Does language influence our colour and number perception? JAMES NORTON thinks through language and thought

The linguistic relativity hypothesis has provoked much controversy amongst linguists, and rarely does anybody sit on the fence. Everett (2013) describes the hypothesis as “the notion that thought or cognition do vary in accordance with peoples languages” meaning that speakers of different languages conceptualise and view their own worlds differently. But does thought really affect the way an individual conceptualises their world? From my understanding of the Piraha language (Everett, 2008) and the lack of recursive numerals evident, to the limited amount of basic colour terms found in the Berinmo language (Davidoff, Davies and Robertson, 1999), it seems there is much evidence to support the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

The Berinmo tribe have fascinated linguists for many years with the most prominent work emerging from Davidoff, Davies and Robertson (1999) who found that Berinmo speakers only have five basic colour terms which means Berinmo is labelled a ‘grue’ language. David, Davies and Robertson believe that speakers of languages which encode all 11 basic colour terms conceptualise colours differently to speakers who have a reduced amount of colour terms available to them in their native language. Surely an English speaker conceptualises the colours ‘green’ and ‘blue’ differently to a Berinmo speaker who cannot differentiate between these colours and names them ‘grue’?

Berlin and Kay (1969) support the Universalist theory which holds the view that colours categories are innate physiological process rather than a cultural ones. This directly opposes linguistic relativity, as the hypothesis believes that a language is heavily influenced by the cultural experiences of many generations of speakers and language categories are not in fact innate.

Berlin and Kay’s (1969) implicational scale regarding colour further challenges linguistic relativity, as they believe all languages will develop until they have encoded all 11 basic colour terms, and languages which have not yet done this, such as Chinese and Thai, are deemed as ‘evolving’. By stating this, Berlin and Kay believe that everyone in the world conceptualise colours the same, and eventually through evolution all of the world’s languages will have encoded all 11 basic colour terms.

I would strongly disagree with this implicational scale and deem it false, as Mandarin Chinese is an older language than English yet English has two more colour terms so how does the scale explain this? Could there be cultural differences leading to the encoding of more basic colour terms? Also, the research conducted by Davidoff, Davies and Robertson, (1999) found that speakers from different language conceptualise colours differently depending on their first language. Surely speakers of different language do conceptualise colours differently, and it isn’t just the fact some languages are less evolved?

The linguistic relativity debate is fuelled greatly by many languages across the world which differ with regards to the gender of nouns. German is an example of this, as there are four different categories a noun can fall into: masculine; feminine; neuter; and plural. For example ‘die abtei’ translates to ‘abbey’ in English, however as the noun is feminine in German, does that mean a German speaker conceptualises an Abbey with female connotations compared to an English speaker who has no distinction between masculine and feminine nouns?

The Piraha language has also been viewed as a strong asset in the linguistic relativity debate, as Everett found in his 2008 study that the Piraha have no mental representation for sets of large cardinal numbers. As they have no mental representation of quantities greater than one, they are extremely restricted in remembering large numbers both spatially and temporally. An English speaker would encode the quantity through numerals which could be recited from memory, however a Piraha speaker could not. Does this not imply that English speakers conceptualise number and quantity differently to Piraha speakers?

One of the most influential figures to discredit linguistic relativity is Chomsky, as the hypothesis directly challenges his theory of universal grammar. UG holds the belief that the world’s languages share the same set of innate structural rules, and the linguistic relativity hypothesis holds the view that a language is constructed from the cultural experiences of its speakers. Again I would side with the linguistic relativity hypothesis, as it is evident not only from Berinmo and Piraha but many other small indigenous languages, that not all languages follow the same structure, and languages like Piraha deviate so much from Chomsky’s proposed structural rules that it is a strong factor in disproving UG and strengthening the hypothesis that is linguistic relativity.

I will end with one question, which refers back to one of the proponents of linguistic relativity – Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956). If in the Inuit language have over 100 words for snow, does that mean that that an Inuit speaker conceptualises snow differently when compared to an English speaker who has less than half a dozen words for snow?

JAMES NORTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Berlin, B. and Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I., & Roberson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature398(6724), 203.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Gordon, P. (2004). Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science306(5695), 496-499.

Whorf, B. L. (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


A language without numbers? How do mothers know how many children they have? HELENA WHITEHOUSE explores linguistic relativity

Unimaginable isn’t it, mothers not knowing how many children they have? But if a language doesn’t have numbers how could one know? Ideas such as these led the American linguists Whorf and Sapir to believe that language is the “straightjacket” that keeps us from truly experiencing the world (Everett, 2013, p.255). They claimed that the way we perceive the world is based largely upon the language that we use, and the limitations it has on us. But if this is the case, does that mean the language we speak affects the way we interpret the world?

The work of Sapir and his student Whorf eventually became known as the ‘Sapir –Whorf’ hypothesis. A ‘strong’ version of this – ‘linguistic determinism’- is the idea that the way a person thinks is totally determined by the language they speak (Everett, 2013, p.255). The theory argues that if a language is missing words to describe a concept, these concepts cannot be understood by speakers. This is kind of like the idea of a horse wearing blinkers, in that their view has been restricted so they cannot see anything past them. However, most researchers disregard this extreme form.

A weaker version of this view of the relationship between language and thought is called ‘linguistic relativity’. This is the idea that both language and thought are important in perceiving the world, and that they lean on each other for support (Humboldt, 1988, p.54). Within this theory, is the idea that cultures influence languages differently (Hussein, 2012, p.642). Whorf (1956) argued that Inuit cultures have over 50 words for snow. This is because they need to know the exact type of snow that surrounds them, to make sure it is safe to hunt or sleigh. In English, there are far fewer words for snow as it mostly does not affect our daily lives. As a Brummy living in the curry capital of the UK, for me it would be more beneficial to have over 50 words to describe a Birmingham balti rather than snow!

Linguistic relativity argues that the Inuits are perceiving the snow in a different way, as they would be absorbing more details to choose the best word to describe it (Whorf, 1956, p.210). An example supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be seen in Everett’s (2013) study. In his study of the Amazonian tribe, the Pirahã, he found there are no words for numbers in their language. Everett believes this is the case because the Pirahã have no need for numbers, as they do not live in a modern society where there is a money-based economy (2013, p.260).

Everett tried teaching Pirahã adults to count, over many months. However, at the end of these months, not one Pirahã member was able to count to ten or add one plus one (Everett, 2005, p.626). This seemed to be evidence that the people of the Pirahã tribe cannot grasp the concept of numeracy. Their lack of words for numbers is restricting how they think. Their blinkers are well and truly on.

Nevertheless, there are examples which challenge the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Everett (2013) found that there is also a lack of colour words in the Pirahã language. This lack of colour words is due to the fact that the Pirahã people do not need them. They know every piece of flora and fauna and can recognise each species of animal. They do not need these descriptive words as every object has its own name (Everett, 2013, p.256). This, however does not mean they cannot describe colours. Everett (2013) points out that any member of the Pirahã tribe can describe any colour to you, however, in maybe a phrase rather than a single word. They may, for instance, use “xahoasai” which means “it is unripe” to describe the colour ‘green’ (Everett, 2013, p.256). This shows that people can think beyond their language to create new terms. To do this there must be room for independent thought that is not being restricted by a speaker’s language.

Personally, I am undecided as to whether language restrains us. I can confidently say I cannot think of more than five different words for snow in English, so I feel I am limited there. But if I do not know I am limited, am I truly limited? Perhaps the famous quote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein, 1922, p.45), is accurate and there is a whole lot of life we are missing as we do not have the capacity to express it. Or perhaps we are just making it all up as we go along.

HELENA WHITEHOUSE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Everett, D. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã another look at the design features of human language. Current Anthropology46(4), 621-646.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Humboldt, W. (1988). On language: The diversity of human language-structure and its influence on the mental development of mankind. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.​

Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought and reality: selected writings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company Inc.







Are we imprisoned by our language? GEORGINA GUY joins the linguistic relativity debate.

Imagine you were born in a prison. You’d be unable to escape the restrictions of your cell, unable to experience things outside of your confinement, unable to even think about concepts beyond the surrounding four walls. What if I told you that the language you speak is that prison, restraining you from having experiences outside of the limits of your language? This is, after all, the strongest version of Edward Sapir’s and Benjamin Whorf’s renowned hypothesis, that language completely determines how we think about the world.

A less dramatic, and frankly more credible, version of their hypothesis is that language influences how we think about the world around us: it’s known as linguistic relativity (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). In other words, the language we speak can strongly influence how we live our lives! Just imagine that your language didn’t have words for numbers, just like the Pirahã tribe in Brazil (Everett, 2013, p. 260). Try to get your head around not being able to count how many pets you have! Or picture yourself alone in the middle of a forest at night, without your mobile phone, but knowing exactly where due north is, just like speakers of the Australian aboriginal tongue Guugu Yimithirr can do, because their language uses compass points instead of left or right (Nomikou, 2016).

On the one hand, linguistic relativity seems a very plausible theory, when we take into consideration the differences between languages. As I’m sure you’re aware, all languages have different structures, including different words, grammatical constructions, and pronunciations (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). But does this cause people to categorise the world around them, and therefore think about things, differently?

One study you may not know about that supports the existence of linguistic relativity involves the (I originally assumed universal!) difference between a mug and a cup. To me at least, a mug is made of enamel, has a handle and can hold hot drinks, whilst a cup is plastic and handleless. The Spanish language though doesn’t have this difference, so its speakers call both objects “una taza”. In an interesting experiment by Boutonnet, Dering, Viñas-Guasch and Thierry (2013), 13 native Spanish speakers and 14 native English speakers had their brain activity monitored whilst detecting differences between different objects. What they found supports the existence of linguistic relativity, as none of the Spanish speakers detected a difference between a mug and a cup, because their language doesn’t have this distinction. Who would have thought that language can influence how we categorise and think about even simple objects we use every day?

Other linguists disagree with the concept of linguistic relativity, and claim language doesn’t affect how we perceive things, as it’s merely a way to express what you’re thinking (Bloom & Keil, 2001, pp. 363-364). So, the differences between languages can be compared to a game of Chinese whispers: parts of the original message may be altered when passed between speakers, or when translated from one language to another. I wonder whether emojis could get the same message across, or is language really necessary?

Something else to consider is whether cultures influence language more than languages influence culture. Thinking back to the Pirahã language, which I mentioned before, does this not include numbers simply because their culture doesn’t need them (McWhorter, 2014, p. 16)?

Another argument is that we can still grasp concepts that we don’t have words for in our language. Gaining weight after binge-eating whilst emotional is known as “kummerspeck” in German, and whilst the English language doesn’t have a word for that, we can still understand the idea (and may even know how it feels!). Similarly, we have a film titled ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, a concept which translates to the one word “zeg” in Georgian. My German friend can still understand the concept of a fortnight, even though her language doesn’t have a specific word for it, as they instead use “vierzehn Tage”, or 14 days. If linguistic relativity is correct, then I should be better than her at tracking the timespan of a fortnight because English has a word for it. In my own experience, this isn’t the case; we both perceive the concept of a fortnight in the same way, and the different languages we speak don’t affect this.

So then, is language a prison-cell, restricting what we can think about? Is Wittgenstein (1921, p. 74) right to say that “[t]he limits of my language mean the limits of my world”? Or is language instead a thing of beauty, shaped by cultures and life experiences, which allows us to think about infinite concepts from all around the world?

GEORGINA GUY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, P. & Keil, F. C. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind & Language, 16(4), 351-367.

Boutonnet, B., Dering, B., Viñas-Guasch, N., & Thierry, G. (2013). Seeing objects through the language glass. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(10), 1702–1710.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The language hoax: Why the world looks the same in any language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Nomikou, P. (2016, April 1). Language and thought [Video file].

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company Inc.


Are there just too many languages? HONOR WILSON investigates whether we should be concerned about language loss.

In the world today, there are around 7000 languages. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO) have recorded that 2,464 of these languages are rated from vulnerable to extinct (UNESCO, 2018). So, how do we know when a language is endangered or extinct?

Language is considered endangered, when there are a decreasing number of native speakers and the language is not being used frequently. According to UNESCO (2018) there are approximately 577 critically endangered languages worldwide.

Kulon-Pazeh, spoken in Taiwan, is an example of an endangered language. This language only has four remaining speakers who are currently trying to revive it, by teaching the youth the language to keep their culture and heritage alive (Inside Taiwan, 2015).

Language death, on the other hand, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2017) as “the process or phenomenon whereby a language, usually that of a cultural minority, disappears or falls into disuse.” The language of Yuki, based in Mendicino County, California (Balodis, 2016, p.14), is now a dead language. This is because despite conservation efforts, the last speaker, Arthur Anderson, passed away in 1983 (Balodis, 2016, p. 19).

So, should we actually be concerned about the rapid decline in the number of languages worldwide? Or can we all continue sleeping easy at night thinking that it doesn’t affect us? The majority answer is probably the latter, because the majority of the population (particularly speakers of the world’s major languages) do not think it affects them. Therefore, there is a lack of interest in dying languages. People have bigger concerns. Politics, education, families just to name a few.

Dalby (2003, p. 207) discusses Hawaiian as an endangered language. He suggests that with the loss of the language comes “the loss of Hawaiian political independence, the loss of culture, the loss of the natural environment, and – equally significant for our future – the loss of knowledge of what the local environment has to offer.” Without culture, who are we as people? Culture is intertwined with our identities as human beings. Without this sense of individuality, are we not all the same?

Languages also play a major role in the history of the speakers (Crystal, 2000, p. 40). This is evident through the connections between indigenous tribes and their ancestors. Some languages connect people to their ancestors and to their past. A native speaker of the language Kwakwaka’wakw, Vera Newman, accentuates how important her language is to her identity and how it separates her from contemporary society (Bell and Napoleon, 2008, p. 43). Another reason is that languages hold sections of history within them (Little, 2016). Crystal (2000, p. 40) states that “languages are repositories of history”. History is vital to existence as it contributes to the speakers’ identity and therefore guides their cultural views and customs. In losing these customs it is clear that, “[w]isdom unique to these linguistic communities becomes extinct with their languages” (Burridge and Bergs, 2017, p. 208).

On the other hand, is it possible that the decline in languages is improving worldwide communication and opening the doors for more trade, employment and immigration? Lingua francas are important with respect to this as they are “making direct communication possible where before it was difficult because of a language barrier” (Ostler, 2008, p. 2). When languages are lost due to the impact of the major world languages, it is clear that cultures that wouldn’t normally be able to communicate with the world, obtain this capability. Dalby (2003, p. 168) explores the idea of a “national language” and how a singular culture and language become the norm once the minority languages cease to exist. This is evident with the different variations of the Chinese language and how they are impacting countries in Eastern/Southern Asia (UNESCO, 2018). According to BBC News (Foster, 2012), there are around 840 million speakers of Mandarin worldwide. Due to the dominating, economic and political landscapes in the world today, there is a need for all minor countries that trade and have political ties with other countries, to know the major world languages.

Whilst there are many major advantages to everyone speaking one language, these appear to be outweighed by the disadvantages. A significant one of these is that without each country having their own unique languages and cultures there is no individuality or cultural diversity. If the world is to lose all of its indigenous languages to the top 20 dominant languages (Chinese, English, Arabic etc.), would the world become significantly blander?

HONOR WILSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Balodis, U. (2016). Yuki Grammar: with sketches of Huchnom and Coast Yuki. California: University of California Press.

Burridge, K., & Bergs, A. (2017). Understanding language change. London, United         Kingdom: Routledge.

Crystal, D. (2002). Language death. Cambridge, UK/ New York, USA: Cambridge           University Press.

Dalby, A. (2003). Language in danger: the loss of linguistic diversity and the threat to our future. New York, USA: Columbia University Press.     

Foster, A. (2012, October 15). ‘Eight ways China is changing your world’. BBC News.

Little, A. (2016. November 30). ’15 Reasons Why We Need Endangered Languages’. 7000 Languages

Ostler, N. (2008, August). ‘Is it Globalization that endangers languages?’  UNESCO conference paper.

‘Pazeh people say there are still four Pazeh speakers left’ (2015, September 20). Inside Taiwan


Should endangered languages be saved or left to ‘die’? SEAN BARTON considers whether we are over-romanticising language diversity

‘Language death’ is a major area of interest within the field of linguistics. Its contrasting arguments provide many emotive opinions on the topic. Trying to preserve and inject life into endangered languages is the key task for many linguists around the world. Crystal (2000) states that the death of a language occurs when “nobody speaks it anymore” (p. 1). According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural organisation (UNESCO), over 2,460 languages are recorded as endangered. The debate can be split between the ‘linguistic relativity’ and ‘language as communication’ arguments, i.e. those who believe languages should be saved and those who believe they should be allowed to die.

At the heart of the preservers’ argument lies the idea that our perception of the world is affected by the languages we speak (Malik, 2000). If the last speaker of an endangered language passes, the speaker takes it to their grave. Crystal (2000) says if a language is not recorded prior to its death, it is like it never actually existed (p. 2). As a result, the “important linguistic systems disappear forever” (Burridge & Bergs, 2017, p. 208). Are the linguistic systems of the extinct Native American language of Yuki regarded ‘important’? English was adopted by the Yukian tribe to communicate with other tribes. It is suggested that English was the reason that contributed to the decline of Yuki (Balodis, 2016, p. 14–15). This occurred in 1858, after many tribes were moved to reservations around the Yuki native valley. This example can be defined as a slow process of language loss, which occurred over a century, until the death of the last fluent speaker Arthur Anderson in 1983.

On the other hand, factors that put a population in physical danger can cause rapid language loss. For example, Papua New Guinea suffered a high Richter scale earthquake in 1998, killing over 2,200 and directly affecting 10,000 (Crystal, 2000, p. 71). The Arup and Warupu villages were severely damaged, meaning their languages were displaced with 30% of the villagers dying in the traumatic catastrophe and the survivors of it moving to other communities (Crystal, 2000, p. 71). This resulted in their native languages becoming useless in the new areas.

The shattering influence of so-called ‘bulldozer’ languages, such as English and Mandarin Chinese, put local languages in jeopardy (Burridge & Bergs, 2017, p. 207). This begs the question, do dominant languages eradicate languages? Or is the use of dominant languages over native tongues simply the result of preference or necessity? Malik (2000) states that languages die out because their speakers have a desire for a better life, not because the language itself is being suppressed. Dalby (2003) claims that education, trade and immigration are all contributory factors to the eventual death of Hawaiian (p. 207). Education is one of the main factors for language loss. Typically, a language can have prestige over another if it is used in education (Dalby, 2003, p. 219). Many native speakers of endangered languages see prosperity in learning a more dominant language, leaving no residual use for their natural tongue (Dalby, 2003, p. 219).

So why should we care? Surely having one lingua franca for all communities would be a blessing and a step forward to world peace. Crystal (1999) disregards this assumption, stating a “monolingual world would not bring peace”. He adds that “we should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies”. The world would surely lack diversity if we all spoke one language, as languages represent a community’s culture. Language is identity, and loss of language is loss of cultural identity (Burridge & Bergs, 2017, p. 208). The issue of endangered species and plants deserves more attention than those of an endangered language. A language cannot provide nutrition or cure diseases, whereas animals and botany can respectively.

Many linguists are romanticising the death of languages. Anyone has the right to speak any language they desire, but it does not mean that anyone should listen to it (Malik, 2000). It is wrong to question whether one language should have prestige over another, and none have a God-given “right to exist” (Malik, 2000). Ultimately, a prestigious language is only given this title by those who speak it and those who choose to abandon theirs to adopt it, for whatever reason. If the speakers of the ‘suppressed’ languages decide not to use their native tongue because of their preference for a dominant language, should we just let that language die?

SEAN BARTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Balodis, U. (2016). Yuki grammar: with sketches of Huchnom and Coast Yuki. California, United States of America: University of California Press.

Burridge, K., & Bergs, A. (2017). Understanding language change. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Crystal, D. (1999). Millennium briefing: the death of language. Prospect Magazine.

Crystal, D. (2000). Language death. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Dalby, A. (2003). Language in danger: the loss of linguistic diversity and the threat to our future. New York, United States of America: Columbia University Press.

Malik, K. (2000, November). Let them die. Essays

United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural organization. (2018). Language Atlas. 

Endangered languages: Following the path of the Dodo? RACHEL DUNSTER explores the pros and cons of language ‘death’

By definition ‘Language Death’ is the process whereby a language, usually that of a cultural minority, disappears or falls into disuse (OED online, 2018). Quite simply ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’. Yet can the reasoning behind the death of a language ever be summarised so simply?

Consider the case of the now extinct Eyak language. Eyak was one of twenty languages spoken in Alaska and its vocabulary was rich in words relating to its speaker’s natural environment and occupations in the fishing trade. For example, to describe a soft, rotten spot in the ice, the term demex’ch would have been used. To describe a large, treacherous hole in the ice, speakers would have used the term demex’ch’lda’luw (Abley, 2008). Such terms can now only be found in the Eyak Language Dictionary created through the efforts of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Marie Smith-Jones, the last speaker of Eyak. Until her death in 2008, Miss Smith-Jones was a prominent spokeswoman for indigenous languages having addressed UN conferences on the subject. Sadly, despite efforts to preserve Eyak, the language ultimately died when Marie died.

The dominance of English plays an important role in the process of language endangerment. When one considers the fields of business, education, popular culture and so forth, English is the evident victor as the lingua franca (Bryson 2009: 2). However other than the supposed ‘murderous intent’ of the English Language, one must also consider the attitudes towards indigenous languages and the motivations of their speakers. As with many speakers of indigenous languages, Marie was belittled for and prohibited from speaking her mother tongue during her childhood. If she was ‘caught’ speaking Eyak, she would be denounced by her peers and cruelly punished her teachers. There is a tragic irony in the fact that in Eyak, Marie’s name is translated as “a sound that calls people from far away” yet her voice and also her heritage was silenced (Shields, 2008). It should therefore have been the proud task of Marie’s nine children to preserve and revitalise the Eyak language. Sadly however they made the conscious decision not to continue their mother’s legacy. Thus rather than merely blaming the dominance of the English language, it would appear that Eyak was complicit in its own death. Crystal (2000: 86) defines this concept more realistically as ‘language suicide’.

The extinction of a language inevitably results in the thoughts and beliefs of different cultures no longer being represented. Speakers of German for example have at their disposal a range of creative vocabulary. Have you ever tried to improve a situation but in fact made it ten times worse? There’s a German word for that – verschlimmbessern. Have you ever hatched a grand scheme after a couple of drinks? That would be a Schnappsidee (The Telegraph, 2017). In isolation such terms could simply been seen as a part of an individual’s speech. However, some argue that language death does not merely result in the loss of the grammatical level of language but also the social and cultural level as well. Individuals go as far as comparing the loss of language and culture to the bombing of the Louvre (Abley, 2008). Such dramatic terms are common place in the debate surrounding language death. However, if for example, the German language were to face extinction, such concepts would disappear, potentially be forgotten and we would lose an insight into the connection between our thoughts, language and culture.

One would hope that individuals working in the field of linguistics would be concerned about and strive to conserve such endangered language. Professor John McWhorter of the University of Columbia however states in no uncertain terms, “Get over it”, and, as is the case with Argentina, individuals should “not cry for Eyak” either. He argues against the great lengths that are made to preserve endangered languages when such efforts are unlikely to be successful anyway (McWhorter, 2010). His theory evidently manifests itself in the case of Eyak as it was unrealistic to believe that the language could have been revived with only one speaker remaining.

As such we must come to our own personal conclusions regarding language endangerment and death. Should we be going to greater efforts to preserve endangered languages and the variety of cultures that they encompass? Alternatively, by going to such efforts to preserve “the unpreservable”, is it not the case that we are delaying the inevitable? Should we accept that language death is a natural part of life? Perhaps in conclusion we should be reminded of Charles Darwin’s analogy: “Survival of the fittest” – the requirements of which neither Eyak nor the Dodo met.

RACHEL DUNSTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Abley, M. (2008, January 28). ‘It’s like bombing the Louvre’. The Guardian.

Bryson, B. (2009). Mother tongue. : The story of the English language. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

Crystal, D. (2002). Language death. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

McWhorter, J. (2010). ‘Don’t Cry for Eyak’. Wilson Quarterly.

OED Online. (2018). ‘Language death’. Oxford University Press

Shields, R. (2008, February 25). ‘Farewell, Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch, the last native speaker of Eyak’. The Independent.

‘19 amazing untranslatable words’. (2017, April 9). The Telegraph.

Does global English empower speakers or erase national identity? BRIGITTA KOVACS investigates.

We all know that the English language has a global impact and many people have heard of the British Council, but what is their connection? What impact has the English language had where English is not the indigenous language and what is the role of the British Council?

The British Council is an international organisation with many aims including the promotion of English language education all around the world. They claim to work with over 100 countries, reach over 65 million people directly and even more through the media and publications. They have some charitable status, however they earn over 75% of their annual turnover from services which customers pay for, and less than 25% of their turnover comes from government grants.

The British Council advertises the English language as a product for sale that will make people’s lives better and give them freedom. Many countries in Africa have introduced English as the language of education with the hope of improving the economy and gain advantage of business opportunities. The most recent example is Rwanda, where following devastating civil war and major political upheaval, in 2009  legislation was introduced to anglicise Rwanda. In other countries where there was no common language – for example, in Nigeria – English was introduced as the language of unification. It was not the case in Rwanda where they already had a common language called Kinyarwanda. They introduced English in the hope of development, but they haven’t achieved the expected outcome. Africa is the only continent where the majority of children start school in a foreign language.

Williams (2012) explored the consequences of changing the language of education from Kinyarwandan to English arguing that this language policy contributes to the lack of development and questioning the presence of ‘effective’ education. I have interviewed two people from Nigeria asking them about their native languages and the impact of the English language on their culture. They told me that they can still understand their indigenous language but they can’t speak it anymore as in education and in the workplace only English is used. They expressed their concerns that in one or two generations their indigineous language will disappear and they will permanently lose important parts of their culture and identity. They claimed, that they already have significantly less knowledge about their own culture than their grandparents do, but they also consider speaking English a passport to freedom, and for them personally, speaking English gave the opportunity to study in the UK.

Most of the highest ranking universities of the world are in English speaking countries and English is currently the lingua franca of academia. Students who come to the UK, from all around the world, contribute about £2 billion a year to the economy, through tuition fees and by living here while they form relationships with people and organisations which will continue when they receive leadership positions in their countries. It creates trading opportunities between countries, an easier environment in which the UK can do business, and boosts the English teaching industry, with most of the earning going directly to the UK. It is not a coincidence that from all the world’s ‘Englishes’ British Council promotes British English as the original and natural English from the country with the longest English speaking history. Teaching British English encourages people to visit and study in the UK, although, by now non-native speakers far outnumber native speakers. With regards to the number of people who speak English globally, I would like to point out an interesting thought mentioned in The English Effect published by the British Council. It explores the disadvantage caused by English language becoming a global language, i.e. that “the real casualty from the global spread of English may actually be the native speaker: The rest of the world will have access to everything s/he does, but s/he will have access to little or nothing beyond the edges of his own tongue.” They urge English native speakers to learn a second language in order to keep the linguistic leverage.

Although, the idea of living in a world where everyone can understand each other seems very alluring, with the promise of development, employability, education, freedom, economy and business, speaking English in a country where it is not the indigenous language can erase national identity, decimate the culture, and with ineffective education techniques, slow down development.

BRIGITTA KOVACS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK