The Dialect of the Tribe, Series 3 Number 16

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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The UN has 193 members – that is, it recognizes 193 states. Some of these member-states recognize other states which are not members, which means that even to the question, ‘How many nation-states are there in the world?’, the answer will vary according to who (and when) you ask. And there is far less agreement as to how many languages Earth speaks. One scholar’s (or interested party’s) language is another’s mere dialect or idiom. The 1911 Encylcopaedia Britannica, put the figure at around 1000. The current estimate is around 7000.  

However else a nation-state may be defined, it may not be defined as a geographical unit of language. Languages are no more contained within the shape and frontiers of a nation than are wild flowers, seeds, rivers, fish, butterflies, clouds or migrating birds. 

Carl Linnaeus in the mid-18th century named 10,000 species of life on earth. The latest estimate is 8.7 million. Continually we discover more, and idly or quite deliberately endanger and exterminate more and more among those we name and know. Twenty years ago Edward O.Wilson estimated that 27,000 species go into – are dispatched into – extinction every year. ‘I had not thought death had undone so many…’ 

Languages are dying too. One a fortnight. Perhaps half of our 7000 will be gone by 2100. Such a peculiar hallmark ours, this drive and drift into mass extinction. In the Permian, long before we were here, 95% of life on earth vanished. But that was thanks to an asteroid, it wasn’t engineered by the most intelligent creatures then present. 

A people’s self-identity springs in large measure from its language. For that reason when one people or nation annexes another, or wishes to homogenize itself, it will control or even seek to exterminate the languages within its frontiers by which heterogeneity is signalled and asserted. So Franco acted against Basque and Catalan; in some Welsh schools in the 19th century any child heard speaking Welsh was made to wear a little collar, a wooden tablet, on which was written WN, that is: ‘Welsh Not’; the French, when they got Alsace back in 1919, forbade the speaking of German; the Germans, returning in the summer of 1940, forbade the speaking of French (speakers of Alsatian were given five years to learn German and in the meantime were isssued with a permit to speak their ‘dialect’among themselves). And so on. Any number of instances. Stop their language, stop their voice. Without a voice, they are at your mercy. Tony Harrison said it in his poem ‘National Trust’:
The dumb go down in history and disappear
And not one gentleman’s been brought to book:
Mes den hep tavas a–gollas y dyr
(Cornish) –
‘the tongueless man gets his land took.’

These things are very well known. After such knowledge, what is to be done? Well at least we can try to stop it happening now.

T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, from which we took the phrase that is the title of this issue, was completed in September 1942 and first published the following month in The New English Weekly. Ned Thomas (see p. ) comments wryly on ‘the familiar compound ghost’ who speaks the words. Here is their immediate context: ‘Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us/ To purify the dialect of the tribe …’ Surely even then that line must have had a sinister tone? Nowadays, after the opening of the camps and the archives, and with yet more added and still being added to the list of cleansings, it sends a shudder through the soul. Between the first draft of ‘Little Gidding’, August 1941, and its completion, Reinhard Heydrich, directed by Goering, prepared the measures for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question and presented them to the responsible officers at the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942, after which they were implemented. No one in England could have known about Wannsee, but most did know by then, or should have known, about the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht and the mass emigration and exiling of Jews and many others the Reich wanted rid of. 

Doubtless Eliot’s ghost had his own dialect in mind, the language that, as a poet, he felt responsible for and needed to ‘purify’ – the better, as the next line puts it, ‘to urge the mind to aftersight and foresight. Still, ‘purify’ is wrong.

Many nations have at one time or another sought to purify the national language. German during the Thirty Years War was grievously adulterated by the Spanish, French, Italian, English, Croat, Swedish and heaven knows what else criss-crossing its territory with the armies. Academies were founded and individual writers engaged themselves to protect the native speech. Fremdwörter (as they are called) stand out in German more than they do in English, and are thus more offensive to purists. In the Third Reich a new linguistic purism ran with the racial. Nowadays the French are notably anxious about words riding in from across the Channel and the Atlantic. 

Even within the nation there may be one class or district which claims to speak the purest and only proper dialect and on that basis despises all speakers of anything else. Tuscans, Hanoverians, Castilians have all thought they were it. And how uncomfortable so many millions of English have been made to feel by the inventors and enforcers of Queen’s English and RP. Ye are many, they are few! But how long it has taken for the many to disenthral themselves. Now not even the Queen speaks her English as purely as she used to (old recordings prove it) and there was something almost touchingly out-of-touch in David Starkey’s contribution to our understanding of the recent riots. The chavs have become black, he said, the language of the streets is now Jamaican patois, so that he feels, poor chap, like a foreigner in his own country. (See the Language Log website for an explanation of what Jamaican patois actually is). 

Five hundred languages are spoken in London. And if you want to hear how beautifully various one of them, English, is, go to the British Library (or their website) and listen in to their thesaurus of speaking voices. ‘Evolving English’, they have called it: ‘One language, many voices.’

And there we have it, in that nutshell. There were lexicographers in the 18th century who wished not just to record but also to fix the national language in their volumes, believing it to have reached its best and final form. As though you could legislate a language into fixity! A language must evolve or die, all its speakers may contribute to its life. And every speaking voice of a language is unique, every person’s speech is an ideolect, every poet’s language is as distinguishable as his or her DNA. Translating a poem, you mix your own voice with the poet’s. Thus doubly flighted, poems pass over the frontiers like seeds.

David and Helen Constantine

August 2011

David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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Languages are dying too. One a fortnight. Perhaps half of our 7000 will be gone by 2100. Such a peculiar hallmark ours, this drive and drift into mass extinction. David and Helen Constantine

Editorial comments


23rd Jan 2012

good post, added you to my RSS reader.


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