Dorothy Boorse has reminded us of the Christian responsibilities related to environmental issues (in her article “New findings in environmental science and their implications for Christians”, appearing in the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, December 2014).

She mentions the various disciplines that environmental science integrates with and all of them are in the so-called scientific disciplines. As I read her article I wondered if there were not issues that the “social science” disciplines (in particular, linguistics) can contribute to the discussion.

The environmental issues are fairly obvious: there is pollution in the water and air, resulting in sick people and sick flora and fauna.

The social environmental issues that I am thinking about come appear as languages disappear around the world. These are generally small vernacular languages that are overcome by dominant ones, such as ENGLISH, which is my analogy and metaphor for all governing educational, political and commercial languages.

The case can easily be made that English causes the death of hundreds of languages—we need only to look at American Indian and Australian Aboriginal languages and their demise.

We generally think of education in positive terms, politics with lesser enthusiasm. But both contribute to the death of vernacular languages, particularly if they are small. Multinational companies, educational bodies and political fractions use their English as a pollutant. It does not need to be that way. Just as certain insecticides, antibiotics and genetic engineering can be helpful, so also can English be helpful. But there is a limit to its helpfulness—if it deliberately (or even unknowingly) forces a lesser language into declining use, it has the same effect as a pollutant.

Minority languages are most often seen as roadblocks to progress. Multinational companies, educational complexes and political parties use English to subjugate or intimidate minority peoples who cannot speak it.

In Papua New Guinea the step-brother of English is Pidgin English, or Tok Pisin (TP) as it is known there. TP is in theory the great equalizer, allowing speakers of any minority language to interact with their English “brother”, with equal rights. However, just as we can’t see with the naked eye the immediate effects of pollution, minority speakers often do not realize what has happened to their languages when they are overpowered by TP until it is too late. Some people may not care—just as pollution of the water system due to fracking is a result that does not affect the present population—so people may discard their vernaculars like plastic bags and beer cans along the highway. There may be some “Friends of Main Street” that will clean them up, although the rubbish will soon pile up again.

Sometimes a politician or a preacher may decry the loss of the discarded vernacular, but for their businesses to continue English must be sold.

I speak English, I was educated using it, and I have worked most of my life with a multinational organization that requires everyone to use it. So who am I to complain? I have one advantage and answer: I have worked in a country assembled by minority languages and have learned to speak two of them, as well as the lingua franca, TP. I know something of the value of minority languages to the people who speak them and the short change they receive in education and jobs unless they speak English, or perhaps TP.

The bell cry is English, English, English or perhaps TP, TP, TP, but not vernacular, vernacular, vernacular. In PNG, few will deliberately berate the vernacular—it is OK, just like rice cultivation and subsistence agriculture are, but if you want money and power, the vernacular alone will not do it.

More education in English, of course, results in better jobs and “opportunities”, just as more pollution results from more jobs and “opportunities”. But English linguistic pollution can be just as damaging to the world’s cultures as raw sewerage is to the ocean. It may take sometime to notice the miles of floating garbage and it may take sometime to notice the English pollution, but the results can already be seen.

We have to have both of course: English is necessary, but so are vernaculars; industry and commerce are necessary, but so is clean water.

We should (an ethical dimension) not underestimate the problem of linguistic pollution just because we don’t easily observe the results. Some aspects of it can be “measured”, not as precisely as with the “hard” sciences, but the vitality of languages has been studied and the results can contribute to a better understanding of the problem. At least it will be recognized as a problem and not dismissed as so much garbage.

We should consider linguistic diversity among small language groups positively and we should make the same efforts to maintain them as we do unique and distinctive flora and fauna. However, such purpose will require recognition and support by the English “masters”. For many language groups it is already too late.

Karl Franklin
November, 2014