Does it matter if language disappears? Languages, of course have been disappearing at the rate of knots for many years. Some have never had any written form, so can only be sustained by anyone who cares enough to perpetuate them. There are around 6,700 languages spoken in the world but half may be lost before the century ends. Many would say it was a good thing, a blessing; that it might lead to less misunderstanding, more global cohesion, but our language is what defines us. It is our frame of reference and the means on which our culture rests. Cavemen communicated with their paintings on the walls, their own language, then came hieroglyphics and so written language developed in myriad directions.
As a child at primary school, learning ‘English’ in the fifties, the exercises I undertook were very different to those taught and practised in schools today. There was nothing specific to address ‘speaking and listening’. Our early writing was ‘copy writing’. Those who’d whisked through their first set of reading books [‘Janet and John’ for me] and picked up the basics could begin their own amoebic scribbling, writing ‘news’ or rudimentary stories. We laboured over grey workbooks, completing page after page of exercises that involved completing phrases and sayings eg ‘a stitch in time saves ____’ or ‘many hands make light ____’; or we’d have had to learn collective nouns- ‘a ______ of geese’, ‘a _____ of sheep’, ‘a ______ of fish’ –or even, ‘a flock of _____’!
Oddly, I enjoyed completing these exercises. They were like games or puzzles to me, except that I was not allowed to race ahead with them, or if I did my prize was to ‘help’ someone who was struggling, not a task I relished.
I would guess there are few children-or adults these days who would know what the collective noun for porpoises is or what you should not put all your eggs in. But does any of it matter? I feel that it does, because the more our language shrinks, the less we have at our disposal to make ourselves understood, and misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s troubles.
Texting, emails, symbols for words, abbreviations, acronyms-these are all the tools of expediency that we’ve come to expect, and from which we can never look back. This is progress. But I still say that the bedrock of language must never be dumbed down, never be forgotten, or we will have less to communicate with than the cavemen did!