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It’s a troubling question for many. All individuals, individual cultures, and peoples are equal, but why did Europe dominate for so many centuries? Today at Fudan University, James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University, gave the third in a series of guest lectures on “Ancient History in the Modern Age.” He spoke about how the exclusivity of Christianity influenced the development of European thought, and how Europe “turned away” from the variety of human experience they found in the Age of Discovery.
After the lecture, a student asked, “What is the secret of the Europeans, that they can attract the attention of the whole world to follow them?”
O’Donnell’ answered, “Western ‘success’ has three factors, none of which were necessary. One is that there was an ancient civilization in the Mediterranean than was quite successful and well developed, so certain basic levels of economy and society and organization were achieved.
“Second, Western Europe turns out to be geographically and in climate a good place for people with not much technology to live and prosper. Farming and shipping and trade and communication were possible for people with limited technology in ways that were more difficult for people in the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia, where the climate was different and it wasn’t so possible for simple farmers to be so successful.
“And third, there is an element of chance and accident here. Moveable type and oceangoing travel were invented in China but they were decisively implemented and made use of in Western Europe, and so the great revolutions of the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, in which westerners took a lead… happened in that part of the world, and gave an advantage to that part of the world. I believe that advantage is now expired and that the technologies of the last century put all of humankind on a more equal footing and essentially all societies with a certain level of industrialization and advancement can be successful.
“I spoke last time of my thought experiment, that maybe the west will continue to dominate, maybe China will dominate, or in my example maybe Brazil and Latin America will dominate. Since my last lecture [on Tuesday] we now have a Latin American Pope, that’s a first invention; Brazil is succeeding economically, maybe in 300 years Latin America will take advantage of its opportunities to become the most advanced society in the world. I think we are at a period in which it is no longer clear the west will continue to dominate, as it was probably clear a hundred years ago that the west had to dominate for a while longer. We’ll see.” (Recorded 2013.03.14 at Fudan University, Shanghai)
I once thought that the Romance Languages were “descended” from Latin. In linguistics class at the University of Georgia I was taught to understand language relatedness in the form of a tree diagram. The proto-language (i.e. hypothetical mother language of which we have no records) Indo-European contains an Italic branch that becomes Latin, which further down the line spawns Italian, French, Romansch, Romanian, etc. Indeed, with today’s advances in comparative linguistics one could hardly miss the similarities between these languages. But are they really descended from Latin? Did so-called Classical Latin really evolve into French and Spanish?
When I brought this up with Dr. Haneda Masashi of the University of Tokyo, he was skeptical of the idea. The influence of the Roman empire did not extend into all fields of linguistic endeavor. More likely than not, people did not consciously emulate the speech of Rome. They may have adopted Roman ways, but they simply did not have the means to emulate the speech of the capital. Why? I surmise because they never went there, they had no radios or recording devices of any kind, and there was no standardized education system. In his class on Chinese Topolect Studies at Fudan, Dr. Tao Huan（陶寰） said that linguists no longer consider the “Romance Languages” to be the descendants of the Latin language as spoken in Rome. Likely, they developed their own local dialects as Latin spread with Roman rule, and these evolved into the myriad “Romance Languages” of Europe.
What does this tell us about modern languages?
The modern languages most of us are likely to study are very likely recent constructs. I learned at conferences at Fudan that “Standard Japanese” and “Mandarin Chinese” were created in the late 19th and early 20th Century, respectively, fashioned out of different dialects by philologists who followed the European trend of creating a “national language.” After all, if you are going to create a “modern nation,” shouldn’t you also create a “national language,” a “national religion,” and a “national people?” In Japan, these were “Standard Japanese,” “Shinto,” and “the Japanese people.” The greatly varied topolects of Japan were stigmatized (and mostly driven to extinction), Buddhism was outlawed (temporarily, but many temples were destroyed and never rebuilt), and the diverse cultural makeup of the archipelago was denied in favor of a mythical “Japanese race.” In the 19th Century, much of what Japanese knew about nation building they learned from Europeans like Lorenz von Stein. Europeans were engaged in their own nation building projects, which they believed necessitated the creation of “national languages” like “German” and “Italian.”
This week Fudan is holding a series of guest lectures by James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University. Today he lectured on the “Old Story of the Old World,” or the traditional story of the “rise of Greece” and the “decline and fall of the Roman empire.” As he sees it, the Roman empire didn’t fall until 1924, when the Ottoman Empire, which had inherited the territory of Rome, was finally dissolved. I asked about the linguistic situation in the ancient world, and he told us a story. He said there was a German writer who grew up in Bulgaria, and he remembers that his uncle could speak 17 languages. By “speak,” he probably meant his uncle could ask directions, find a place to sleep, and make a little conversation. He could read only one language, but he could get around in a lot more. This is the “natural state” of language. People speak one way in their village; walk across the hill to the next village and they will laugh at their neighbors’ funny accents (or shake their heads in dismay when they understand nothing at all). St. Augustine, who was from Africa, was laughed at for his funny accent in Rome. Language is naturally extremely varied, and like nationality and ethnicity, “national language” is a cultural construct.
What does this teach us about studying languages?
Only understand that language is extremely varied, and modern national languages are a convenience. They are a tool to be used, not a bill to be filled. Stick to one language variety, and eventually the great variety will become apparent. Language isn’t perfect—it’s just something people do.