Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Highfalutin' Scholarly Article, Mostly -- Popcorn by The Colonel #84

What distinguishes a language from a dialect?

Nothing more than line-drawing.

The subject may seem unimportant since several of the world’s 6,000 languages disappear each week as their last native speakers die off like something not clich├ęd that dies off like crazy.

But as the name suggests, moot questions deserve to be mooted (“moot” = vb, transitive: argue, debate, discuss).

One famous formulation is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

That jesting adage was popularized by the sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who heard it from a member of the audience at one of his lectures. In Yiddish, it’s a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot.

Absent the oversimplification, that general view is the socio-political one: “languages” are official, prestigious, and have a written version, while “dialects” are unofficial, little esteemed, and oral.

Speakers of “dialects” often buy into this view and call their own speech “patois” or “slang.”

Oddly, the Mandarin Chinese term (Mandarin is “official” Chinese) for Cantonese, Shanghaiese, and other kinds of related speech is fangyan, which means “place-speech.”

Maybe the term fangyan is derogatory in context, but it sounds pretty neutral on its face.

Linguists use the “mutual comprehensibility” criterion to distinguish dialects from languages: “If two related kinds of speech are so close that speakers can have a conversation and understand each other, the two kinds of speech are dialects of a single language. If comprehension is difficult or impossible, the speakers are speaking different languages.”

That’s unsatisfactory, since it doesn’t distinguish between two people speaking the same dialect from two people speaking different dialects of the same language. But let it pass. It will do for distinguishing between different languages.

Even for that purpose, however, “mutual comprehensibility” is a little lacy around the edges, since comprehension can be asymmetrical, and even when symmetrical, is on a continuum. How “difficult” must comprehension be before two dialects are deemed two languages?

Hence our initial reference to line-drawing.

By the comprehensibility criterion, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghaiese are three languages, because native speakers of one cannot understand speakers of another without learning the other as a second language.

Western linguists refer to all three as “Sinitic languages,” which probably annoys Chinese authorities, who emphasize the unity of China and would probably bring up the point that all three share a written language.

But written Chinese is an ideographic language in itself, like ASL (American Sign Language). Written Chinese is not a phonetic equivalent of Cantonese, Mandarin, or Shanghaiese.

Just because British, French, and German drivers all know what stop signs signify doesn’t mean that the three countries share a common language.

Some linguists classify Danish and Norwegian as dialects of a single language because Danes and Norwegians can converse, but few Danes and Norwegians see it that way.

In conclusion, if Robar the Conqueror conquered the world, the difference between a dialect and a language would be whatever Robar said it was. Those who contradict Robar die a cruel and painful death.

We're keeping notes on your conduct so that if Robar conquers the world and we get into trouble with Robar, we can rat you out and throw you under the bus in hopes of saving our own worthless hide.

We encourage you not to keep notes on our behavior because it’s a lot of trouble and after all, how likely is it that Robar the Conqueror will conquer the world? Not very, right?

And even if he did, what are the the odds that you’d get in trouble with him and need notes on other people to throw under the bus in hopes of saving your worthless hide? Astronomical, we should think.

So relax. Chill. Speak in your native dialect if it makes you feel comfortable and homely. It’s all line-drawing, anyway.

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