UW News

November 13, 2008

Asian Languages and Literature notes centennial with discussion of how languages interact

UW News

Languages are not static; they rise and fall, live and die, and intermingle with surprising fluidity. So it’s fitting that Michael Shapiro and Zev Handel of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature use the idea of a simmering pot of soup to discuss how languages interact.

The two will share the stage at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, in 120 Kane to deliver a lecture titled A Fire Pot of Tongues: Asian Languages in a New Global Environment. The lecture is the last in The Centennial Series: Beyond the American Point of View, which celebrates the centennial of four UW units that date their history back to the time of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in 1909.

“It’s an Asian image but it’s also a metaphor for the way different ingredients come together and interact and come out transformed,” said Handel, a professor, of the title. And that, he said, is like how Asian languages have interacted and affected each other over the centuries — “they have this very complex, tangled history.”

Shapiro, department chair, said, “The core of the talk is going to be about the connections and relations between and among languages — how they interact with each other across time and to some extent interact with non-Asian languages,” and also how they can change under each other’s mutual influence.

A second theme of the lecture, Shapiro said, will be how the dramatic rise in power and influence of the People’s Republic of China will affect English language speakers in coming decades. Will one language overtake the other globally? Or, more sensationally put, should we all be learning Chinese?

Not exactly. “The situation is more complicated, more nuanced, than that,” said Handel, “and the historical perspective that we’re going to talk about has a bearing on how we look at present day situations.”

But he said there’s no doubt that Chinese is a growing global linguistic influence. Handel answered the question of whether English will be eclipsed by saying, “I think if your perspective is long enough the answer is almost certainly yes, because no global situation lasts forever.

“I think what people are really wondering is, what’s it going to look like 20 years from now? What’s it going to look like 50 years from now? What’s it going to look like 200 years from now? And what effect will such changes have on the rest of the world?”

Handel took a moment for a more speculative comment, saying, “If English or its descendent were a dominant language in 1,000 years, I’d be astonished.”

Shapiro and Handel said they know they can’t explain these “immense and complicated” issues fully in the limited time of their talk, but they hope the question-and-answer period leads to some interesting discussions about the interactions of language.

The two will be joined in a panel discussion after their lecture by colleagues:

  • Purnima Dhavan, assistant professor of History.
  • J. Christopher Hamm, associate professor of Asian Languages and Literature, and
  • Hussein Elkhafaifi, assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization.

Asian Languages and Literature is one of the four campus Arts & Sciences units currently beginning centennial celebrations. The others — who each had a lecture in the Centennial Series — were the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, the Department of Scandinavian Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization.

And it’s a fitting celebration — these centennials date back to when Rev. Herbert H. Gowen gave an address commemorating the new Department of Oriental Subjects in 1909, though Asian subjects had been taught even in the last years of the 19th Century. Gowen’s speech was titled The Significance of the Orient to the State and in it he stated, “There is no immodesty in magnifying the importance of any steps taken on this coast to establish a better understanding with the Orient.”

Starting in 1949, the UW’s instruction programs for Asian languages were housed in the Department of Far Eastern and Slavic Languages and Literature. That department was reorganized in 1969 into two separate units, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and Asian Languages and Literature.

As the department grew and thrived over many years, early offerings only in Sanskrit were supplemented by the teaching of other languages. Of languages currently taught in the department, instruction in Chinese began in 1926 and Japanese in 1928, Korean in 1944, Hindi and Thai in 1967, Vietnamese in 1981, Indonesian in 1991 and Urdu and Bengali in the past decade.

Shapiro and Handel both said that in a sense, they feel as directly related to Gowen and his concerns in 1909 as any unit on campus.

Shapiro said, “He was teaching languages, he was teaching literature, he was teaching history — these were not sharply differentiated in separate academic units in those days.”

Finally, Shapiro stated his department’s place in such discussions: “We’re very committed to the idea that the languages, literatures and cultures of Asia are an integral part of the world culture and civilization, and need to be treated that way.

“And making knowledge of these languages and cultures part of the general discourse is I think a major part of what we need to be about.”

For more information about Asian Languages and Literature, visit online at http://depts.washington.edu/asianll/. For more information on the Centennial Lecture Series, visit https://go.washington.edu/uwaa/events/2008as_centennial_series/details.tcl.