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Glossolalia: Aramaic lessons

Friday, 20 May, 2016

This is the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things semantic, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We started on Monday with Singlish, followed up on Tuesday with decacorns, moved on to Euro English on Wednesday and met Parsey McParseface yesterday. To end this mini-series, it’s time to consider whether past language can tell us anything about present and future language.

First, the present: A new study from the Gallant Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley has major implications for how we understand language structuring in the brain. Published in Nature on 28 April, “Natural Speech Reveals the Semantic Maps That Tile Human Cerebral Cortex” reveals that we use our entire brain — and not just the temporal lobe, as once believed — to group words by meaning. Every “brain dictionary” appears to be unique, but they share some surprising similarities.

Now, the past: Aramaic was once the lingua franca of empires, but today it’s reduced to about half a million speakers, who call it Assyrian, Chaldean, Mandaic and Syriac, to name but four varieties. According to the Bible, the Aramaeans were named after Noah’s grandson Aram and they started out a small nomadic group. By the 11th century BC, however, they ruled large tracts of Mesopotamia, covering parts of modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq, including the fabled city of Babylon. Modern Aramaic Aramaic was the English of its day and unified a large number of peoples across an enormous region. It was a sign of sophistication; it was the key to experiencing life beyond the parish, and it was the language Jesus spoke.

There are many differences between English and Aramaic — English is apparently easy to learn, while Aramaic is not — but that had little effect on English’s emergence as a global language, or on Aramaic’s rise and fall argues John McWhorter in “Where Do Languages Go to Die? The tale of Aramaic, a language that once ruled the Middle East and now faces extinction.” Snippet:

“At this point, I am supposed to write that English’s preeminence could end as easily as Aramaic’s. Actually, however, I doubt it: I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history. It happened to rise to its current position at a time when three things had happened, profoundly transformative enough to stop the music, as it were: print, widespread literacy, and an omnipresent media.

Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even — arbitrary but possibly impregnable. If the Chinese, for example, rule the world someday, I suspect they will do it in English, just as King Darius ruled in Aramaic and Kublai Khan, despite speaking Mongolian, ruled China through Chinese translators in the 13th century C.E. Aramaic held sway at a time when a lingua franca was more fragile than it is today.”

As John McWhorter notes, literacy and media are driving the dominance of English. Those Gallant Laboratory finding about the brain’s semantic maps were published in English in Nature, the world’s most cited scientific journal. Empire is playing a role as well. The Gallant Laboratory is located in California, not in China. If the Chinese rule the world someday, “I suspect they will do it in English,” says McWhorter. Maybe. But Beijing has imperial ambitions, too, and the language of the Ghost Fleet masters and commanders will not be English. More about that another day, however.


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