Essay:Linguistic superiority

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All too recently at RationalWiki, we had the pleasure of watching a Mr. Schlafly state that “you'd also insist that no language is superior to another”, as well as “Neither of you above will admit that some languages are superior to others”. Well, Mr. Schlafly, I would have to say indeed that no language is “superior” to any other particular language.

As late as the 20th century, even linguistic scholars were adamant in their belief that English was a superior language in terms of elegance, efficiency, and beauty. Furthermore, people assumed that small-scale, non-western cultures characterized by their simple technology “suffered” from, a diminished capacity to express complex or abstract ideas. Following the lead of Franz Boas, however, such a view is no longer relevant.

Studies conducted of several small-scale languages have demonstrated, time and time again, that they are no less capable of expressing a wide range of ideas found in high-technology societies.

As an example, let’s compare a western language, English, to the small-scale Navajo language of the American southwest. It is true that Navajo speakers do not have separate noun forms for the singular and plural (for example, -s in dogs, or –ren in children), and they lack gender-specific terms (he, she, it, they) generally used in English. In addition, there are no adjectives in the Navajo language, because such a role is not needed, being played by the verb.

Despite not making the same distinctions, the Navajo language can express some grammatical distinctions that are difficult or overly wordy in the English language. The English phrase “I am going” cannot be said in Navajo, but the verb stem would include more information, such as “ I am going on foot/on plane/on horse. In this way, the Navajo language expresses in a verb phrase (two words) what English takes in five words, both expressing displacement (describing non-concrete activities) and conveying information. It is the permutation of the "going" verb that describes how the person is going.

It is our attitude towards “prevailing linguistic superiority” that has led the United States to be called, only half-jokingly, the “Land of the free, home of the monolingual”. It is a difficult challenge to name a single country in which so many citizens speak only one language. In the European Union, as of 2005, 50% of all people speak a second language with fluency, and 80% of students between fifteen and twenty-four have functional proficiency.

In the United States, both numbers are appallingly low. Only 4% of adults and 6% of undergraduates have the same proficiency in a second language.

This has led to the United States being a butt of unpleasant jokes in the global community. As of 2005, about 10,000 U.S citizens (I was also surprised at the low number) conducted business directly in Japan, but fewer than 5% even spoke any Japanese. It is very hard to imagine why those “inscrutable” Japanese leaders are unwilling to buy our products with that knowledge.

So are languages superior to one another? The simple answer is no. All languages, regardless of “beauty” or “elegance” accomplish the same thing; they express ideas, exhibit displacement, provide a system of communication, and convey thoughts. Just because you cannot, or will not, learn that language does not in any way make yours “superior”