Monday, September 21, 2015


One thing I admire most in this world is the ability to be multilingual.  Obviously I am a native English speaker, who speaks a dialect from the region of south Alabama.  Most people would associate my accent/dialect with that of the Southeastern United States, but many southerners can tell certain distinctions in pronunciations and regions.  People have always told me that I have a nice southern accent.  It was interesting to me when I was up north for my recent interview to talk to my very cute and sexy taxi driver, because he made a very interesting remark.  He asked me where I was from, and I said Alabama.  He said, “I knew you weren't from here because you pronounce your words so clearly.”  I told him I don't think a southerner has ever been told they speak more clearly than anyone else.  We tend to be told that we drop certain consonants and even syllables or add extra vowels.  It's nice to know I speak clearly and am easy to understand especially since that would be a major component of my job up there.

However, back to being multilingual, I can speak a little Spanish and very little Italian and French, the last two just enough to say I don't speak the language and to order food.  With Spanish I am able to read the language to a certain extent though I need a dictionary for more than just a summary translation.  I'm sure with Spanish, I probably could with a lot of work and usage be able to speak it functionally but I rarely use it.  The same might be true of Italian because it is very similar, but I always had a major problem with learning French.  However, if I am around someone speaking any of these three languages enough, I can get a basic understanding of what is being said, though not a word for word translation nor can I effectively respond in that language.

Languages and linguistics have always fascinated me.  When I studied African history, I was always interested in how historians used linguistics to determine migration patterns, especially of the Bantu people..  The same is true with Native American history, such as how the Iroquois of New York and Canada have a similar language to the Cherokee of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina.  Similar enough in fact that the Tuscarora broke from the Cherokee and became part of the Iroquois.  No one really knows how the two can have such a similar language but be geographically disconnected from each other, but they both belong to the Algonquin language family while the Native Americans surrounding the Cherokee belong largely to the Muskogean language family. 

I would love to have the intelligence to be able to study linguistics.  The origins of language, historical linguistics, and anthropological linguistics fascinate me, but I have never been able to catch on to different languages.  Some people have the unique ability to easily pick up languages and young children have a remarkable ability to absorb different languages more easily, but as we get older our brains can no longer do so as easily.  I have always found it sad that Americans are so xenophobic to languages other than English.  More than half of the United States was once Spanish speaking, a fourth was French speaking, and all of it was made up of thousands of different languages before Europeans arrived, but the eastern seaboard and the English colonies that became the United States came to dominate and require English as the only language, even though the United States has no official language.  

English speaking Americans, and this time I do include Canadians, forced assimilation on non-English speakers to learn the English language.  The Canadians failed with Quebec, and French and English became the official languages of Canada, but the United States was largely successful (except in Louisiana which has retained French, Cajun, and English), though English is still most widely spoken  This assimilation campaign led to the extinction of many Native languages and the loss of immigrants retaining their language but not until the languages of non-English speakers influenced and infiltrated American English enough to make it a very distinct dialect from that of British English.

Many countries require that children from the time they begin school to learn a second language.  In many countries that second language is English because English has become the lingua franca of business around the globe.  Americans use this as an excuse to not require students to be bilingual, which I find a shame and a disgrace to the American education system.  There is no reason that we cannot begin in preschool or kindergarten teaching students a second language, when they are still young enough to learn another language easily.

I sort of got on a rant here, but I had begun thinking about this as I was reading about the Basque language, which has no known ancestral language.  This is known as a language isolate.  Only a few such languages are spoken by a significant population, Basque is the second largest language isolate, Korean is the largest language isolate with more speakers (80 million) which is more than all other speakers of a language isolate combined.  As I was thinking about this, I began to think how much I admire people who can easily pick up a language. Science fiction, with its alien races, always has linguistics experts, or a “universal translator,” the cheat sheet for linguistics.  On Stargate, there was Daniel Jackson who seemed to know every ancient language on Earth.  In the Star Trek universe, Hoshi was a language expert on Enterprise, while in the new reboot of Star Trek, Uhura is a linguistics expert, but was merely a communications officer in the original Star Trek.

I love being a historian, but I greatly admire linguists.  I think if more people understood the science of linguistics, then I think more people would want to know more than one language.  It always angers me when xenophobic Americans refuse to even think about learning another language.  These same people do not want to visit other countries or learn about other cultures.  It reminds me of the Chinese of the Middle Ages who sent out explorers only to return and say that China was far superior and nothing worth knowing existed outside of China.  Knowledge is power, and knowledge of languages is even more powerful.

I know this was an off the wall post, but sometimes I just like writing what's on my mind and this was on my mind last night.


Andrew Weiss said...

Even here in Maryland, we have our own local speaking mannerisms. Maybe most distinctive is the way our "native" Marylanders pronounce "parent". It sounds more like "peerent".

When I was young, admittedly a long time ago, I remember there was someone who allegedly could tell within 50 miles or even less where you were from, just by the way you spoke. So there are apparently many dialects within dialects.

I am not sure anyone could make such a claim now, the way people move around and with the general homogenizaton of our language and culture.

Joe said...

I always thought that Henry Higgins' ability to distinguish dialects in My Fair Lady/Pygmalion to be fascinating, but that was fiction, still it would be cool. I think Professor Higgins would have a much harder time today with television homogenizing our dialects.

Susan said...

Hi Joe,

We are so often in agreement. I love learning languages. My main study was French, but I have also taken some Spanish and German. I totally agree with your annoyance about the US educational system on this. It was so frustrating that no language courses were available until my Sophomore year in high school. I had wanted to start learning years before that!

Michael Dodd said...

I have loved languages from my childhood. They are such a window onto other worlds, other ways, other possibilities. I am (was?) quite fluent in Spanish, passed my doctoral reading requirements in Latin, French and German, can still manage to read Koine Greek and have a few phrases in Kiswahili, relics of an offer to go to Nairobi to found a monastery, a chance I eventually chose not to accept. I know one word in Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) -- how to say "Thank you."

I love English and have tutored and taught ESL classes. It is a remarkable resource, flexible, adaptive, expressive. But I wish as a nation we had a commitment to learning and speaking at least one other living language. It would be a good reminder that the world does not begin and end at the borders of (or someday, God forbid, the high fences and walls surrounding) this little patch of the Earth that we erroneously think is ours.

JiEL said...

Very interesting post here about languages ..

Must tell you that you're almost right for Canada being a bilingual country.
Almost because French speaking people outside of Québec province have to struggle to still have their rights respected by the federal government as well as by their provincial ones..
Here in Québec province, the «English minority» have non such struggle. They have their own school boards, hospitals and institutions etc...
Not the same in the other English provinces. I know it also because I was teaching in Sudbury, Ontario and our school board was the English one and it had a «French section» which had an English administrator.. No French school boards in Ontario.
BTW Sudbury had 30% of its population that are French speaking BUT with a poor French language filled with English words in it...

There was also that epic battle for a French speaking hospital in Ottawa, St-Louis de Montfor, to be able to remain open and deserve French speaking people in Ottawa who is our BILINGUAL capital of Canada...

In another point of view, Acadian provinces of the east, as well as your Louisiana people, kept their OLD ways of speaking French. Those accents are more alike Louis XIV and are very nice to listen to. Unfortunatly, some in those regions, had added some English words in their way of speaking. Languages named «Shiak» of «Brayon»..

Now, learning French in British Columbia and some western provinces is becoming a new «fashion» and even a «snoby» thing to learn.. French is viewed as a cultural benefit to have. Must say that in the old times, in Europe, Russia and England in example, French was the language of culture and poetry.

Many in Quebec province, many are afraid that teaching English in the schools could be the beginning of a sort of assimilation...
Those are retrograd people because it's not true.

I'm fully bilingual since my 4yo and I never lost my French knowledge and more, I speak a better French than the average ones here...
Today, mainly in Montreal, speaking English is a must to have a better job.
English is the international trade language.
The bad part is that Montreal is loosing more and more its title of «Second French City» in the world.

More to add to your nice post.
Many scientific researches noticed that the knowledge of many languages helps to vanquish old age hillness as Alzheimer and brain aging..

J'espère de voir ici bientôt pour pouvoir améliorer ton français cher Joe.

Salutations de Montréal

PS. Just a «funny» remark: as I like to order Blu-ray movies on Amazone, I noticed, like many here, that many movies are doubled in Spanish and the French is rarely there. That is because in USA, you have more and more Spanish speaking population coming from Mexico and Cuba just to name those ones...
So, doubling in French isn't that worthed..
Finding a Blu-ray with French is more rare now a days..
BUT, for me, it isn't an issue but for some of my friends it's not easy..

Anonymous said...

The most important thing about language is what one says, not the language one speaks. I spent five years of my life with a man who could read three versions of ancient Egyptian, Coptic, two versions of ancient Greek, Latin, and could read, write and speak French, German, Italian and Russian. All told, he could communicate in eleven different languages. Unfortunately, he could not say, "I love you," in any of them.

Joe said...

Anon, I do agree with you there, and I can say "I love you" "thank you" and "please" in a number of different languages. Yet, I still admire a mind that can comprehend so many different languages even if I don't necessarily admire the person.

JiEL said...

@ Anonymous,

I had a BF, my last one, from March 2009 to October 2011, he was 35yo when we met and is a GENIOUS man with a 187 IQ.
He could read 120 pages in one hour and has an enormous memory.

He did know 5 languages and also the language of signs because he was almost deaf.
But, as you mentioned and on the contrary, he could tell me «I love U» but he wasn't faithful to me. I discovered it just before our separation..

What is the use to be able in any language to say:"I love U." IF you'll never be faithful to your love one..??

Some language aren't from our mouth but from our heart..

Amanda said...

Languages are so fascinating to me. I can only speak English and understand a little Spanish. I do wish I could learn another language. I know it's never too late but as you said it's easier to learn when you're young. I think I may have to set this as a goal for the new year and see how I do. Lol. Speaking of languages Joe, wasn't the Native American "code talkers " the only language not broken during the war? Thanks for the great post!

Joe said...

Amanda, you're right, the Navajo Code Talkers never had their code broken in WWII. What fewer people know is that the Choctaw Indians and a few other native tribes were used during WWI with the same amount of success. Most Native American languages have similarities to Asian languages but because of the different times of migration over roughly 20,000 years, some of the languages are now language isolates because their origin languages have become extinct.

Paul said...

Hey, this is a great post. I love languages and got a Ph.D. in Linguistics since they are so interesting. But I am not the greatest language learner. I don't have the polyglot gift of picking up a language easily like a child. But I do know how to analyze languages and that helps me learn them.

So don't give up on on your study of linguistics. I highly recommend Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler since you do like history as well.