Sally Thomason (who occasionally posts at Language Log) is a wonderful linguist I’ve written about here more than once; last March Ryan Bradley interviewed her for the Paris Review, and it’s very much worth reading. An excerpt:
Are there languages that are better at adapting? When languages meet, does one “win”?
Sure. But that comparison has nothing to do with the structure or the vocabulary of the language, it has to do strictly with social factors. It’s not as if people come into contact and one crowd says, Boy, your language is a lot more efficient than ours! It depends on who’s got the power. The world I live in, the world you live in, Western Europe, the United States, highly industrialized countries, the paradigm we’re used to is colonialism—and then the indigenous languages are threatened. A lot of them have disappeared and the ones that haven’t are at great risk, so that seems like the norm.
But imagine a society—and again, these are mostly hunter-gatherer societies, but there are still a lot of those around—where the people practice exogamy, meaning you have to find a marriage partner outside your own group. Often the criterion is whether they speak the same language as you. If you have a society like that, you’re in contact with at least one other group and typically several relatively small groups—and it’s greatly to your advantage to maintain different languages, right? You don’t want to change your whole culture, you value your culture, exogamy seems like the way the world ought to be, and you certainly want to get married and you have this view that you shouldn’t marry your sister—then you preserve the languages.
How did you get started on Montana Salish?
I was working on language contact, and the Pacific Northwest—Washington, Oregon, neighboring parts of British Columbia, particularly—is one of the best-known linguistic areas in the world. There are languages in that area, some of them totally unrelated as far as we know, that share all sorts of structural features. Not vocabulary, so much, but structural features that they didn’t inherit from their ancestors, that have traveled from one language to another. There’s also a phenomenon where you’ve got three or more languages in the same area trading features through multilingualism.
My family was already spending summers one mountain range to the east of the easternmost Salish language—most of the Salish languages are on the coast. I thought I could find out about this linguistic area if I started studying this language, and the tribes wanted somebody to come and help them get used to the writing system, a new linguistic device for them, so I was going to be useful. I thought I’d find out about this language and then I would find out about the whole family, and then I would be able to study the histories—how these features got from one family, where they started, how they got from one family to the next. So in 1981, I started trying to learn about this language, and it took about ten years before I realized I need maybe another 150 years for that project, and then I’d only need another century or so to understand the linguistic area.
But in the meantime, I really got hooked on the language. It’s a wonderful language. I like consonants, and they have thirty-eight consonants. I like big, long, complicated words, and they have huge, long, complicated words.
Here’s a couple of piquant examples of Montana Salish’s reluctance to borrow:
The word they use for automobile means “that it has wrinkled feet,” which is, incidentally, an example of how the words you have reflect your culture. If you’re a tracker, you’re going to be noticing the tire tracks—the focus of that particular word. And the word for telephone means “you whisper into it.”
Great stuff, and here’s hoping for more interviews with linguists.