One of the axioms of linguistics is that all languages are equal. You may prefer the English of many millions to the Chividunda of a few thousand, but the two languages are equally expressive. Anything one of them can say, the other can say. Is it true? And if it is true, how can anyone possibly know it? This week Babel’s Dawn is trying to get a handle on where the border lies between the biological properties that support language and the cultural properties that distinguish a particular language.
We can imagine a scale running from 0 to 20.
At the 0 point language is 100% biological properties and 0% cultural properties. Nobody believes that this number describes the linguistic situation. If it did, there would be no biological difference between human speech and rooster crowing. Biology determines it all. But there are people who think the number must be very low. Our low-number pole this week is given in a paper (here) by Derek Bickerton that sees all linguistic changes as reflecting the “limited alternatives [available within a] biological envelope.” Implicit in this position is the notion that all languages are equal because they all reflect the same biology.
The 20 point on the scale marks the place where language is 100% cultural and 0% biological. Nobody under cross-examination would be able to maintain this position. Strokes can interfere with speech in many different and bizarre ways, and, of course, death puts a period to it as well. But, our opposite pole point, represented by a presentation made by Bernard H. Bichakjian at Stellenbosch would take a very high number. Bichakjian insists that languages do improve and that some are better (more efficient) than others. He scoffs at the orthodox doctrine of linguistic equality around the world.
Remarkably, neither party is concerned with the most obvious way languages differ and have different powers: vocabulary. For myself, vocabulary matters and I often regret the loss of distinctions between words like uninterest and disinterest because it makes for a loss of precision in one’s speech: The disinterested scientist was very interested in learning the outcome of his experiment. That sentence is gibberish unless the distinction between the two words persists. But that’s me, our polar opposites on the question of language evolution don’t care about vocabulary, so the most obvious way in which English has gotten richer during the past millennium is outside their argument. They are both talking about syntax.
Also excluded from this discussion, at least from the biological perspective, are pidgin languages, syntactically-simple and vocabulary-impoverished languages used to conduct transactions between members of different linguistic communities. It is not as though they have been forgotten. Bickerton is an expert on pidgins.
Presumably, the troops in Iraq today speak a pidgin Arabic, some kind of mix of English and Arabic words stuck together so that soldiers can order local civilians about. When American troops were in Vietnam, they used a pidgin Vietnamese that had descended from the French version, which is why the French word beaucoup was used by Americans speaking to the Vietnamese. Pidgins are real languages in the sense that their vocabulary and maybe even a little phrasing has to be learned, but they are obviously inadequate to many tasks. You cannot translate either the New Testament or the Koran into pidgin Arabic. But, except in the case in which somebody’s original linguistic community has been destroyed, pidgins are never a person’s only language. So they too are excluded from the proposition that all languages are equal.
Some languages today are descended from pidgins. These are creoles and again, Bickerton is a great authority on them. When pidgin speakers are removed from their original linguistic community and forced to live in a society of other pidgin speakers their children will transform the pidgin into a creole. In other words, the language will begin to have some syntactical complexity and expressive richness, enabling its members to participate in a true linguistic community. They can speak one-to-one about what is in their hearts. They are true languages but is, say, Haitian Creole as rich and complex a language as French itself?
Wonderful as the creoles are, and I have long considered them a great testament to human resilience, they do not emerge wholly formed from the mouths of the children who create them. They have to evolve their complexity over some generations before they enter what Bickerton calls their “biological envelope.” So, when we say that all languages are equal, we also have to exclude the creole languages that have not yet reached their full level of complexity.
I asked Bichakjian how he explained creole languages since they seem to prove that besides a passive linguistic “potential” there is an active drive to create language, but he gave me no answer. He did, however, comment on the Nicaraguan sign language created by deaf children, saying:
I will not enter into a discussion on whether the Nicaraguan Sign Language is a “spontaneous emergence” or not, but the fact that the next generation of deaf children immediately began to improve it supports the view that language is an instrument that has been steadily remodeled to make it better.
He also wrote me that, “the historical record shows irrefutably that that instrument [language] has been steadily perfected, making it an ever more powerful and yet ever more parsimonious conveyer and processor of information.”
Much of what Dr. Bichakjian writes is difficult to take seriously. Speaking of Latin, for example, he told me that “it should be borne in mind that noun clauses are a post-classical development.” This statement so shocked me that I contacted a Latin professor, Dr. Mark Riley at California State University, Sacramento, to ask him if it was really possible that the Romans couldn’t say, "Marcus asked about what Gaius learned in the Forum." He replied that Latin has plenty of noun clauses and gave me a translation of my sentence, Marcus quid Gaius in Foro didicisset rogavit. I also found a web site that discusses Latin noun clauses (here).
And yet does anyone without an ideological stance doubt that we can use language in expressive ways that were denied speakers of one hundred thousand years ago (to use Bickerton’s number)?