Is language a living thing
opinion : Modern Thinking (4): The Legend of Pure Language
What will our future look like? What opportunities, what dangers, what answers are there? In a joint series with DeutschlandRadio Berlin entitled "Modern Thinking", prominent authors are investigating these questions. The contributions can be heard on Sundays at 12 noon on DeutschlandRadio Berlin (FM 89.6).
Years ago I met a Coptic scholar in Egypt. He had written an Etymology of Arabic, a book on the origins of the Arabic language. For this he was imprisoned for years. The fundamentalists considered his book to be blasphemy because Arabic has no history but comes directly from God.
We in our area are a little more enlightened and know that the German language has a history. In one thing, however, we are like those fundamentalists, we know that our language has a history, but we would like this story not to be continued, that the German language remain as it always has been - which, by the way, it has not always been.
Yes, yes, the purity law - pure beer, pure salad, pure meat, pure love and of course pure language - we know very well that pure love, without rough edges, is no love - and that salad has to taste, and not always the same.
It is called the German language, and that is how it should continue to be called, even if it was never entirely German, it came from somewhere - "Tisch", for example, a plain German word, comes from Latin, others from Greek , Arabic, Aramaic - no, not foreign words, but honest German words.
They don't come from God, these words - they come from everywhere. "There is only one language", the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig once said. It is the language of the people. And when people come together, they bring language with them.
I try to imagine how North African copper traders communicated with their customers in the Bronze Age. Obviously they succeeded, otherwise there would have been no Bronze Age at all. There is only one language, the language of people, and when it stops changing it is dead.
But changes are reactions to external influences. The current violent external influence on the language of our area is English. For language cleaners, the hostile English, the imperialist - for young, lively people, the friendly English, the language of longing, the language that leads into the world. For them, English has already become part of the language of our area. Our language has been expanded - and purists consider expansion an impoverishment.
It is strange: There are relatively few Americans in our area and many Italians, Turks, Spaniards, Yugoslavs and their languages have not reached our language - like in the Ruhr area when Polish came into German - Maloche, for example.
In the 19th century, French was on its way to becoming a world language, the language of diplomats. French would also have been more suitable than English - it's simpler, more precise, and has far fewer words than English.
But the French were not ready to subject their language to corruption, toils and mutilations. If French, then the real thing from Paris - they were unwilling to understand any other French.
I arrived in America many years ago with no English. And every now and then I'm sorry that I can now. Americans are masters at dealing with people who cannot speak the language. And you get compliments there for the first two words.
The former world power England and the world power America certainly played a role in the advance of English. But in the days of the English, French was still the world language. It was the Americans who made their language available to everyone - even those who will never learn it.
Any language can certainly be used. But English has the charm of usability, it forces itself to be used and consumed. And even a young American who is traveling has to first listen to the English that is spoken at the respective location. In each case it is not his English, but an English. He is also used to poorly hearing English over and over again, and he still enjoys understanding it.
The Americans are not language savers, which is one of the main reasons why their language is predestined to become a world language. Their constant ability to change brings them to life and also enables them to mix with other languages. English is a language that is made available. In fact, it's already there before you use it. And their use is a matter of course. English tries to breathe life back into the language of our area.
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