August 15, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)


The finest words in the world are only vain sounds, if you cannot comprehend them.

Anatole France

There had to have been a time when every family or small group of people had its own language. With the growth of villages, every village had its own language. Linguists have estimated that at one time there were 10,000 languages. As commerce developed between villages, common languages developed. At the present time there are about 2,000 languages and the number is decreasing rapidly.

When I was in Nigeria, the official language was English. While the people in the university spoke fluent English, the language that the people communicated in was Pidgin English, a language that is unintelligible to most English speakers. I remember being given a tour of a Catholic monastery by an Irish priest. I heard a group of people singing. I asked the priest whether it was in Latin. No, he replied, it was English. At the University of Ibadan, I was kidded about my strange(American) pronunciation.

When I was growing up in New York City, there were many languages spoken. A large number of people spoke two or more languages. This is true now in many California cities and towns.

It is easy to predict what will happen here. As happened in New York, a few generations later the only language spoken will be American English, which is different from British English, which is different from Birmingham English(known as Brum). This will happen to California children who now have to know both English and Spanish or Mandarin or Cantonese or Vietnamese etc.

While there are many English dialects and accents, all English speaking people have a common written language; thankfully. With the expansion of television and radio, while many people do not speak a common language, they can all understand the English of the TV or radio announcer.

There seems to be two conflicting purposes of language. The main one is so that people can communicate with each other. The other, promoted by people who want to keep their culture isolated, is to keep groups of people separated from each other. Teenagers often invent their own language so that they can be separated from their parents.

In Utah, some Mormons wanted their own language. They created one and even developed a dictionary and grammar. It never caught on. Some people in the small California town of Boonville developed their own language so that they could communicate in secret while being in public. As a kid, I occasionallyused Pig Latin. That kind of rudeness was practiced by my parents who spoke only English to me, but spoke Yiddish to each other. When I caught on to Yiddish, they switched to Polish. Have you ever heard parents S.P.E.L.L things so that their infants wouldn't understand it. I think that that is bullS.H.I.T.

Many people only know one language and have to communicate that way. However, I believe that it is an insult to someone for people to speak a different language in order to exclude someone else. It is a verbal slap in the face. If people want to say something to each other and don't want anyone else to know what they say, they can do it in private; not when someone who doesn't understand the language is present.

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