Language (or learning) — what’s it for?

My maternal grandfather spoke Scottish Gaelic; it was his first and his preferred language.    He’d sit on his sunporch with a few friends (including my paternal grandfather) and construct Gaelic words for modern devices that weren’t in Gaelic dictionaries.  And he maintained that Gaelic was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden.

I’ve always wished that I could could speak it.  Gaelic could be a bridge not only to the past but to a culture I know little about.  The reality for me, though, is that I don’t have that bridge and am not likely to work at constructing it.  The few phrases I can muster, the little I can comprehend, are like pieces of board that get me across a few gaps.

Yes, I could take online courses, or turn to groups like An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach (the Gaelic Society of America), where I found a lively discussion about teaching Gaelic on LiveMocha.

The fact is, though, that I don’t have time or energy to get to a level of Gaelic proficiency that would satisfy me.  “Speaking Gaelic,” for me, is shorthand for a warren of skills. I’m pretty good at English; I’ve got some ability in French.  If I were to start another language, I’d want to be able to read it, at least at newspaper level, and to hold conversations in it like conversations I’d want to have in English.  I’m much likelier to try that for Spanish–though the idea of Chinese intrigues me.

All of which has to do with individual goals and definitions of “learning a language.”   One person might be happy simply to read, and have no concern about speaking.  As Henry Beard noted, nulli adsunt Romanorum qui locutionem tuam corrigant (there aren’t any Romans around to correct your pronunciation).

At first glance, the goal of “learning a language” seems obvious–but when you poke a bit, you uncover all kinds of reasons, from getting into grad school to picking up romantic partners.  And, of course, languages are messy.

One reason for that mess, says Arika Okrent, is that nobody invented human languages.  They weren’t designed (much to the dismay of the Language Police).  As she asks,  “Who invented French?”

A linguist, Okrent recently published the strangely fascinating In the Land of Invented Languages.  She’s studied a daunting number of languages deliberated created, of which Esperanto and Klingon are perhaps the most widely know… or spoken.

I think of learning as that which you’ve stored, retrieved, and then applied to some situation.  You recognize a spot on the map as France.  You’ve noticed that the slogans on the Olympic ice (with glowing hearts / des plus brillants exploits) aren’t the same idea at all.  You’ve said something spontaneously and correctly in another language.

Okrent notes that Esperantists “are motivated by the goal of fostering peace by bridging language barriers.”  For them, Esperanto is a means to an end.  They enjoy their language (they even have rock songs in it), but they’re confused by the complete lack of purpose for Klingon.

In part, she suggests, that’s because the goal of the Klingon speakers is so different from that of the Esperantists.

Klington is a type of puzzle that appeals to a type of person.  It is difficult, but not impossible, formed from the stuff of real language, just strange enough, just believable enough, small enough that you can know every word, the entire canon, but flexible enough to lend itself to the challenge of translation…

What are Klingon speakers doing?  They are engaging in intellectually stimulating language play.  They are enjoying themselves.  They are doing language for language’s sake, art for art’s sake, and like all committed artists, they will do their thing, critics be damned.

CC-licensed bridge image adapted from a photo by Unwrite These Pages / Jared Winkel.

6 thoughts on “Language (or learning) — what’s it for?

  1. Esperanto offers both fun and joy and great practicality. I have used Esperanto a lot on my travels – life is not long enough to learn every language on earth.

  2. I’d go further, Bill, and say that any language offers the possibility of fun and joy. Practicality seems to me more a judgment that an individual makes for himself.

    Bill provided a link to, a site to help people learn Esperanto. In the meanwhile, partly in memory of Jack D., my grandfather, a few lines of Gaelic:

    O mo dhùthaich ‘s tu th’air m’aire
    Uibhist chubhraidh ùr nan gallan…
    Nam biodh agam fhin de stòras
    Dà dheis aodaich, paidhear bhrògan
    Agus m’ fharadh bhith ‘nam phòca
    ‘S ann air Uibhist dhèanainn seòladh

    Oh my country is on my mind
    Fresh, fragrant Uist of the saplings…
    If I had riches
    A change of clothes, a pair of shoes
    A prayer in my pocket
    It is to Uist I would be sailing

  3. I’m not sure how “spoken dialect” differs from “spoken language,” in the sense that all human language once existed only in spoken form. (The terms bring to mind Max Weinreich’s observation that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.)

    It’s no doubt true that since the invention of writing, and even more so with the identification of education with class and thus status, that various groups have tried to influence the development of a language. Despite the lip service they give to the Academy, however, French people talks about weekend and top model and any number of other nonstandard terms.

    In the opposite direction, despite support from semi-official planners like l’Academie Française, le Conseil supérieur de la langue française, and the French government, an effort in the 1990s to simplify French spelling (eliminating, for example, most circumflexes) went essentially nowhere. As Nadeau and Barlow pointed out in The Story of French, after a lifetime of having the ph of nénuphar banged into their heads, maybe nobody wanted to be the first to spell it nénufar.

    To me, one of the key themes of Okrent’s book is that human languages emerged in a messy, inefficient fashion. The native speakers of those languages communicate with them and adapt them over time, sometimes more deliberately, sometimes less. I’ve cited language learning elsewhere on this blog as a goal for which people can have wildly different meanings. Some people are language hobbyists, taking pleasure from mastering the basics of many languages. Others want to succeed in business, or learn more about a culture they’ve glimpsed through subtitled film or translations.

    While I do see Esperanto as inherently different from English, or from the almost-surely-dying Gaidhlig, that does not mean I think it’s not worth learning. it’s just something I myself am not going to learn, any more than I’m going to learn Czech. And although I’m not aware than anyone I know speaks Esperanto, it’s clear that at least two presumed speakers search fairly widely for mention of Zamenhof’s linguistic brainchild.

    I’m glad you both took time to comment.

  4. I confess that I have not read the book, but have you heard of Fanagalo? It is a language invented (yes, invented) in South Africa on the mines. Because the miners were migrant labourers drawn from the many tribal groups in southern Africa, each of which has its own language and culture (modern South Africa has eleven official languages and many others are spoken in the country), communication within teams became a problem.

    Fanagalo is a pidgin based on English, Afrikaans and Zulu. The name means ‘like this’ in Zulu. There are variants in other African countries.

  5. Fanagalo is new to me, Karyn, but not surprising. I remember hearing years ago about Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland seeking to rediscover their Irish roots. Reportedly they’d teach each other bits of Irish (Gaeilge). The resulting mixture, with varying pronunciations and expressions, was sometimes called Jailtacht (a humorous reference to the main Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, the Gaeltacht).

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