What Is the Realistic Value of a Language?

Written by Dyami Millarson

The question of a language’s value is relevant to language preservation. Language has made humans more evolutionarily succesful than any other species on planet Earth. When I think about language deeply and observe what it does, I see it as a system that is mimicking observed reality. Language is a parallel reality of sorts. It took me many years of experience with language-learning to grasp this profound yet simple truth. Language is a simulation of reality, and therefore words are the building blocks of this simulated reality.

Humans gained an evolutionary advantaged by creating their own parallel reality based on the immediately observed reality, and that is also why I think humans gained the mysterious ability of abstraction and imagination. In my view, these are merely an extension of the nature of language: fiction is the product of human beings’ ability to mimick reality by using the tool of language, which is human-created parallel reality. Language is created using very simple human evolutionary tools: it relies primarily on sounds made with the mouth. Yet this is humanity’s most marvellous creation; we used very simple tools to create our own parallel reality, and this helped us to escape the animal world which is trapped in a reality of immediate experience.

How I see it is that animal experience seems to be much less abstract than human experience. Even (historical) human cultures that rely primarily on immediate experience or in other words value direct observation a lot more than imagination do make use of a lot more abstraction than animals would ever be capable of. Humans are the apex predator and hard to predict for animals because humans possess their own creation of language. Language is a cutting-edge tool or technology that allowed humans to outsmart all animals. In a way, one could view terrestrial evolution as a race for the first species to develop complex communication, and humans won that race, thus outcompeting all of Earth’s animals.

The fact that language means simulated reality and words are building blocks of human parallel reality means that each individual human language is its own unique simulation of reality, and hence we may say that each language is a unique worldview. Human culture is intimately tied with abstraction, and therefore with language. Human culture is so complex – I should say abstract – that it requires language for its proper transmission.

Although a lot of skills could be learned simply by watching and imitating as our primate evolutionary relatives also do, many skills do require some additional explanation and could be learned much faster with the help of language. Language-based transmission of skills is much more economical than purely observation-based transmission of skills and therefore humans that possessed language had an advantage in transmitting their culture over those who did not possess the tool of language, and therefore no human peoples who do not have language remain.

Practically all human tribes and clans developed their own language. These languages are complex puzzles that provide the pieces to create a picture of reality. Languages contain data that help us get an idea about what our ancestors experienced and it also helps us understand what we could potentially experience (hypothetically speaking) as well as how we could efficiently describe our current, past or future experiences. Therefore, all indigenous languages provide us with the pieces we need in order to know the range of experiences that the ancestors of a particular group of people regularly experienced. As we may assume that each language is a simulated reality that is an intentional copy of observed reality, we can safely assume that the language of a tribe or clan – whilst languages do usually not appear overnight but build on many generations of observed reality of immediate experience – is an accurate display of the puzzle of the historical reality that a certain people lived in. Said in a simpler way, a tribal language reflects the environment in which a tribe lived; or said in the simplest way, a language is a people’s memories of experiences a.k.a. history.

However, what makes languages a fascinating source of information is that it is not organised in a very strict fashion like a history book. Instead, the information can, to a large extent, be molded however one likes. A language is not like a chess board with a limited set of pieces, but a language is more like an unimaginably huge chess board with so many more possible moves and so many more chess pieces than a normal chess board. It could be said that language is a very, very, very complex game of chess. However, I am hesitant to claim its possibilities are truly infinite; its possibilities are many, but probably not infinite, because I can regularly see its limitations, and I use exactly those limitations to figure out more about the cultures associated with those languages.

Returning to the link between history and language, I find languages much more fascinating than history books, because although the arrangement of historical information in languages may be extremely chaotic, it tells me so much more than a history book could ever tell. Humans live in a chaotic world, and languages reflect this. I can make sense of the chaotic historical and cultural information found in languages, and I have grown to appreciate this much more than the orderly information found in history books. Languages offer you a kind of ‘uncensored’ or ‘unprocessed’ version of history that practically no history book would ever tell you; the way in which languages tell you about history is so much more chaotic, yet so much more informative on so many levels.

When I learn endangered minority languages, I am learning to master new historically based simulated realities that others of my age have never experienced. Languages are essentially the computer games or virtual realities of the past. Each endangered language that I learn is like a very addictive online multiplayer computer game that everyone has forgotten about. When you explore the world of such a computer game, you may find it is lonely and you may realise others are really missing out on what an amazing game it is; and you may also feel the nostalgia the game has about it, and so you feel compelled to ask others to join the game and start using it again so becomes really a multiplayer game again.

Endangered languages are truly like dying online multiplayer games. However, at any point in time those multiplayer games may be rediscovered and people might want to play it again and explore the virtual world with their online group of friends. Languages are amazing tools that require teamwork; they could be enjoyed by a single individual just as an online multiplayer game could technically be played and kept alive by a single individual, but it is so much more fun when others join in and can share and relate to the entire experience. Just as online games may be updated so they meet people’s current expectations, human languages may be updated; this is also what we intend to do by using endangered languages for blogging on WordPress.

26 comments

  1. As you say, language is built by our past experiences, but I believe it also limits our future achievements. English is the only language I truly know, I am not good with sounds because of a hearing problem. English is, for me, a language of technology, and religion. It is not a language of spirituality, as once was Sanskrit, and still are other Eastern languages. Discussing spirituality (not religion) in English is near impossible. Most of our best words are stolen from other languges. Religion was important, spirituality was not.
    Just looking at the word spirit and its many offshoots gives us an indication of the complexity of the word spirit (Look in any good dictionary!) It is used for so many things, including religion, that it is basically a meaningless word. It is overused and under-understood. We need words from other languages to really understand “what I see as the real meaning of spirit,” and therein lies the problem with so many English words. We each have our own understandings of certain words. We reuse them, and recycle them so often we end up with words like the word “run, which at last count had over 120 meanings.” Why cannot we have 120 different words so there is no confusion.
    Let us look at the Inuit language for clarity, they have something like a hundred words for the word “snow!” And not one of theose words means the same as another. Their experience taught them the need to describe snow in all its phases, appearances, uses, and dangers. Such a beautiful language, as languages go. English took the other tack, and made individual words mean more than one thing. That is how we came up with contradictory words, like cleave, and inflammable, which mean their own opposites. Cleave means hold to oneself, and yet cut in two. Inflammable means unburnable, and yet easily lit aflame. Verbal contradictions. How do we even cope in English? But we do!
    We also have a lot of homophones, words that sound exactly the same, but are differently spelled (but we cannot see the spelling when vocalized), and mean totally different things. Rain, rein, and reign was the first one I knowingly encounted in life, and which cònfused the hell out of me. Why would one want to “rain” a country, or “reign” a horse? English drives me crazy.
    But still my pet peeve is spirituality., because I can find no better word in the English language to explain what I mean, and I cannot trust myself to know what foreign words actually mean, and if they describe what I am trying to say. English is totally inadequate to my purpose, but as I said, it is the only language I have. A lose-lose situation all around.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you for your elaborate input!

      You mentioned homophones and words having multiple meanings. This reminds me of learning Latin where I had to learn many words that had different meanings depending on the context. Although English spelling does differentiate between rain, rein and reign, there is no such distinction in the spoken language where the meaning is purely based on context. Languages in the past might have even been more context-based than our modern languages (I suspect the first human languages on the planet were based on context to the highest degree imaginable) and we gradually developed more specific concepts whenever the need arose. Humans are creative beings and they can coin new words if they think new words are needed. I think small languages are very conducive to human creativity, because it is easier to spread new concepts, and that is why many highly specialised terms might arise in such small languages. For instance, there are about 70 words for ‘walking’ in Eilauners, the indigenous language of Schiermonnikoog (a picturesque Wadden island that has a very small population concentrated in a single village). As for the claim that “Eskimo has a lot words for snow”, that claim is debatable and it depends on what one means by Eskimo. Giving rise to the confusion, there are many peoples called Eskimo and scientifically speaking, there are multiple languages that are considered to belong to the Eskimo-Aleut family. If one means the proto-language of the Eskimo, then there are only 3 roots that mean snow. However, modern Eskimo-Aleut languages may possess fewer or more words for snow, depending on the language. But let us not digress and get lost in details, the number of words in Eilauners for walking and similar phenomena seen in other indigenous/local languages that developed in specific environments does exhibit a high degree of specialisation, and this taps into a general trend that I have noticed among languages: the fewer the speakers, the more complex languages languages tend to be in grammar as well as vocabulary, whilst at the same time, the more the speakers, the simpler the languages tend to be in grammar and vocabulary. Simpler languages such as English may possess a lot of words, likely a lot more than most languages, but these words tend to be more generic and are usually not tailored to a specific environment with highly specific needs. The speakers of Eilauners had to be highly efficient in order to survive in their specific ecosystem and that is why they had to maximise their knowledge of their environment and adapt to that environment by means of specialisation. Whilst the speakers of English are spread across vast swathes of the Earth, there is no (evolutionary) pressure for this kind of specialisation. English is evolving towards simplification in order to adapt to the huge amount of speakers and their diverse experiences across the planet, whereas Eilauners has historically evolved in the opposite direction: a high degree of linguistic conservatism, a need for ecological sustainability and a small environment with limited resources and natural phenomena and creatures to take into account produced the highly specialised Eilauners, which currently has only 30 speakers and was until 2018 on the brink of extinction but is now undergoing a gradual revival process as we are promoting the language both online and offline.

      I could add a lot more, but I want to leave it up to you to decide where to take the conversation from here!

      – Dyami Millarson

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi rawgod,

      I appreciate not only your predicament of having only the one language to gauge the world, but also your sincere effort to recognize and even transcend what you have come to know very well the limits of your own mother tongue. Nevertheless, I would like you to also count your own blessings to the extent that if or since you happen to know only one language, and given that you seem to have an insatiable appetite to learn about many things, then it would have been far better and practical for you to possess a decent command in one of the lingua francas than in one of the minority, obscure and/or dying languages. Otherwise, you would not have been at all able to conduct online and offline conversations and learnings in the manner that you have been.

      As for homophones such as rain, rein and reign, the considerations can be more complex and nuanced than that which you have mentioned. Please read my discussion of “rein” and “reign” in the post https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/soundeagle-in-art-and-poetry/

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dyami Millarson, Ken Ho and rawgod,

      I particularly like your summary as follows:

      Practically all human tribes and clans developed their own language. These languages are complex puzzles that provide the pieces to create a picture of reality. Languages contain data that help us get an idea about what our ancestors experienced and it also helps us understand what we could potentially experience (hypothetically speaking) as well as how we could efficiently describe our current, past or future experiences. Therefore, all indigenous languages provide us with the pieces we need in order to know the range of experiences that the ancestors of a particular group of people regularly experienced. As we may assume that each language is a simulated reality that is an intentional copy of observed reality, we can safely assume that the language of a tribe or clan – whilst languages do usually not appear overnight but build on many generations of observed reality of immediate experience – is an accurate display of the puzzle of the historical reality that a certain people lived in. Said in a simpler way, a tribal language reflects the environment in which a tribe lived; or said in the simplest way, a language is a people’s memories of experiences a.k.a. history.

      I also agree with you that “Languages offer you a kind of ‘uncensored’ or ‘unprocessed’ version of history that practically no history book would ever tell you; the way in which languages tell you about history is so much more chaotic, yet so much more informative on so many levels.” Whilst different languages have many similarities (and differences) in syntaxes and grammars, it is very true that they possess very different “sound and feel” as well as “cosmologies”, so to speak, even as/if we take into account the subjective or elastic nature of the meanings and imports of words. In addition, when one adds or super(im)poses linguistic/cultural variations and idiosyncrasies, the results can be unexpected and contingent.

      Unfortunately, many languages are (or in danger of) going extinct as we speak.

      When I was in the social science department (inclusive of anthropology, sociology, criminology and archaeology) of one of my former universities, I voluntarily audited some of Dr John Bradley’s classes to learn the Yanyuwa language, which has been regarded as one of the Ngarna languages of the larger Pama–Nyungan language family. The language belongs to the Yanyuwa people are an Indigenous Australian people of the Northern Territory who reside in the coastal region around the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. In some respects, the language is more complex than English to learn. According to a passage from Wikipedia which also mentions Dr Bradley:

      Many Yanyuwa have also been bilingual in the Garrwa language.[1] The retention of their language as with Garrwa has been attributed to the relative disinterest of colonizing whites in the lands both of these tribes traditionally inhabited.[2] Taking as his starting point an observation by Edward Sapir concerning the Yahi dialect of Yana, who considered the gendered distinction in language use between Yanna men and women as very rare, or not as pervasive as in this dialect, John Bradley showed that in Yanyuwa, the differentiation was at least as structurally thorough as in Yahi. The gendered linguistic difference between liyi-wulu-wu (speech for men) and liyi nhanawaya-wu (speech for women) affected noun classes, verbs and pronouns, and in their creation stories, this distinction was maintained by male and female spirits. Raised predominantly by the women, boys spoke the women’s dialect until initiation, whereupon they were obliged by custom not to speak as if they had breasts and vaginas.[3] Neighbouring tribes, speakers of Marra, Garrwa and Gurdanji consider Yanyuwa difficult precisely for this gendered difference in grammar, whereas the Yanyuwa, conversely, have no difficulty in mastering the latter languages.[4] Two exceptions exist, in ribald talk, and in certain songline cycles where male figures use female speech, though the reason is not known.[5] Bradley’s conclusion is:

      The reasons as to why two distinct dialects for female and male speakers developed are lost in time., This feature has however served to make Yanyuwa a language unique within Aboriginal Australia, if not the world.[6]

      In any case, both my late mother and I have been multilingual and multicultural, as discussed in certain sections of my latest post published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/khai-khim-for-always-and-beyond-goodbye/

      Like

    • Thanks for your input and sorry for answering late. Indeed, the Egyptian writing system is highly intriguing! It is a bit like the Chinese writing system, in my opinion. It makes the language very complicated to learn and that is why we usually write Cantonese (the vernacular or daily language of Hong Kong) in Roman script on our blog.

      – Ken Ho

      Liked by 3 people

  2. You Stated — “Language is a parallel reality of sorts.”
    My Response — This is a fascinating perspective on language. I have never thought of it that way. You have me thinking a bit about it now. Great post!!
    Have you seen the movie “Arrival”?
    You Stated — “Language is a simulation of reality, and therefore words are the building blocks of this simulated reality.”
    My Response — Computer language is litterally a simulated reality language. From your perspective do you think it’s the ultimate parallel reality maker?
    I also find it interesting that the Bible speaks of language creating reality.
    John 1:1
    1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    You Stated — “In a way, one could view terrestrial evolution as a race for the first species to develop complex communication…”
    My Response — If true there is also a parallel evolution of math as a somewhat universal human language. What do you think about that?
    Is money a language?
    You Stated — “Said in a simpler way, a tribal language reflects the environment in which a tribe lived; or said in the simplest way, a language is a people’s memories of experiences a.k.a. history.”
    My Response — “Except for Klingon”, that was created for a storyline. From your perspective can languages form within a language and if so do they serve the same purpose?
    What do you think of the language that Bee’s and dolphins use?

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Indeed, language enabled the human intellect to grow and evolve. Ideas could be transferred and preserved across time and space, reflected on and enhanced by others. Tools to spread the spoken word (drums, loudspeakers, telephone, radio, etc.) then the written word (clay tablets, paper, printing, etc.) —another manifestation of speaking— accelerated human development and continue doing so.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Found you via Pacific Paratrooper in comments. Are you folks German or Dutch? (guessing at the word
    gedachtes.) Sadly, though English has somehow become a “universal” language, it has become severely degraded; powerful words once prevalent just a century ago, fell into disuse, and have been replaced by -my opinion- poor excuses for words merely due to their frequent usage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Welcome here, we enjoy meeting new people. I am a Hongkonger and Dyami Millarson lives in Frisia, the Netherlands. One of our friends who also sometimes posts here is an Italian currently located in the States. All three of us use Dutch as our lingua franca.

      What you describe definitely sounds very familiar to us! We have also noticed that as small languages are being pushed out by bigger languages such as English, they tend to lose a lot of their rich vocabulary. We studied 3 languages in 2018 that are descended from Old Frisian (which is related to Old English): Aasters, Hielepes and Eilauners. We discovered that lots of words in these languages have fallen into disuse and reviving those lost words is part of what we do on this blog.

      We try to write English in a classical style here as well and we hope to revive words that have fallen into disuse. We hope you follow us on our quest to revitalise languages and your suggestions for old, forgotten words are always welcome here! We are eager to help recover what has been lost.

      – Ken Ho

      Liked by 3 people

  5. P.S. Yours is a worthy endeavor. Though I appreciate your efforts, much of this blog -including titles- are either Dutch or German; while I don’t like Google’s monopoly of internet information, without their translator on your pages, (English being my only language) precludes making further visits.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are welcome here. Many languages here cannot be translated by Google, because they do not provide translation services for languages with less than 10,000 speakers (Google Translate will usually wrongly identify the languages we write here). We promote multilingualism, so not all of our articles will be in English. However, we do try to provide relevant information in English. The information that we share in other languages often does not lend itself well for translation, but we do really appreciate all the support/likes we get for these articles, because it encourages people to learn those languages if they are curious about the content. Moreover, we try to add relevant, beautiful pictures to please the eyes of our English readers. Visuals are a universal language we all speak and this is also one of the themes of our blog: language is a similation of reality, whereas the stuff we see/observe is reality. We encourage people to think about language here. I hope to see you around on our blog, because we do value input and random musings are always welcome too. Thank you for stopping by.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. I am so happy to see a blog like yours. My Irish grandma taught me some Irish Gaelic words when I was younger, then was immersed to some extent in Welsh and Scots Gaelic. My father’s family is Mexican American and I have some bad Spanish. On a recent trip to the Yucatan, I was presented with a menu in the local Mayan language. I just guessed… 🥘
    It is so important to retain all our unique languages so that we can have an accurate view of our past and future. I learned Latin at school, a dead language, but it has helped me tremendously with Romance languages, Biology, Legal terms and Science generally.
    Bravo!

    Liked by 4 people

    • First off: We are very happy to provide the type of blog you are looking for and we are always eager to listen to suggestions for improvement if you have any!😉

      Wow, you have an emotional, very personal story with endangered languages. If you are interested in a collaboration article, we would love to publish your story here because it helps encourage people to retain the world’s languages for future generations!

      Latin is definitely very useful. I contacted Dyami Millarson in 2012 to study Latin together with him. I wanted to learn Latin because I thought it would help me with my English. I found that I could not explain all English words with Latin. Later I discovered that English is a Germanic language, not a Romance language (Dyami had already explained it to me several times but I did not quite understand until much later) and I also discovered that a language is spoken in Dyami’s part of the world which could help me understand the words in English I did previously not quite understand. I learned Frisian in 2016 and I think it did really help me with my English. I encourage other Asians to learn Frisian as well, because I believe it helps us to get a better grasp of where many (obscure) English words come from and what they (originally) mean. While Latin helps to explain the technical vocabulary of English, Frisian helps to explain the core vocabulary of English, which is very useful for foreign students who wish to improve upon their knowledge of English.
      Although Frisian may obviously not explain all words of English, I do definitely think it is very useful because it provides more context and it helps also in other indirect or unforeseen ways.

      Thank you for the wonderful comment. I hope to see you around here and if you want to take me up on the offer for a collaborarion article, let us know. It is past midnight here in Hong Kong, so I am off to bed!

      – Ken Ho

      Liked by 3 people

    • Hi chattykerry, Dyami Millarson and Ken Ho,

      In certain social situations, there is a tendency for some people to mimic others’ accents (even somewhat subconsciously) so as to feel more inclusive, accepted or participatory in whatever activity or socializing that is going on at the time.

      For some folks, it could be difficult to distinguish between Scottish and Irish accents, and hence it would be even more awkward or off-putting if the mimic of accent veers precariously or uncharacteristically from one accent to another. All in all, the reception or response to someone mimicking accents may also depend on the situation, culture, race, language and occasion.

      In contrast to small, mundane or everyday situations, I wonder if one would feel more or less offended if the copying of accent is carried out during a big celebration or festival such as the Chinese New Year as discussed in great detail at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/soundeagle-in-chinese-new-year-celebration-spring-festival-lion-dance-traditional-culture-and-architecture/

      For example, would one feel more flattered and less likely to be offended if the mimicry or copying is done in the spirit of the occasion so that everyone feels more immersed in the celebration or festival by speaking the language of the folks celebrating the occasion? In any case, it is often the case that some Asians such as Chinese feel rather impressed that certain Caucasians try to mimic as accurately as possible the accent or intonation of Mandarin or some Chinese dialects, as these tonal languages can be exceedingly difficult to master, and the wrong tones can instantly convey different meanings altogether, potentially leading to embarrassments or miscommunications.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can only answer this from my perspective, having a Celtic accent. When someone mimics me, I usually laugh but tell them how terrible it is! I am irritated when a bad accent is delivered from an actor when there are so many natural accents to choose from. Scottie on Star Trek was the best example but I still loved the show with his terrible Canadian/Scottish accent. On the other hand I am delighted when anyone attempts to speak to me when English is not their first language – bravo for the effort!

        Liked by 1 person

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