Roughly 7,102 languages are spoken worldwide. As such, an investigation into the nature of language lends itself to a virtually unlimited store of methods and conclusions. The scientific study of language is not as straightforward as one might assume. There are social, philosophical, scientific, and grammatical factors to take in to account.
Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society makes quite the claim in reference to the spread of language and its bearing on the world moving forward. It is asserted that certain, more prolific, languages can be seen, not only as methods of communication, but as “language empires”. Specifically, viewing English as one of these language empires gives its spread an imperial tone. Sociolinguistics claims that English can be seen as “the killer language”. This bears serious consequences for the rest of the world and the preservation of cultures. To quantify this claim, in just under about 400 years (1588-1952) the worldwide number of English speakers rose from about 5 to 7 million speakers (mainly living within the actual British Isles) to about 250 million English speakers worldwide (with the overwhelming majority outside of the actual boundaries of the British Isles). In other words, this is an approximately 4000 percent increase in English speakers in about 400 years or an average 10 percent increase every year since 1588. This type of anthropological and sociolinguistic research into English as a language lends itself to many questions about the future and what kind of policies should be taken in reference to language and it’s natural (or forced) spread.
The diagram below, produced by UNESCO, displays these sorts of language empires visually. Pictured are the 23 most spoken languages in the world with each bubble identifying the countries that the language is spoken in. For example, the largest bubble is Chinese (in this case Chinese is counted as a ‘macrolanguage’ including it’s many dialects) and the largest section of the bubble is China with 1,152 million speakers out of a total 1,192. The smaller bubbles that are still a part of the larger Chinese section represent the other nations with Chinese speakers, such as Taiwan with 21.8 million speakers. However, to clarify, Chinese is not a ‘killer language’ in the same way English is because the vast majority of its speakers still reside within the actual nation of China.
In another vein, language need not only be seen on a surface level as the sort of builder of empires. Instead, language can be seen as the very basis upon which we build our own views of ourselves. Harpham in “Do We Know What We Are? The Science of Language and Human Self-Understanding” argues that the very grammatical basis of words and language shapes our very philosophical viewpoints on what humanity is and by extension what exactly constitutes the oft spoken about concepts of “natural human rights”, “crimes against humanity”, and “the sanctity of human life”.
If taken further, the study of language can help us solve the very current and concrete problems that arise in situations like ‘the refugee crisis’ and increased immigration. We can use the study of language to reveal how children’s views about other’s ethnicities, religions, nationalities, etc. are shaped. Instead of using language to look inward as Harpham does, The Development of Language, seeks to study how language affects our outward perceptions of others and why our attitudes towards peoples are the way they are. To revisit Britain as a sort of numerical example, 32 percent of all Londoners are born outside of the U.K. with over 300 languages being spoken as a first language in London schools. These numbers represent the very real need for the creation of a sort of language based program that teaches children about their peers who are increasingly diverse.
We can furthermore conceivably study languages to look back at the past instead of towards the future, which can be just as eye-opening. Tamil is one of the world’s oldest languages and has been classified as one of the only surviving classical languages. Here a classical language means that the language as it is today can be directly traced back to what it was in ancient times. For example, Latin is a classical language. However Latin, like almost every other classical language has died out. So, as a classical language still in wide use, a systematic and scientific analysis such as that conducted by Prakasar in “Place of Tamil in the Science of Language” has the potential to unlock the very origins of language and thought. Looking back at Figure 1, one can see that Tamil has 68.8 million speakers, with 60.7 million in India and the remaining 8.1 million in Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Almost all research into language can be traced back to the work of Max Müller as seen in The Anthropological Review. It can be said that Müller did for language what Freud did for psychology. So while all of his conclusions may not be correct, they can effectively be used as the very building blocks of current and future sociolinguistic study. As such, a reading of his work serves any work in the realm of language well.
As a whole, all of these conclusions made on the very broad topic of language have the ability, in one way or another, to bring us toward a brighter future. With language we can fight neocolonialism and more readily accept refugees. Conversely, we can learn more about the origin of human thought and human self-conception. All of this building upon the work of linguists of old. No matter it’s end goal, it is clear that the study of language provides us with much more than simple explanations of grammar or syntax. This practical application has the very real ability to change human thought and knowledge moving forward.
Barrett, M.D. (Ed.). (1999). Introduction. The Development of Language (pp. 10-14). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.
Charnock, R.S. (1863). On the Science of Language. The Anthropological Review, 1(2), pp. 193-215.
Harpham, G.G. (2009). How Do We Know What We Are? The Science of Language & Human Self-Understanding. Daedalus, 138(3), pp. 79-91.
Hamel, R.E. (2006). The Development of Language Empires. In A. Ulrich, N. Dittmar, K. J. Mattheier & P. Trudgill (Eds.), Sociolinguistics/Soziolinguistik: An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society (pp. 2240-2258). Berlin, New York: Walther de Gruyter.
Prakarsar, S.G. (1927). Place of Tamil in the Science of Language. The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 30(80), pp. 410-435.