IN these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at whether we can identify what the perfect language is.
“Latin is the perfect language.” “Arabic is the language God speaks in, so it is perfect.” “Our language is primitive, but English is perfect.”
These are all things that people have said to me at one time or another once they’ve learned that I have an interest in language. But can we really identify one language as the perfect language, better than all the other 7,000 languages on earth?
Before we look at the actual question, let us look at the people making these statements and why they said them.
The person telling me Latin was the perfect language was a Catholic priest with a very good education in theology and European philosophy. Much of his education was based on Latin texts and defining concepts using Latin terminology.
The person telling me that Arabic was the perfect language was a Muslim scholar, whose religion teaches that God gave the angel Gabriel a message to dictate to Muhammad, who then repeated it to the people in his city. Because both Muhammad and his neighbours spoke Arabic, the message was in that language. Like the Catholic priest and Latin, the Muslim scholar had had a good education in theology and philosophy, reading texts in Arabic and defining concepts using Arabic terminology.
The person telling me his own language was rubbish and English was perfect was a Papua New Guinean who had had his education in English and who knew how to talk about modern concepts, systems, and technology in English, but had not learned words for these things in his own language.
Common to all these people is that they identified the language of their education as the perfect language. Because they learned how to analyse and deconstruct ideas in one particular language, they thought that this was the only language in which people could do this at that high level. If we accept this view, then this means that one language is advanced in some way, while other languages are inferior. Can we test this?
Linguists have actually been doing this for decades. Over the years they have examined the grammars and vocabularies of hundreds of languages. They have learned that while no one language is more perfect or more advanced than another, there are certain areas where one language is more complex than another.
Most people reading this article already know this from their knowledge of Tok Pisin and English. There are grammatical distinctions in Tok Pisin that do not exist in English, such as the difference between “yumi” (“we” including the person we are speaking to) and “mipela” (“we” excluding the person we are speaking to) or the difference between mi bin go and mi go pinis. Similarly, English has certain grammatical distinctions that Tok Pisin lacks, such as the difference between “I would have gone” and “I would have been going”. The ability to make these distinctions easily does not make either of these languages superior to the other. It simply means that in one language different aspects of reality are expressed simply through grammar, while in another language that difference needs to be expressed in a phrase (“we including you” or “we, but not you”).
Differences in vocabulary are equally interesting. We all have areas of expert knowledge, with terminology developed to make distinctions and express ideas quickly. If we are a Catholic or Muslim theologian who has been educated through Latin or Arabic, of course we will know that terminology in the language of our teachers or of the books we have read. The same applies to people who have gone to school in English and who cannot explain Western concepts or technology in their own language.
Our ability to say things more easily in one language or another reflects our own background, not the language itself. Tok Pisin has developed specific terms such as “karim lek” or “baim sem” to describe certain courtship customs, just as American English has developed expressions such as “going steady” and “prom” to describe its very different courtship customs.
Once speakers of any language need to talk about a particular topic or make distinctions they have never made before, they will develop new vocabulary to do this. A good example of this process is the sudden growth in computer terminology in my lifetime. When I was young, only large government offices and rich companies had computers, which were large and didn’t do very much beyond mathematics. Today ordinary families have complicated computers, and even the smartphones we carry have more complicated computing power than those simple but bulky computers of my youth.
Languages around the world have expanded their computer vocabularies to describe this rich new technology. Some languages have borrowed the new words they need from other languages, while other languages have put older words together to make the new vocabulary they need. The “perfect languages” of Latin and Arabic have not been the sources for much of this new vocabulary.
All languages are capable of expanding their vocabularies to fit the needs of the people who speak them. Humans have a remarkable ability to express the world they experience.
The fact that they do this in different ways, does not mean that some do it in an inferior or superior way. And it does not mean that one language is perfect just because it is developed in a certain way or its speakers are politically or technologically dominant. There is no perfect language.
- Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.