Language, Dialect,Family

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In the year 2010, speakers of English have enormous power in the world. English is not the language spoken by the most native speakers – that is Mandarin Chinese, spoken by about a billion people. English comes second, and has "only" about half a billion speakers. But a key dynamic is that many of them are non-native speakers. Learning English as a second language is a central part of the education and empowerment of millions of people around the world. English is the language of technology – of international finance, of the Internet, of aviation, of science. It is also the language of the overwhelming wave of American culture: of blue jeans, Coca-Cola, Hollywood, and pop music. This wave is passing over an earlier wave of British imperial culture that has made English a national language in Ireland, the West Indies, West Africa, Kenya, South Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, and New Zealand – not to mention, of course, in North America itself, the prerequisite for the current American domination of world popular culture.

It may seem as if the native speaker of English is now at the center of the linguistic world. Yet a look at the family relationships of the English language can be a Copernican experience. Go for instance to the Ethnologue Language Families Page, and see where we are. There are between 75 and 100 major language families in the world. English is a twig on a branch of one of nine major subfamilies of one of those families, Indo-European. In terms of the geographical range of the Indo-European languages, English is literally marginal, originating in the far west of the range, on the very edge of the European subcontinent.

There's an unintentionally funny moment in the 1996 film Phenomenon with John Travolta. Travolta's character magically acquires super powers. He can move pencils without touching them, and memorize books, and such. In one scene, a little boy has gone missing on a nearby farm. The farm community, a mixed group of Anglo- and Mexican-Americans, does not know where the boy is--but an old bedridden man does. But the man speaks only Portuguese! So the farmers call up Travolta, who grabs a Portuguese textbook and memorizes it on his way over in a car. Big suspense. Travolta enters the sickroom, drops to his knees beside the bed, says "bom dia, senhor" and then asks breathlessly: "Onde esta o menino?" . . . as if none of the surrounding Spanish speakers could possibly have thought of asking something like that :-)

This silly movie moment points to a popular misconception about languages. Many people think of a language as an impenetrable Other, a form of expression that is sealed off unless one studies it in a formal way. Many people, too, think of a language as a kind of code, a set of grammar rules plus coded vocabulary items that one acquires by memorizing a book.

These misconceptions are the products of several factors, including: the rise of national standard languages and formal methods of teaching them, the prestige of correctness in standard dialects of languages, the great difficulty of learning a new language after childhood.

I was once scolded by a reader of this page for asserting that speakers of Spanish can understand speakers of Portuguese, and vice versa. They can't for most purposes, certainly not for complicated or esoteric purposes. But for many simple everyday purposes, speakers of the Iberian languages, and even some Romance languages that are further afield, like Italian, can make themselves basically understood to one another. The same is mutually true of speakers of the Scandinavian languages, or certain neighboring Slavic languages. These closely-related languages are the nearer cousins in the larger family of Indo-European, which consists of some very distant cousins indeed.

In Europe at the time of the origins of the English language, about 1,500 years ago, the concept of national languages was very weak. Even Latin, which was obviously the national language of the (just fallen) Roman Empire, and had a great international currency as the language of the Catholic Church, was spoken in many different local dialects across its range (from Iberia to the Balkans). As one moved across the range of spoken Latin, or across the range of the spoken Germanic languages, each tribe or village could understand its immediate neighbors pretty well, but mutual intelligibility decreased with distance. Which variety of Latin, or of Germanic, was a "language"? Which was a "dialect"? Where did one stop and another begin?

In such a situation, the language/ dialect distinction makes little sense. Languages as distinct modern entities developed later in Western Europe. And earlier – one might in fact say that Latin was the only "language" in Europe 1,500 years ago, and then only in its written form, which was essentially a preservation of the way it had been written by literary authors 500 years before that. Latin was the only language that you could learn formally. Indeed you had to learn written Latin formally, then as now. All other "languages" of Europe were spoken dialects of Celtic, Germanic, or other language families, and they were acquired by hearing and speaking, in childhood or afterwards.

The growth of the national languages (examples of some will follow) is a growth not just of linguistic difference but of nation-states, central educational authorities, courts and legal systems, national churches, national publishing industries. It is very important to understand (and very difficult for Americans to grasp, since we live in such a homogenous nation in terms of language) that what we call "French" or "Spanish" or "German" are single (if very powerful and prestigious) "dialects" of larger diverse speaking communities, that still today have many features of the linguistic world that existed 1,500 years ago. In Italy, for instance, what we call "Italian" and learn as a foreign language in classes is a single dialect – a dominant one, because it is the literary dialect, the dialect of courts and publications and government and literature. But "Italian" is really a rather artificial version of the dialect of one part of Italy (Tuscany, specifically Florence) as it was written down and accepted as a national standard over many centuries. Even spoken Tuscan today differs from spoken "Italian," and the great range of Italian "dialects" – Piedmontese, Roman, Neapolitan, Calabrian, Sicilian, Sardinian – might well be considered separate languages, though they grade into one another across the territory of modern Italy. Most Italians today are fluent in two "languages": "Italian" and their own local "dialect." Both serve the purpose of communication perfectly well, but Italian is more prestigious, and serves to link the whole nation as a common medium. (It links it rather poorly, in fact. Italy has only been a unified nation for 130 years, and it has great internal diversity and a chronically weak central government.)

Dialect can affect communication – not in a merely functional way, but as it involves sharing of social experience. Italian writer/chemist Primo Levi talks about meeting a business client who speaks only the Piedmontese dialect:

"Parlava piemontese, il che mi mise immediatamente a disagio; non è educato rispondere in italiano a chi ti parla in dialetto, ti mette subito al di là di una barriera, parte degli aristò, della gente per bene . . . eppure mi piemontese, correto come forme e suoni, è cosí liscio e snervato, cosí educato e languido, che appare poco autentico. Piuttosto che un genuino atavismo, sembra il frutto di un diligente studio a tavolino, a lume di lanterna, su grammatica e lessico." (Il sistema periodico, Torino: Einaudi, 1975: 172-73)

"He spoke Piedmontese, which put me at a disadvantage right away. It's not proper to answer someone in Italian when he speaks to you in dialect. It puts you suddenly beyond a barrier, part of the aristocracy, the "quality" . . . However, my Piedmontese, correct in word-form and sound, is so smooth and lifeless, so educated and weak, that it doesn't seem authentic. Rather than a genuine traditional dialect, it seems like the fruit of a diligent course of study at a desk, by lamplight, over a grammar and a dictionary."

Even today, after centuries of centrifugal evolution and subsequent national standardization, the Indo-European languages form a gradation of intelligibility with English. This is because English shares origins with close family neighbors among the Western European languages (and secondarily of course because English, as the language of travel, technology, and the Internet, continues to have an impact on the vocabulary of many languages around the world). The closest "relatives" of English share a large amount of basic vocabulary with English.

We can see the world's languages not as separate compartments, but as part of a gradation of family relationships--as a space shared by several large families who have frequent contact, not as a set of cells each inhabited by an individual. And we can also see distinct larger rooms that have true boundaries from other rooms.

Let's do some Wikipedia and YouTube surfing, two of my favorite time-wasting research activities.

Here's the Dutch Wikipedia page on cats, or Katten. Now, it's not like an English speaker can actually read this with any fluency. But it's very easy to guess what sentences like this mean: "De oudste Nederlandse kat werd 28 jaar oud. De oudste kat werd 38 jaar en 1 dag oud." And it probably is no mystery what the word "Haarbal" means. Now, listen to a Dutch news report (from the 2008 Presidential campaign) on the travels of candidate Barack Obama. It's not like an English speaker can understand this either: but note that both the phonology (the sounds) and the prosody (the sentence rhythms) of Dutch are very similar to English. This makes sense, because Holland, not far from England across the English channel, probably has the closest cousinship among the standard present-day national languages to English.

Go one country over, to the Hauskatze page in standard German, and you can see a somewhat more distant cousin of English. German isn't highly intelligible, but it can be puzzled out in some simpler sentences. Take these about the senses of the cat: "Der Geruchssinn der Katze ist weniger ausgeprägt als ihr Gehör oder ihr Sehsinn. Er ist schwächer als der des Hundes, aber deutlich besser als der des Menschen." Word for word in English: "The sense-of-smell of-the Cat is less developed than her hearing or her sense-of-sight. It is weaker than that of-the dog, but certainly better than that of people." The word order of present-day German, and the number of words used to express the same concept, can be remarkably like that of present-day English. (And much of the basic vocabulary is very similar too, if you stare at it for a moment.) The main contrast is that many German words are compounds that press together ideas that the English language expresses through entire phrases. Here's a news story about German politicians learning lessons from Obama. Again, mostly unintelligible, but the sentences and words (many borrowed from English, incidentally) show a distinct, but distant, connection between the two languages.

The Danish page "kat" offers this observation: "Den vilde kat lever af, hvad den kan fange i naturen, f.eks. mus og småfugle. Den tamme kat lever af den mad, dens menneske tilbyder den." This is getting more opaque; Danish is a North Germanic language that's another remove from the West Germanic languages English, Dutch, and German. But the words look like English words in length, and the vocabulary in contrasting phrases like "vilde kat / tamme kat" isn't too hard to decipher. It's also getting really hard to understand Danish TV stories about Obama, but once again, the phonology and prosody of Danish show a resemblance to that of the other Germanic languages.

France is across the Channel from England, and French, though not a Germanic language, has many points of correspondence with English, as the French scoop on "Chat" on Wikipedia can demonstrate. But the corresponding words are different than in the Germanic languages. Take these sentences: "La vue est son sens primordial. Son champ de vision est plus étendu que celui des humains : l’angle de vision binoculaire est de 130°, pour un champ de vision total de 287°, contre seulement 180° chez l’homme, ce qui reste cependant loin du record absolu du monde animal." Several words here are identical to English words: primordial, plus, vision, angle, total, animal. Others are a letter or two away: sens, binoculaire, humain. Note that the words with great similarity here are technical words from a scientific vocabulary; by contrast to Germanic languages, in French it's the short words (champ, chez, ce, celui, qui, du, monde) that puzzle English speakers. When one hears spoken French, as in this news story about a wax effigy of Obama in Paris, the sounds, especially the vowel sounds, are far different from those of English, and the prosody is unusually balanced, with greater evenness of emphasis on every syllable spoken. Why is this so? French is both a very distant cousin and also a sort of in-law of English, along lines that we will make clear as our semester goes along.

The Slovak page on Mačka domáca features text that I truly can't read more than a word or two of: "Mačka je schopná vrhnúť tri až štyrikrát ročne priemerne po štyri mláďatá." But there are two words in that mysterious sentence that are extremely distant cousins to English words: "tri" and "štyri." I remember my grandmother teaching me to count to five in Slovak: "jeden, dva, tri, štyri, päť." They may not favor "one, two, three, four, five" very much at first or even fifth glance, but as we will see during this course, they are the same old Indo-European numbers. Thousands of years ago, English and Slovak were the same language. There is a dearth of Slovak news videos on YouTube, but here's one in Czech (very closely related to Slovak): unintelligible, but with a phonology and prosody that an English-speaker could probably master (just as Czechs and Slovaks can learn the sounds of English). It sounds to my ear like this language has nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases where I might expect to hear them, even if I have no idea what their content includes.

But when we move to an Estonian page called Kass, all bets are off. Here, we learn that "Madala tooniga kurrumine tähistab tavaliselt kutset." Not only is this a foreign language, it doesn't seem to be written in Indo-European-length words. Here's an Estonian kid giving a report, presumably on Obama; I for one can't tell where the words divide, let alone what they mean. We are in another language family, where all similarities cease.

Let's go one step further. Here's a Chinese news report on a visit by President Obama. The language sounds alien (I stress, just as English sounds alien to Chinese ears; the effect is mutual). Chinese is a tonal language where varying pitch produces contrasts in words. The other languages we've heard don't use pitch to distinguish between individual words, though we do use pitch contrasts in English to distinguish between the mood of entire sentences sometimes. ("You're going out with Taylor." "You're going out with Taylor?")

Since English is a European language, it helps greatly to become familiar with a linguistic map of Europe in order to place English within its family relationships.

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