Monolingual Neanderthals

This post, is, of course, not particularly serious, even though the premise might be an interesting one to see better stats on. It all centers on this article out of the Telegraph last month. Go ahead — read it. It’s short. But if you don’t want to, the basic gist is that the UK made language classes optional, and British school children don’t seem to really be all that interested in taking foreign language classes if they’re not required. Enrollments have dropped almost by half in the past 10 years to the point where the average number of languages spoken by Brits today is: 1.0. Since I assume few Brits speak fewer than one languages, this means the entire country is almost exactingly monolingual.  What’s doubly interesting to me is that most of Europe isn’t much better. The continental average: 1.4. Now, I’m going to take a wild, wild leap here, and wonder about the possible connection to other phenomena.

Pidgin languages. Pidgin languages are typically very simplified linguistic systems that develop when a number of groups (that don’t speak each other’s languages) come together and need to communicate. What usually happen as these languages form, is that one of the languages in contact will lend most of its vocabulary, while other languages in the mix will tend to affect the contributed grammar and phonology. In the field of pidgin studies, those languages are known as superstrates or lexifiers, and substrates, respectively. Historically, pidgin languages tended to spring up where trade was being established, or where lots of labor was needed for plantation work, situations in which many groups are forced into contact. The reason I bring these languages up is that in a very large proportion of known pidgins where European languages were somehow involved, the European language became the lexifier.

Now, before I go on, I need a disclaimer — given the historical specifics involved in these situations, it would be irresponsible, callous, fool-hearty  (any many things worse) to disregard the effect of politics in the formation of these languages — Europeans were ruthless in the establishment of most of these trading ports and plantations. Slavery became a big business because of it, as did other forms of indentured servitude, and working conditions were often so inhumane that these labor forces suffered extraordinarily high death rates, with average life span once on the plantation reaching as low as four years in some cases. This meant that these populations turned over frequently, and it would have been very difficult for any of the plantation subgroups to gain speaker dominance if speakers keep dying. In that Europeans were the plantation owners, it is clear that the prestige language of the community would likely be theirs, and in most cases, it was. Dutch, French, English, Portugese, and occasionally Spanish and German comprise the most frequent lexifiers.

Right. SO! That said, I’ve always wondered how this would have played out if the playing field were more equal — if political muscle weren’t such a deciding factor. Something more akin to Chinese Pidgin English, although, here again we run into polical motivations for choice of lexicon. British merchants trading with the Chinese in Canton in the 1600’s to early 1900’s traded using a simplified pidgin language, with English serving as the lexifier.  Choice of English vocab, here, was partially due to the Chinese being so guarded about their language, vieiwing foreigner use of Chinese as practially criminal. (Sources vary, but you can find an online summary here, especially under section 3.1.c.) What makes this particularly interesting, though, is that the usual situation of power was reversed — the Chinese had the resources to trade, their government was the one regulating the trade, and in spite of this, the vocabulary used by both sides to trade in was English. Okay.  So, what I wonder is — were there more situations like this (and hopefully, if possible, without such strong socio-political motivations), and, if so, would they reveal the same tendency?  That is — given equal footing, would European languages still tend to dominate the vocabularies?

If the Telegraph report is (well, reliable, in the first, but more than that–) an indication of not only the desires but also the abilities of Europeans, then we might run into additional motivations that could play into contact situations. Do Europeans dislike studying foreign languages because they are not very good at it? Europe is an oddity for being so mololingual, with bilingualism, trilingualism, multilingualism being the norm in most other places. If this is cause and effect, then we have to look at the underlying issue — Why might Europeans be worse at learning languages?

Here’s where we leap into bold and unsubstantiated conjectures. In this previous post, I pointed out that recent research has indicated that modern man (Homo sapiens) shows the genetic influence of other hominid species. There appears to have been interbreeding in South Asia with the Denisova hominin, some interbreeding nothward with Homo erectus, interbreeding in Europe with the Neanderthals, and interbreeding in Sub-Saharan Africa with still other hominids. Since it’s Europeans that inherited the Neanderthal genes, and Europeans who are largely monolingual, what are the chances these two factors are related?

Probably slim, since children of any race can pick up a number of languages simultaneously with ease, but I would love to see a full analysis of genome with multilingualism.  Who knows!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.