In my household we have a curious situation: two of us are learning Arabic, but so far we cannot exchange much more than a ritual "Good morning." My 6-year-old son comes home from school mum on the subject, then demonstrates a startling facility for writing its fluid script, sweeping right to left across the page. Meanwhile, my colloquial Arabic class is drilling me with Useful Phrases, but I cannot so much as distinguish the letters on a stop sign. In short, we are living the famous diglossia of Arabic, where there is a spoken dialect that is rarely written and a written language that does not sound natural when spoken. And we’re wading through these currents in Lebanon, where English and French have strong competing presences, and rampant code-switching requires a knowledge of covert social rules. "Don’t greet someone with Salaam aleikum unless you know they’re very religious," one acquaintance advised. Use marhaba and shukran in this part of the city, bonjour and merci in that. Welcome (as in "You’re welcome,") and sorry (for "Pardon me") are part of the lingua franca–just add an accent and roll those r’s.
Lebanese Arabic would not get me very far outside the country, so perhaps it should not have come as such a surprise that English could get me so far within it. When parents aren’t code-switching with their children ("Don’t touch that!" snapped a mother in full abaya to her toddler at the candy counter, between admonishments in Arabic), they are speaking English in perfect imitation of a Hollywood movie whose title is forever on the tip of the tongue. "You have to make a choice," I overheard a father say to his son outside our children’s school. "Life is about making choices."
Including, one might add, choices about language. Am I immersed in the confluences of a vibrant bi- and tri-lingualism, or am I hearing what a dying language looks like? What would Claude Hagège say? Hagège is the chair of linguistic theory at the College de France, and his new book, On the Death and Life of Languages (Yale; $30), translated by Jody Gladding, is a passionate defense of diversity in the face of language extinction. A dead language is one with no native speakers; Hagège measures the health of a living language by how vigorously it is handed down from parent to child. "The fact that a language stops being transmitted to children as it usually is under natural living conditions is the indication of a significant jeopardization." Since 2,500 of the world’s current stock of 5,000 languages are predicted to die by the end of the century, it is not unimaginable that Lebanese Arabic could be among them. (A recent UN report estimates the number of existing languages at closer to 7,000, of which 90 percent of the languages spoken by indigenous peoples should be obliterated at an even faster rate.) While anxious that their children learn written Arabic at school, it is clear that many of the highly educated parents I meet speak English at home, at least some of the time. Does that make them bilingual cosmopolitans, or "under-users" of Arabic? Are they merely employing "lexical borrowing" (using foreign vocabulary that does not have a native counterpart), or is the dialect in the beginning stages of erosion?
Hagège distinguishes between the sort of bilingualism we claim to value–one of benevolent diversity–and "inegalitarian bilingualism," the gradual takeover by one language of another. When the inegalitarian variety is a consequence of economic advantage, the language with less prestige goes under fast. Code-switching hardens into substitution, and vocabulary is lost. Eventually structures–morphemes, morphology–follow. A society withers away. Call it natural selection, or cultural climate change.
The singularity of a culture, however, is not just an expendable bit of enrichment, like the elective French you can drop for econ if you have to. What is lost, says Hagège, is a world. Languages are "reflections of the infinite" in at least two ways: they preserve the past for us–something no other animal species has the means to do–and they conjure the hypothetical, a function crucial to poetry and fiction as well as the sciences, philosophy and law. Lose a language, and you lose your history and your visionary capacity.