In her new book Languages Are Good For Us, Sophie Hardach traces the rich, creative threads of language history, from the earliest clay records to today.
Last year, I fought back against the contraction of my world. Lockdown round one shattered my plans to travel Spain for three months and instead, like everyone else, I found myself between four walls for 23 hours a day. The extent of my travel was the length of a daily walk and, rather than practicing my Spanish on the locals – Spanish so rusty the words scraped and creaked before they even left my mouth – I practiced on Duolingo instead. I spent hours, some days, repeating phrases and conjugating verbs back to a tiny animated owl, who gave me a little fanfare when I completed a lesson, rewarded me with hearts, and became very anxious when I missed a day. It became a fixed point in my new routine – one of the only fixed points apart from the walk – and something I began to look forward to.
From Spanish, I shifted to French, because that needed even more practice. When I became tired of trying to make adjectives and nouns agree in either language, I tried Finnish – one of many languages that is refreshingly genderless. I began reading huge amounts of translated literature in an unconscious attempt to hold onto something of the world outside, and I began thinking about language in ways that had never occurred to me before. I started to read in French again, achingly slowly and translating word by word. I sought out subtitled films on Netflix. I wrote creative essays and book reviews on language and translated literature. I curated a series on language and translated literature and called it Life in Languages – because, suddenly, language seemed like the only thread tethering life together.
Then it stopped.
Lockdown round three brought with it January, snow, and a mental lethargy to rival the ankle-deep mud outside. Suddenly, I barely had the energy and capacity to think and work in English: French, Spanish and Finnish might as well have been languages from another planet. I stopped watching Lupin and binged instead on The Mallorca Files, and L‘Etranger was abandoned almost mid-sentence. In amongst all this apathy, I picked up a copy of Sophie Hardach’s Languages Are Good For Us, hoping that some miracle might occur and that reading about language might inspire me to reach out, once again, into the world. It didn’t, not quite. It was an impossible ask: only now, as the days are growing longer and the prospect of spring seems less like a rural myth, am I starting to creak out of hibernation and take some interest. And so it’s only now that I’m writing about this, because only now can I delve back into the book to properly delight in all it has to offer. It’s a lot. Of course there are some shortcomings; it’s a huge subject, a book ‘about languages and the people who love them’, and so much is left out. I also bristle a little at the title, which puts me in mind a little of a teacher speaking to an unruly child. But, personal foibles aside, this book is insightful, entertaining, and broad in scope. It’s written with a personal touch that brings it out of the theoretical and into the real, because, it is saying, languages are real. We use them everyday, all the time, sometimes in ways that are fantastical and bizarre. Without them, we would be lost.
Hardach begins, not with what most of us would assume is the beginning of written language with the clay tablets of Sumerian and cuneiform, but in the womb. It’s here that unborn babies first experience language through the voice of their mother, which, studies have shown, stands out much more clearly than the voices of others around her. It’s here that babies get their first inkling of the world outside. It’s here that they first start to pick up, not the words of language, but the melody of it; what is officially called prosody. This pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, of tone and rhythm, is different in every language. In many South-East Asian languages, the tone can completely change the meaning of a word. Sometimes delicate and lilting, sometimes blunt and obvious, this music underpins the whole of language. Without it, whatever we said out loud would become one long stream of sound. Prosody is, as Hardach says, ‘the soul of a language, the part that remains when everything else is taken away.’
(I rewatch the first episodes of La Mante, a gripping and gruesome French serial killer drama. I realise that, despite the break from regular French, I’m able to understand a lot without the subtitles. I’m listening to the melody the words make.)
From here, we move into written language, to the Sumerians and their clay tablets with the stocky characters that are now known as cuneiform. I have always struggled with ancient history, simply because it feels too far away, and this is no different despite Hardach’s best efforts to inject life into the wedge-shaped letters. The linguistic threads connecting Sumerian to Akkadian, a precursor of Hebrew and Arabic, are convoluted and complex, and my attention wanders. Only the human stories interspersed with the history and theory keep me reading: the clay love letters, the school for scribes, the diplomatic missives, the demands for goods (‘In the land where you dwell there are many ostriches: why have you not sent me ostriches?’ reads one Akkadian letter from a king to his sister in Syria). This, throughout the book, is what Hardach does best. She is both a novelist and a journalist – this is her first non-fiction book – and while her research is impressive, it’s her storytelling which shines.
(A chapter called ‘Cumin: A Travelogue’ catches my imagination, charting as it does the journey of the spice across the world, and the corresponding linguistic journey from gamun to kamunum to cumin. I try and relate it to my partner as we cook one evening. Of course I get it wrong. I forget bits, and muddle up the timeline. But it doesn’t really matter, because however much I mangle the actual story, a little bit of fun language history sits on my spice rack. It has a scent. It tingles my tongue.)
After cuneiform, Hardach branches out much like language itself. Taking multilingualism as a jumping off point, with a short but fascinating exploration of how multilingual families and merchant trade routes (rather than formal education, diplomatic missions or political manoeuvrings) influenced the spread and development of languages, she follows a linguistic trail through Greece to Roman Britain, via the Rosetta Stone. There is a chapter on Hebrew book ‘cemeteries’, created from the Jewish custom of giving sacred books and text a burial rather than throwing them away, and which now form – unintentionally – a massive archive of the development of the Hebrew language. She travels to South Shields, where an inscription survives that is testament to Britain’s multilingual history: a tombstone carved in both Latin and an obscure Aramaic dialect, the last act of a Roman soldier from Syria for his beloved Celtic wife. In Japan, language becomes a sensuous thing, curling around the seasons and nature and food. There are sections on the Sámi and their language, which encompasses all the richness of the natural Arctic world but which is now endangered; on the Brothers Grimm and their dark fairy stories; and on the children of Papua New Guinea who, forced into homes run by German missionaries, developed their own Creole version of German known as Unserdeutsch.
The impact of colonialism on language development can’t be ignored. A separate book would be needed to cover this aspect alone in all the detail that it deserves but, alongside Unserdeutsch, Hardach explores the effects of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and parts of Central and South America. There were hundreds of local languages and dialects, not one of them related to the Indo-European languages familiar to the Spanish. The linguistic and cultural violence of the conquest, though, is somewhat glossed over. Instead, Hardach focuses on the complex network of interpreters and translators that developed on the wake of the Spanish arrival, and which was vital for the conquerors to ‘capture the inhabitants’ accumulated cultural intelligence’ as well as their land. One of the most famous of these translators was a woman named Malinche, a gifted linguist who translated between Moctezuma and Cortés, accumulating great power as she did so. Her name in Mexican Spanish is now often a symbol of selling out, of betrayal, of ‘cultural treason’; an image of the translator as traitor which, Hardach says, has persisted for as long as there have been languages, and for as long as it has been recognised that those who are bilingual have the ability to mislead those who are not.
Today, particularly in the wake of Brexit, there seems to be a resurgence of linguistic nationalism in parts of the UK. English is already the lingua franca across the world, the default language for trade and negotiation when no other common ground can be found, and yet it seems that is no longer enough. Incidences of people being attacked for speaking other languages, or even for speaking English with an accent, have increased. Language learning is downplayed in schools, to the point where fewer than half of students take a language for GCSE (and, of those, the vast majority were restricted to French, Spanish or German – despite the profusion of worldwide languages spoken in homes throughout Britain). As Hardach says, ‘it’s as if, in times of crisis, multilingualism in itself becomes problematic and threatening, an unstable cultural mix that needs to be purified.’ This idea, to a lot of people, is terrifying. But there is reason for hope in the very nature of language itself, in its wandering nature, in its capacity for change, in its ability to connect across even the sharpest of divides. Language ‘has a restless soul’. In these times when we are all quite literally grounded, unable to travel and connect in the ways that we’re used to, it allows us to push against the boundaries of our individual and collective minds. As a Sámi man said, on speaking his language for the first time in years, ‘I feel as if I’ve known you forever. Is it the language? It must be the language.’
(I call a friend of my mother’s, a friend who once travelled the world teaching languages. We start in Spanish, then move to French, both of us wanting to practice with another human being instead of a machine. Two English people, at opposite ends of the country, connecting during the pandemic in languages other than their own.)
Feature image: detail from Rosetta stone (Piedra Roseta) by Mariojosé Ángeles, 2017 (under fair use).