Getting beyond Babel

            “Get beyond Babel” is an emotional plea for the preservation of the diversity of culture and language throughout the world. The writer, Ken Wiwa, has refuted the widely accepted conclusion that we are in danger of losing cultural diversity by showing that language cannot be frozen in time; rather it is constantly evolving and assimilating into something new. The fact that approximately half of the world’s 6800 languages face extinction does not imply that all of these languages will have their roots preserved in new languages. This is definitely not the case, and the author has oversimplified this point somewhat; cultural roots will be lost forever when the tree of heritage is chopped down. While language along with life is in constant flux, flux can occur in both positive and negative states.

While the author has made it clear that both language and culture are in constant flux, greater detail needs to be examined as to the reasons for the increasing loss of both cultural and linguistic diversity throughout the world. By examining his own experiences as a member of the Ogoni tribe of Southern Nigeria, he attributes socioeconomic realities as the main threat to the preservation of the Ogoni culture and language. He argues that it is extremely difficult for a people to retain the natural ways of life their ancestors have been living for thousands of years. The irresponsible oil exploration to which the author refers has routinely damaged communities such as his own throughout the third world.

As members of wealthy nations it is our responsibility to address the plight of the defenceless. If the people of developing nations were able to grow up in their own heritage, and learn their own culture and language, then we would be more likely to see languages preserved throughout the world, while still themselves evolving of their own accord to accommodate advancements in global communications technology.

The author speaks of the young folk increasingly leaving the community to search for better opportunities in the English speaking countries of the world. By following this exposition with an explanation of the diffusion of the English language, he is providing his own justification for English becoming the new ‘global’ language. Through the use of tyranny and brute force on foreign soil throughout history, the English language has evolved into the global language of choice. The fact remains that the English language did evolve into its current position as the global language of choice through the use of widespread violence by standing on the shoulders of the oppressed. I believe that the author is saying that with the position that the English language is in, one would be at a serious disadvantage if they did not have the ability to communicate with the English speaking world.

It is subtle and intriguing how the author plants a seed by asking the question: is it possible for cultural and linguistic diversity to co-exist with the unification of English as the ‘global’ language? The author presented his case with objective analysis, and was on the right track with his remark that language doesn’t die, rather it continues to evolve in one form or another. However, the author failed to provide models for the solution to the deterioration of endangered languages. Certainly, languages cannot be frozen in time and must continue to evolve. However, by no means does this provide justification for the extinction of endangered languages in the name of cultural unity.

Wiwa, Ken. “Get Beyond Babel”. In Viewpoints 12. pg 295-298. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.