I am not one of those people who believe that if we all just spoke the same language all of the problems of the world would be solved. In case you haven’t noticed from this blog, I really, really love languages. I love that we have so many thousands of languages and I love that they are all so different and bizarre and beautiful and maddening, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So I’ve never been sold on the story of the Tower of Babel as being a curse, and the variety of tongues a burden us mortals have to bear.
Having said that, I promise I’m not entirely naive. I realize that sometimes being unable to speak each others’ languages can be a serious hurdle.
I’ve been reminded of this while reading The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, which I’ve talked about before. The author, an archaeologist by specialty, is making a case for a homeland for the Indo-European languages, and in doing so he has to bridge the divide between the disciplines of archaeology and historical linguistics. But he constantly encounters yet another divide, this one within his own field – most of the literature published about archaeology in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, his proposed homeland, is in Russian. And he’s an English speaker.
It’s easy to see why this might be the case: Russian archaeologists excavate in Russia and publish in Russian, much like I’m sure most if not all excavations of Native American sites are performed by Americans and published in English. So it makes sense, but it really is a serious hurdle. Scholars can only refer to existing research and literature if they can read it, of course. If you can’t read everything, you’re bound to miss something. The author of this book refers to a site called Sintashta, a stunning archaeological find that might change everything we think we know about Bronze Age Europeans – but for decades the literature was only in Russian, so non-Russian scholars could have been basing all of their histories on incomplete information.
Archaeology isn’t the only field where this is a problem. This divide exists even within linguistics itself. German and French scholarship has been fundamental to linguistics for centuries, so most graduate schools require you to be able to read French and German. But Russia has its own strong and quite unique traditions of linguistic scholarship (traditions that helped lead Yuri Knorozov to major breakthroughs in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, for example). And I’m sure the same is true of practically every field in every country with serious academic development.
It’s like scholars are all trying to put these puzzles together but they don’t quite have all of the pieces, and they’re not really sure where those pieces are or even if they exist yet. I don’t want to spend too much time wringing my hands about this, but I can’t help but wonder – what are we missing?