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Linguistics: Is There a ‘Superior’ Language?

Most linguists today would argue that all languages are equal without any reference to superior or inferior (or primitive) languages.

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In making this claim, they are typically careful to point out that they are referring to the ‘mother tongue’ of a given individual, the native language of the speaker. Because this is the language that contains cues to their culture and heritage, there are no languages that can be considered superior or inferior to another language. However, others argue that as minority cultures are brought into the mainstream of the dominant group and begin learning to communicate in the language of the dominant culture, the languages of these minority groups become less and less important, becoming clearly inferior in their decreased ability to convey meaning to the world. By comparing the arguments of those who say all languages are equal to the arguments of those who say there are clearly superior and inferior languages, one is better able to assess one’s personal position on the issue.

There are several ways in which languages can be considered as neither superior nor inferior to other languages. The first of these relates to the concept of the ‘mother tongue’. It stands to reason that the language one learns in the home is the language by which they are most able to communicate to the fullest extent possible within their understanding. In other words, native English speakers will be able to clarify and communicate their ideas to a much fuller extent in English than they can in the Spanish they learned in high school. This does not make Spanish inferior or English superior except in the case of that particular native English speaker because certainly the roles are reversed in the case of the native Spanish speaker who learned English in high school.

The importance and equality of all languages are emphasized in the words of an ancient Chinese sage who indicated that the correct use of language was the most important thing for human relations: “If language is not used correctly, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion” (Fann, 1978). This statement also points out that the equality of languages extends even beyond the realm of the individual’s ability to fully communicate as it conveys important cultural clues as to the heritage and morals of a people. “All languages meet the social and psychological needs of their speakers, are equally deserving of scientific study, and can provide us with valuable information about human nature and society.” (Crystal, 1997). Since languages develop alongside the development of the people who use them, it is natural that it should place stress on things that are deemed important while de-emphasizing things that are considered trivial. If money and commerce are important, for example, then there will be many ways of discussing these issues. The Eskimos have at least four different words used to refer to the concept of snow because these are important distinctions in their world while people who must deal with the substance occasionally only have a single word to describe the weather phenomena. Thus, even if no longer in use, language can provide important cues regarding the culture that used it.

However, when language is no longer used, it has ceased to perform its purpose and must then be considered less effective, less equal, than languages still in use. If this is the case, then there must also be some validity to the claim that there are superior and inferior languages, seemingly largely based upon the number of people who use them and their particular socio-political status within the community at large. It has been noted that “there is hardly a sovereign state on earth that does not contain a language minority … Yet although of equal potential, the languages of all these minorities are not of equal value. All languages are equal only before God and the linguist” (Mackey, 1984). As the language becomes used less, it becomes less able to communicate its primary ideas to its audience, which is also shrinking in size. Although the Shoshone of North America was once a dominant tribe, few people would understand what was meant when they hear the words “wa’ipi buhibite” (green woman). Since the purpose of language is to communicate, it must be considered that those who are able to communicate to a wider audience with a greater degree of detail and alacrity could be considered to be using the superior language. They are able to communicate their thoughts more effectively and to a greater extent than those using an inferior language or one that is only shared by a limited number of people. While the underlying values of the culture begin to die out as the people are assimilated into a different language group and their own language dies, this has been considered by many to be a natural part of human progression. “Languages have the right to die and to retreat from the public domain; and individuals who demand scarce resources to publish, teach, and revive all languages in the name of human rights threaten the cohesion of the national community, the ultimate guarantor of those rights” (Weinstein, 1983). In the end, those who cling to barely known languages confine themselves within that very small cultural group and become less able to function in the greater society. Because they are less able to function, they are looked down upon by those who have adopted the dominant language and thus exaggerate these ideas of inferiority.

This finally breaks down into the helpless confusion referred to by the ancient Chinese sage when language is used incorrectly.

Both sides of the argument make good points regarding the status of languages in relation to each other and neither is able to prove the other completely wrong. It seems that to retain culture, one must also retain the language of the culture as a spoken, used, evolving thing that is continuously passed from one generation to the next in some context. However, it also seems clear that not all cultures have the same interest in retaining the values of a past that can no longer be a realistic part of the future just as there is no clear way in which the concept of ‘equal languages’ can be adequately discussed. In terms of whether languages have equal validity as a mother tongue to the individual and to the culture in which it is developed, I have to agree that all languages are absolutely equal in value to every other language. However, in considering whether all languages have equal validity as a form of mass communication in today’s increasingly globalized world, in which all people must find a means of communicating with others on a strong interpersonal level, I think it is clear that all languages are not equal as inferior languages lose the ability to evolve with the times or communicate with an outside audience.

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Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Fann, K.T. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.

Mackey, William Francis. “Mother Tongue Education: Problems and Prospects.” Prospects: Quarterly Review of Education. Vol. 14, N. 1, (1984): 37-49.

Weinstein, B. The Civil Tongue: The Political Consequences of Language Choices. New York: Longman, 1983.

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