When people think about languages, they rarely wonder about linguistic equality. As if it was something not important, something not worthy of their attention. Obviously, it is not one of the hot topics, and it probably won’t change anyone’s life, but you can’t deny that this is an interesting issue. Personally, I would say that all languages are equal. It’s just that some languages are more equal than others.
Yes, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.
Of course, most people will tell you that all languages are linguistically equal (“linguistically” being the operative word here). And they undoubtedly are, although you may hear that the statement is open to multiple interpretations. I think that no tongue is better, just as no tongue is worse – they are simply different. Languages differ in phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Which is completely fine. And which does not mean that one tongue is more primitive or more complex than other. Jean Aitchison, a Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford once wrote: “A language which is simple and regular in one respect is likely to be complex and confusing in others.”. Wise words, and you don’t really have to be a linguist to know that they are true. Take language learners, for example. They will be the first to agree with Jean Aitchison. As I am part of that group (a proud learner of Marshallese, Hawaiian, and Kiribati!), I can tell you that we know all too well what it means to scream in excitement because one grammar rule has turned out to be a proverbial walk in the park, only to cry out of frustration because the next two seem completely illogical and therefore impossible to understand. So saying that the tongue X is more primitive than the tongue Y would be like saying that Bora Bora is more beautiful than New Caledonia. They are different but both equally breathtaking.
So why do I claim that some languages are “superior” to others? Let me give you my point of view.
While languages may be equal in terms of linguistics, they surely aren’t in terms of their social and political status. Or “prestige”, if you prefer to call it this way.
I will ask you a question. How many languages can you name or have heard of? Quite a few, right? English, naturally. French. German. Spanish. Italian. Portuguese. Russian. Polish. Swedish. Norwegian. Danish. Dutch. Hungarian. Chinese. Japanese. Korean. Vietnamese. Thai. Arabic. Hindi. Shall I continue? The total number amounts to, what, 30, 40, 50, 100? Let’s even say you can name 200 or 300. But there are roughly 7000 languages in the world. Seven thousand. Surprised? Shocked? Ashamed perhaps? No need to be. I don’t know all those tongues either. I am, however, aware that they exist, and that they do not receive the recognition they deserve.
That is precisely why I hold the opinion that there is a gap between the so-called “big languages” and the small, indigenous ones. By no means are they equal. Try to compare English and Samoan. The former has an undeniably higher status – it is a global language, everyone knows it, most people speak it. The latter, on the other hand, lives in the shadow. It will never be selected as an official language of diplomacy and international relations. It won’t be taught in schools in France, Kuwait, or Japan. What is more, I can bet you that the majority of people in this world would be amazed to find out that such language as Samoan even exists.
This inequality – which is virtually impossible to eradicate – translates into languages having market value. Those in high demand are perceived as more “attractive” and useful. As a consequence, they are much more eagerly learnt, also as a second language, as they can bring measurable economic or social benefits to the speaker. This, in turn, is one of the factors affecting language endangerment – we all know that the more speakers a tongue has, the greater its chance of survival. Unfortunately, the “low prestige languages” (I hate this term!) are less likely to be passed on to the next generations even among their native speakers. But, surprisingly, foreigners who speak French for instance happily teach it to their children.
So as you can see, languages are not equal in every respect. Some are in the spotlight, others are constantly struggling to simply get noticed. Sadly, there is very little we can do about it. But there is something I would want everyone to remember – all languages are equal in worth and deserve the same level of attention.