1.4. One or many languages? A false dilemma

There are over 6800 known languages in the world, 750 of which are extinct or dying, especially in Africa, Asia and South America. A detailed statistics regarding endangered languages is published on the YourDictionary website (Living languages: endangered languages). They are spoken by a minority of people, usually not as the only language, and are no longer transmitted to the next generation because of a lack of public esteem and social need. Most linguists agree that half of the world's languages are endangered and that probably the majority of current languages are in danger of extinction.

The diversity of languages is a strong reality (see Gordon 2005). We cannot all speak the same language. Languages are vivid entities that always survive, transform themselves, assimilate and transmit. We think, write and read in our native languages, for a specific language community. In humanities, most of the scientific information is still written in national languages (including databases and other large cultural heritage resources). There is no easy way to improve access and communication between languages.

The traditional ways of gaining access to knowledge - by learning other languages, by translating and by using a common international language - are complementary methods up to and including the present day. There is nothing new under the sun. The more so in a global world: knowledge is produced in more places, by more people and organisations and disseminated in more events, publications and media supports than ever before. Nobody can afford to remain a prisoner inside the borders of his mother tongue. Usually, educated people speak at least one foreign language. The smaller your native language is (in terms of the number of speakers) the more the need to learn other major languages. This becomes a growing need for native English speakers too. In fact, multilingualism is practiced by hundreds of millions of people all over the world. In a quarter of the world's nations, two or more official languages with equal status are recognised (Crystal 1987).

Even when we are not fluent in a foreign language, we can follow a scientific text owing to the peculiarities of the vocabulary. Scientific language is more standardised, has repetitive structures, contains international terms, formulas and codes, abbreviations and statistics. A scientific text is accompanied by many representations non-linguistic in character: maps, plans, charts, diagrams, drawings and photographs. Therefore, it is more easily understood by specialists in that field than any literary text in the same languages. Scientific vocabulary requires continual updating in the light of the process of discovery and is one of the main sources for new words and neologisms, common to many languages.

Still, small languages remain isolated from the great flows of scientific literature. Few people in the world would understand Norwegian, Polish or Romanian, to name just a few. Unfortunately (for Norwegians, Poles and the others), it can be demonstrated that the only scientific information cited abroad is that available in more widely disseminated languages. For Romanian archaeology, for example, until recently foreign archaeological dictionaries and scientific works used to cite obsolete books and papers from the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes full of mistakes, interpretations contradicted by later discoveries, period ideology and bad illustrations. One reason for keeping such references must have been that these texts were the only ones available in a language of international circulation (and at hand in a library). Nobody in Romania used these works for reliable references anymore. In the meantime, a lot of new books and paper journals appeared, many in Romanian, with abstracts in foreign languages. Only in the last few years has this gap started to be filled with more books and papers published in English, but also in French and German (the preferred foreign languages of the previous generations of Romanian scholars). International programmes of archaeological research in Romania brought a major contribution to increasing publication in foreign languages, thus bringing recent archaeological knowledge to an international audience, as one foreign reviewer remarked with satisfaction (see Jinyu Liu 2005 about recent books on Roman Dacia). The balance between scientific literature in national languages and translations in foreign languages is not an easy task. We will continue to think, study and write in our own language, for our linguistic community.

A major way to have contact with foreign knowledge is by translations from the original version to other languages. Translation aims to provide semantic equivalence between source and target language, although exact equivalence is impossible. It is a growing market but translations cover only a small part of scientific literature produced in one country or another: bestsellers, famous authors, classical texts, important works. For the majority of scientific texts with a restricted audience, translation is an expensive solution. Automated translation is still in its infancy and cannot replace the knowledge of languages.

Thus in linguistic matters nowadays we have to be pragmatic and flexible:

Language is preserving its role as a key to knowledge.


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