Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In the Company of Dead Languages

Ola Wikander has written a book called "I döda språkets sällskap" (ie "In the Company of Dead Languages") which I am reading right now. One item of note that I have gleaned in this book: the world's first known named author is Enheduanna, a Sumerian woman, writing in 2300 BC. And the first grammar is a Sumerian one, written for speakers of Accadian, who needed to know Sumerian after conquering Sumeria and in the process taking on Sumerian culture (by the way, ancient Sumeria is located in the area we now know as Iraq, and one of the pieces of writing in Sumerian, a stele, talks about a horrible war, the worst known ever, in which hundreds of men took part! How times have changed, now we have hundreds of thousands).
I was interested in Wikander's book, since I've studied a number of dead languages myself over the years, under the tutaledge of Joe Voyles, a professor of historical (Indo-European) linguistics. If the language is dead and Germanic, I've done it. Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, Gothic, Old English...
Studying dead languages puts a perspective on the language issues of today. What we speak as English is a language that the writer of Beowulf never could have imagined, and Shakespeare would also be hard-put to understand our babbling away in modern American English. In five hundred years, the language we now call modern English will be something else. No amount of wishing otherwise will change the fact that English never was a pure and stable linguistic phenomenon, and it will continue to change, differentiate, and, most likely, become a classical dead language.
The language Beowulf spoke almost a thousand years ago is, except for a die-hard enthusiasts, is as dead as dead can be, hence the need for Seamus Heany's translation. In five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred years, students of Classical American English will be sweating over their dictionaries, trying to figure out what the heck we were writing about. Or if they managed to tranfer DVD technologies, what we were talking about.
The language ideation in the United States, what with the recent legislative action and the brouhaha about the National Anthem in Spanish, is a lost cause from the beginning. Our great-grandchildren will be speaking something else than the English we speak today anyway (just a quick glance at Lincoln's Gettysburg Address will bring to mind much change we have already encountered in American English over a mere 140 years).
On the other hand, English, even as it changes, is the language of success in this place and at this time, which is why I think that folks who intend to live here for the rest of their lives have an obligation to learn it, just as someone moving to Sweden ought to learn Swedish, or learn French in France, or Spanish in Argentina, or Chinese in China. But in the end, all language is a living process that is constantly changing, constantly adapting, and becomes something other than what we ourselves speak (or, rather, once we're gone and buried, have spoken). Then our children and children's children will have issues of their own with the language policies of the day.
Does anyone remember that English won over German as the language to be used in the United States by one vote? Certainly the dominance of German in the United States has changed from the 1780s to now, and the issue of whether the national language should be German has definitely died out, along with the large number of colonists who spoke it, though their great-great grandchildren live on speaking an English they would not recognize from their own era. The dominance of German as the second language spoken in the United States lasted for a long time, though, I must point out. Its place as the mother tongue of a great number of Americans did not end until 1960. By the 1970 census, Spanish had overtaken German for the first time. During the First World War, German speakers were encouraged (if that is the right word in this context, since laws were made and books were burned) to switch to English in church services, newspapers and book publishing, which was the beginning of the end of American-born native German language speakers. No one born now would ever imagine the huge presence German once had here in this country.
And a thousand years from now?
The American English that we speak will have vanished. As all the languages now being spoken will have mutated into different forms, different sounds, different expressions. (Even, maybe, Icelandic will change!)
It's inevitable.
Sumerian, anyone? Or Accadian?
Or for that matter, Beowulf? Chaucer?
Dead languages have much to say about the future of language.


Liz said...

I learned about Enheduanna from "A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now", which I bought for myself when I was a kid. The translations of the Inanna myths also mention Enheduanna!

Laura the 06 Host said...

I really like Enheduanna being the first known poet in the tradition of writing as we know it, and of course Deborah's song in the Hebrew Bible's book of Judges is supposed to be the oldest example of Hebrew poetry as well.
I had one class in feminist literary theory back in the day at UW, but it was mostly present day theory and literature from Virginia Woolf on.
In my medieval lit classes, I learned much more about women writing throughout history.
But I never did much dead languages before 1000 CE, so I didn't know about Enheduanna until now.
Of course, Ole Wikander's translations are not in English, but I'm sure that Open Books will have a copy of A Book of Women Poets that I can get. Though for those of you who read Swedish, his prize in translation is well-deserved.

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