When did you first become interested in languages?
The first time I can remember being really interested in languages was reading war comics, when I was a little boy. A German would be involved in some nefarious deed and would say, Achtung, Engländer, Engländer and then they would continue their remarks in English, which I always found rather disappointing. I really wanted to know how they would have gone on in German. So I pestered my mother to get me something on German. And she did and I got Teach Yourself German and this was to some extent against the better judgement, as it appeared, of my school at the time who thought that doing Latin and French with Greek coming on would be quite enough for a young lad. I didnt agree and neither did my mother fortunately. As it turned out, she then found me a German teacher who was a Russian emigrant lady, so after wed had a few weeks on German she said, Why dont you do some Russian as well? I thought thats great.
This was all when I was, I suppose, eleven or twelve, and although Ive always enjoyed the variety of languages I did have a bit of a problem in those days. Back then, languages were definitely viewed as being on the humanities side of things. That meant you were supposed to be very keen on creative literature, which went naturally with English, and by and large I wasnt. So there was a slight conflict there. I really loved the nuts and bolts of the languages but at the time I wasnt that concerned about their literatures. Its something I still find now, not so much from a grammatical point of view, but more from the body of culture that goes along with a language. It often makes it quite difficult to distinguish what I am trying to do from simply talking about the literary history of a language which is quite a different thing but I think it an important difference and one that I do try to maintain.
Empires of the Word, it seems to me, consistently gives what you call the self-indulgently tough-minded historical account of global language development a good drubbing. Were you, at least in part, motivated to write the book to refute a view that many still pay lip service to?
Well, no, the real motivation for writing the book was almost like the Thousand and One Nights. I realized after Id given a lecture on the history of languages and how it might be a precursor for their future, that there were all these stories there that, by and large, linguists knew and sometimes put at the beginning of their grammars, but which were not known to the vast educated public. I thought there was scope for telling them those stories.
Having said that, I have been working as a linguist in various ways all my life and there had been a certain degree of frustration which had built up from being within the community of the number one multinational lingua franca of our day, namely English. Certain things do grate. Like this whole idea that everybody speaks English, dont they? And also that languages and what comes along with them are, essentially, dispensable because languages are just about communication. That is the fundamental view within the English-speaking world, and its one that tends to build up in large dominant language communities. You could say a similar thing happened in the Roman Empire and during the years of the Roman Catholic Churchs dominance after the fall of the Empire. So a wish to refute that unexamined dogma was certainly in the back of my mind and does come out in the book. There is plenty of evidence that you miss a lot if you accept that kind of dogma.
Towards the end of the book, you describe the distinctive traits of different languages; you write about Arabics austere grandeur and egalitarianism, Latins civic sense etc., etc. An admiration for Sanskrit is palpable, but did you ever feel the urge to make value judgements about one language over another?
I dont think I ever made any judgement about one language being nicer than any other or anything. I certainly felt it was rather jolly to have a second chance to go back to India. I got to do a nice long chapter on Sanskrit and then
here we are again with English in India as well! I was conscious that I liked that. But its dangerous when one starts saying that some languages are better or more beautiful than others. This is obviously a risk once you start taking seriously the idea that languages have some sort of character with a human meaning.
Actually, over the last few months I have just been trying to teach myself Persian. Ive made some progress with it and now I am reading the Shahnameh in Persian. Its notable that the sort the language it is, with all the chs and shs sounds, is exactly the kind of language that J. R. R. Tolkien based his black speech on in Lord of the Rings. This, of course, is supposed to be an evil language to go with the orcs who speak it. And this is really just a failure of human imagination and understanding by Tolkien. But it is interesting that he should have had that feeling perhaps what he was really doing was identifying with all the medieval people he spent his life studying, who naturally saw Saracen as the embodiment of evil. Who knows, that may be a message deep in the Lord of the Rings, which Ill admit I enjoyed very much as a young teenager, but, as you can see, there are difficulties there.
The thing is, you really have to have sympathy for everything without condemning the things you find harder to identify with. And I am much more at ease with some of the languages than others.
Wittgenstein once referred to a language as a form of life, noting that if a lion could talk we would not be able to understand it. But as our world becomes increasingly globalized and homogenized, I wondered if you felt that our forms of life and the kinds of human experience available to us and consequently our languages will be gradually reduced in some way?
I dont think we are in danger of having a reduced experience in general but certain traditional ways of seeing the world are in danger of being lost. Others will come along and, given enough time, others will rebuild. It may be that in the short and middle term we are in danger of losing stuff. This is something that comes up in the business of language revitalization with endangered languages. Sometimes you are down to a few very old people and usually if you succeed in reviving a language in that context, its very difficult to bring back the specific sentence structure if the language that has taken over does not share the same sentence structure. There are numerous examples of this in central Africa. People go back to speaking a language but they are using the grammar of the interloper language they are trying to give up, just putting the words in.
Some linguists have remarked that in the case of modern Hebrew, it is really re-lexified Russian, because the way Hebrew is spoken now is different structurally from the way you see it in the Bible. Its very difficult to pin down what is really being lost there. One sees it when one tries to get in contact with ancient cultures; the one we most naturally try in Europe is classical Latin. You find that even if you know all the words and grasp the structure, it is often very difficult to read it easily in the way that you can read either medieval Latin or modern French.
Now some would say, Oh, its because classical Latin is very intricate and specially structured to be beautifully formulated, and so on and that Romans themselves found it hard to read. But we face the same problem even with the Roman comedies, which were intended for rapid reading. So something has changed and we no longer readily have access to it.