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Monday, November 19 , 2018, 3:55 am | Fair 48º


Harris Sherline: Has America Become a Modern-Day Babel?

Preserving multiple English dialects, while well intentioned, will only hurt the groups they're intended to help

Is America Babel revisited?

We are continuously beset by a cacophony of voices and opinions assailing us! The latest count is that our nation has gradually morphed into a society that communicates in more than 296 languages, practices dozens of religions and tolerates almost anything.

Mises Daily reports, “There are 6,906 languages alive in the world today and 74 are indigenous to California alone — languages like Hpa, Kawaiisu and Shoshone — while Papua New Guinea have over 800, with a median of just 1,200 speakers per language. ... As astonishing as these figures seem, they obscure a stark reality, that potentially half of these languages are set to vanish in the next century. ... Consider that in North America, out of 296 known languages at the time of European contact, only 33 are actively being passed down to the next generation. The rest will become extinct upon the death of their last speakers (if they haven’t already), probably sometime this century.”

Maintaining a language also makes it necessary to maintain the culture that it represents, because all languages are an extension of the customs, beliefs and values of the culture in which they are spoken. When the language disappears, so do many of the customs on which the language is, or was, based.

An example of this occurred in the Santa Ynez Valley, which has a small tribe of Native Americans — the Chumash Indians. Over a period of many generations, they were largely integrated into the surrounding population and their unique language was lost.

There were once at least three distinct Chumash languages, with four dialects, some of which also may have been distinct languages of their own. None of the Chumash languages are still spoken today. Indian slavery was practiced in Southern California until late in the 19th century, and language loss in this region was particularly severe. The last speaker of a Chumash language died in the 1960s, but some young Chumash people have been working to revive their ancestral tongue.

Even those Americans who speak primarily English often have difficulty understanding one another, which is especially true with government communications.

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) was created in the mid-1990s by federal employees who are dedicated to the idea that citizens deserve clear communications from their government. The group’s purpose is to help government employees improve their writing — and their agency’s writing — so users can find what they need, understand what they find and use what they find to meet their needs.

The PLAIN Web site is divided into five major topics, starting with a discussion of the audience, “because you should think about them before you start to write your document or your Web content.” They also discuss organization, writing principles, starting at the word level and moving up through paragraphs and sections.

English, of course, isn’t the only language that has multiple dialects.

Researchers Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford analyzed admissions data from eight elite colleges and universities, both public and private. The data represent 245,000 applicants from three separate academic years, and Russell Nieli, lecturer in the Politics Department at Princeton University, found three salient findings in their study: “First, blacks have an extraordinary advantage over other applicants, other background factors being equal. ... To have the same chances of gaining admission as a black student with a SAT score of 1100, an Hispanic student otherwise equally matched in background characteristics would have to have a 1,230, a white student a 1,410 and an Asian student a 1,550.”

The results are not only due to differences in ethnic and cultural background, but also to language. Each group speaks a different form of English, the most extreme perhaps being the so-called “ebonics” that has been used by blacks in the Oakland area.

It is generally believed that college professors and administrators touting the educational benefits of “diversity” within a given student population are attempting to ensure that a certain proportion of “underrepresented” racial minorities, particularly blacks, are admitted.

But just how long should America have policies that favor one group over another, especially based on language? The motives for this may be well intentioned, but they ultimately lead to unfair treatment of the groups they are intended to help.

So many voices, so many opinions, spoken in so many tongues we can’t understand, all clamoring for attention and demanding their rights. Truly, a modern-day Babel.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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