Language, Dialect, Family

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In the year 2000, 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, and Michael Jordan. 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. As you recall, Travolta in this film 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.

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 "dialects" of larger and quite 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 as 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 single nation for 130 years, and it has great internal diversity and a very 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 national standardization, the world's languages form a gradation of intelligibility with English. This is because English shares origins with close family neighbors among the Western European languages, and 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. For example, here's a news story in French. Even if you don't read French, you will be able to identify a large number of words in the passage, and most of them will have the same meaning in French that they have in English. In fact, of all other world languages, you'd probably have the best chance of puzzling out the meaning of a French text, if you knew no language other than English.

Now turn to stories in Dutch and German. You will still be able to identify lots of words in each language, but the pattern of word similarity has changed. It's now the "little" function words that are easy, and the words that carry most of the noun and adjective meaning of the story that may be mysterious. The pattern is almost the inverse of the pattern that connects English to French.

If we move to Italian, fewer words are familiar, but there's a basic pattern of common words, probably fewer than in the preceding examples, but enough to establish a similarity between the languages. In honor of John Travolta, let's also try Portuguese--here too we have many similarities, but perhaps not quite so many as with French or Dutch.

Here's an example from Finnish. There are no words that I can connect to English words, aside from an obviously borrowed term like "presidentinvaaleissa." Finnish and English are unrelated, not just in terms of basic vocabulary, but in terms of the way that a Finnish sentence just does not seem to have words that we can even guess at. Take a sentence like "Itse asiassa he istuisivat vankilassa kärsimässä tuomioitaan rikoksista ihmiskuntaa vastaan," for instance; it does not have the rhythm of short to long words, "grammatical" to "content" words, that English shares with all the other languages we've seen. That, as much as anything, is a hint that English has no "family" relationship with Finnish.

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.

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