Musings on Everything

I muse, therefore I write.

On Language

Languages. We all speak one. Perhaps more than one. Perhaps several. Whatever you say of it, there is one language, it would seem, that is about to win the language battles (if you will excuse my crude metaphor for a process that is several centuries old and is very nearly at its apex, as it were). Of course, I’m talking about English. The most spoken language in the world, it is the new lingua franca (a phrase that comes from the French for, well, the French language. It was first coined in the period of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who made French the language of diplomacy and trade in Europe), replacing French, which in turn replaced Latin, which was the first-ever lingua franca. Why? Because it was the language of the world’s first multicultural empire that was united under one ruling civilization. In essence, Rome was the first colonizer. Previous empires had always shared a common language (cf. Ancient Greece, the various Indian empires). Rome was unique in that it was not content in just having its local territories under its control. It wanted more. And that is what made it unique. And whatever Rome was, Latin was as well.

But what Latin really was has been grossly misrepresented by the scholars of our time. During the time of the Roman Empire, there were two Latins, so to speak: the Classical Latin that was used in formal writing and speeches and such things, and the sermo vulgaris, common speech. This was what developed into the various Romance languages, had accents and dialects within it that marked as a true spoken language.

Remember that Classical Latin was, for the most part, standardized throughout the Empire. However, that did not mean that the most highly cultured people spoke it. No. Even Cicero did not, as has been seen in some of his personal correspondence. In fact, there have been some letters found that mock Classical Latin for its overly formal manner. Which I think is hilarious. There have also been some records of the sermo vulgaris found through the Appendix Probi, a record made by one incensed Probus who wished to make clear that the Latin the rabble spoke was not, shall we say, the Latin that should be spoken.

There is another interesting aspect to Latin: its diminutives. Those of you in Latin 4 will know what I’m talking about. For those who don’t, let me take the word “misella” as an example. It’s a diminutive, in that it carries the connotations and meaning of the English phrase, “poor little girl.” It can be used either sarcastically or not, in all the various places the English phrase could be used. Every language has its own little differentiating aspect. In German, it is nouns and verbs that can be endlessly (or so it seems) strung together to express various concepts. In English, it is that the language itself relies heavily on accented syllables to derive meaning.

For example, let’s look at the sentence “John had not stolen that money.”

John had not stolen that money. (…Someone else had.)

John had not stolen that money. (Someone said he had. or …Not at that time, but later he did.)

John had not stolen that money. (…he got it some other way.)

And so on, and so forth. You can see how interesting that is. Think about how many times you rely on vocal stresses to give your sentences appropriate meaning and context in your daily interactions. It’s rather a high number, no?

Now think about all the vast numbers of people learning English. Or at least trying to. They would never be able to pick up on the stressing and intonation that we native speakers are accustomed to rely on in our speech without significant effort and perhaps not even after extended learning. At least, not the way that languages are taught today. A focus on grammar and syntax is not what people use when they speak. They go more on whether it “sounds” right. And what tells them that? A gut instinct that is inherent in every person’s faculties. Now tell me. If you went up to a Roman and asked if they knew what the perfect passive participle of the the deponent verb “adipiscor” was, do you think they would know? Definitely not. If you went up to somebody on the street right now and asked them what the perfect passive participle of the word “swim” was, do you think they would know? Definitely not. You just sort of use those types of constructions in your daily speech without mention.

And that is what is so wrong with the state of language education. Teaching someone the words and grammar of a language only teaches them the words and grammar of a language. Not the language itself. People do not learn languages as babies by being formulaically taught the words and grammar of whatever language it is they need to know. They are taught words, spoken to in phrases and sentences. Language immersion. Not grammar and rote. We are not teaching our kids a language in class. They are being made to memorize words. No wonder nobody ever takes AP Language exams. People, we have an amazing resource here in forcibly exposing children to another language for 43 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Let’s at least make sure that we do something with them.



So, that’s the premise for my synthesis paper. What do you think?


Written by Sri

March 1, 2009 at 1:46 PM

Posted in Musings

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. I’m honored that you used my name for your examples


    March 1, 2009 at 4:21 PM

  2. Greek came before Latin…Alexander the Great single-handedly spread Greek over half the Old World.


    March 1, 2009 at 5:32 PM

  3. Ha. Love it.


    March 5, 2009 at 12:18 PM

  4. […] to, etc, etc. The usual Asian-parent rhetoric. (Yes, even though my parents are not Asian (see here), the same rhetoric applies to Indian parents as […]

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