Tag Archives: linguistics

Is Language a Virus?

Two interesting things came up this week in my readings and viewings around the internet.

  1. As English had become the lingua franca in recent enough times, through whatever accidents and machinations of history, has it also been responsible for the death or diminishment of other languages? Has it become, in fact, a virus, interested and invested solely in its own survival?
  2. We generally assume that two people looking at the same generic object will have similar experiences of it (assuming it has no strong emotional/cultural connotations) and would describe it using similar vocabulary, whatever the language.  It would seem however, that this is not the case.

“One does not inhabit a county; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland – and no other. ” Emile M. Cioran

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Max Weinreich

Political borders can determine the difference between what is accepted as a dialect or a language. For example Norway and Denmark are separate countries, with separate languages, yet Norwegian and Danish are so closely related that linguistically, they could be identified as dialects of the same language. in China, Wenzhounese  is not intelligible by speakers of Mandarin, but because it is only spoken in a certain area by a relatively small amount of people within China with little political clout, it is classed as a dialect. Do people who speak a different language or dialect to the majority in any given country identify more with their spoken tongue than their nationality?

We all know that other languages have vocabulary for concepts that don’t have an English equivalent (schadenfreude from German, hygge from Danish) or that other languages describe things differently (Aboriginal Australians use compass points North/South/etc, which are fixed, instead of right/left/back/etc which are relative to the speaker, when referencing locations). Linguistic determinism is the theory that a person’s own language can affect the culture and perceptions of the people who speak it (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has mostly been discredited), and has been supplanted by the theory of  linguistic relativism. Speakers may view relationships, feelings, colours and numbers differently. If English is proliferating due to global cultural homogenisation, if it spreading like a virus, does it also have side effects such as altering people’s perceptions of themselves and others? By rendering other languages less useful, is it also contributing to their decline and ultimately the loss of other ways of viewing, perceiving and communicating one’s experience of reality?

‘Is Language A Virus?’, The Idea Channel, PBS Digital Studios

‘Language and Thought ‘. Linguistic society of America