The author tries and alters the set imagination we have about languages. We have crafted a whole system of language frontiers. First, there is the nation-state language divides whereby there is a sole language per nation that thus needs surrounding borders. We can imagine a clear line where on one side people speak German and on the other French for instance. Then there is the clear cut between the correct way of speaking and the derived dialects. The guards of that frontier usually meet in an Académie, in France for example, to decide on the rules one should follow if one is to speak a language in a proper manner.
The author explores those frontiers with a few examples in Turkey, France, the United States, Israel, India, Japan, China… Each country developed its own narrative as regard to its language and established different policies on languages. A lot of people feel their language is at risk of being altered, of losing its pretend purity. France fights against English words coming in and neglects its regional languages. China and Japan resist the Latin alphabet. Turkey fought to impose the Latin alphabet and Turkish as the sole language of the country. Israel modernised Hebrew to become a nation-state of its own despite the vast diversity of its inhabitants who first spoke all sorts of languages including Yiddish or Judeo-Arabic.
Robert Lane Greene changes the narrative. What if languages were like clouds moving freely across State borders? Like clouds, they would evolve and change shape with new dialects from suburbs or from formerly colonised countries, they would grow bigger with the number of speakers. Some would disappear from the sky with the last person able to master it. Some would merge with other clouds as speakers are multilingual.
As the author points out there is value in gathering around a common feature such as a language. It is a soothing feeling of belonging. However, it becomes problematic when it excludes people at the margins, who partially master the language or master more than one. Those people have the ability to jump over that imaginary border wall between slang and proper English or between Spanish and English in the United States for example. They belong to multiple worlds and they can be translators from one to the other and back. But this is only possible if we adopt the author’s second metaphor: language as music. Speaking is like jazz music, learn a few rules then keep on improvising. Writing is like classical music, there is a music score to follow but one can always reinterpret it and alter it. In a nutshell, the whole book brilliantly shows how language is a living thing. As such it should grow, evolve, mix as freely as possible.
And here is where you can find it: