicides. Stokoe posited, “should you ask if you can talk with the person or speak with them? Most people would say ‘talk,’ but in fact ‘speak’ is the verb that gets people talking. ‘Talk’ sounds more cuddly and friendly, but it comes with more idiomatic baggage: talk is cheap, straight talk and so on. ‘Speak’ is neutral.”
Speaking can be confusing, too, as the World Atlas of Language Structures, or WALS, linguists found, as reported in an online article, “Linguists Found the ‘Weirdest Languages’ — and English is one of them.” There are 7,000 languages worldwide, but WALS looked at only 239, though some were whoppers. The weirdest was Chalcatongo Mixtec spoken by 6,000 people in Mexico who can reproduce and understand the lingo’s multitude of tonal differences in its sounds.
English ranked 33rd weirdest with “more atypical features than over 80% of the other languages” because “it inherited five letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and speakers have to make them work for more than twice that number of sounds.” By comparison, the average spoken language has five or six vowel sounds. English is also blessed with 25-30 “phonemes,” or distinct speech sounds, while Piraha, an Amazonian language, possesses only eight consonants and three vowels. By comparison, !Xoo, the “click” language of South Africa, has over 100 phonemes.
So when BBC.com posed the question — in an article of the same title — “How many words do you need to speak a language?” the website focused on “lemmas,” aka word families such as “govern, governable, government.” “It is incredibly difficult for a language learner to ever know as many words as a native speaker.
“Typically native speakers know 15,000 to 20,000 word families … people who have been studying languages in a traditional setting — say French in Britain or English in Japan — often struggle to learn more than 2,000 to 3,000 words, even after years of study.”
The keys are “the frequency with which the words you learn appear in day-to-day use in the language you’re learning,” and learning the lemmas. Learning the 800 most frequently used English lemmas allows understanding 75% of normal spoken English. You’ll need 3,000 lemmas to understand movies or TV, but 8,000-9,000 to read a novel.
What if it’s illegal to speak your language? It’s close to that in Tibet where Tashi Wang was arrested for “inciting separatism” by Chinese officials two months after appearing in a NYTimes article and video. “Under Xi Jinping, the staunch Communist Party leader who came to power in 2012,” the NYTimes reported, “China has adopted more assimilation policies, designed to absorb these minorities.” Tashi is serving five years for saying, “In politics, it’s said that if one nation wants to eliminate another nation, first they need to eliminate their spoken and written language.”
“Godwin’s Law” states that the longer a debate goes on, the greater the likelihood that comparisons will arise to Hitler and Nazis, and, in describing the horrors experienced by Nachman Blumental, a Polish refugee from the Nazis who murdered his wife and baby boy, we’re at that point. Blumental survived the war but was deeply haunted by the destruction of nearly everyone and everything he’d known before the Hitler’s Nazi’s tried to eliminate whole peoples and languages.
A linguist, Blumental devoted his life — he died in Israel in 1983 — to ferreting out the many euphemisms Nazi’s used to orchestrate their horrors in hopes that it would help Nuremberg prosecutors, and it did. He also wanted to provide a “linguistic key” to the double-speak the Nazis used to run the Holocaust bureaucracy. Governmental doublespeak is well underway in our country almost everywhere one looks, and now, as Shakespeare noted, “Words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.