Regulating Language

28 September 2019

To many of us, the idea of languages tied to a country seems normal. People in England speak English, people in Japan speak Japanese, people in Croatia speak Croatian, and so on. Is this a hard and fast rule? Of course not, but to some extent it’s still considered the norm. But why does this perception exist when it’s not the case with the majority of languages?

Many national languages were created in the 19th century as the tide of nationalism swept across Europe. I use “created” here in the literal sense—standard languages are often as artificial as the nation states they come from. Their creation generally involves either basing the standard language on a “prestige” dialect—one with a lot of cultural capital—or creating something of a compromise language by adopting features of a number of different dialects. This sometimes creates amusing situations—for example, Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian are officially separate languages despite the fact that they are all based on the same prestige dialect, called Shtokavian. It’s a quirk of geopolitics that all four exist.

But what existed before these national languages came into being? Essentially, there were a bunch of language continuums that stretched across different parts of the world. A European one you’re probably aware of is the Romance languages, which, despite consisting of distinctly separate languages today, can trace their existence back to Vulgar Latin—“Vulgar” here meaning “common”—a general term used to describe varieties of Latin spoken by commoners of the Roman Empire, with some influence from local languages that existed at that time. Because most of the people who spoke Vulgar Latin initially spoke it as a second language, its grammar eventually grew to become pretty different to the varieties of Latin spoken by Roman elites. Over time, the varieties drifted further apart, and once they were standardised the differences between them was locked in for good.

You can see examples of this today, even in places thousands of kilometers from Europe. At my high school in northern Melbourne, one of the languages offered was Italian, reflecting the area’s migrant past. When I asked people who had Italian family if what they spoke at home helped in the classroom, I invariably received the same response: their parents/grandparents spoke “dialect”, so it wasn’t really useful at all. This struck me as bizarre at the time—if it’s just a dialect, how different could it be? It’s only now that I’ve realised that many of these “dialects” that people referred to—Sicillian, Calabrian, and other varieties historically spoken in southern Italy—were so different to Standard Italian, which is largely based on varieties spoken by aristocrats in Tuscany in the north, that it was as if I was assuming that knowing Spanish or French was a gateway to fluency in Italian as well. It would have helped, but it wasn’t a ticket to perfect grades by any means.

Continuums like this have also existed in Germany, the Netherlands, across Scandinavia, and even the British Isles, where a continuum stretches from the posh Southern English accents often associated with snooty Etonians to the islands north of Scotland, where varieties of English are so divergent that some linguists classify “Scots” as a separate language. Do yourself a favour and search “Shetlandic Scots” on YouTube some time—it’s a truly bizarre and wonderful listening experience for a linguistics nerd like myself.

But sadly, standardisation is causing many of these dialects to be lost. Today in Italy, for example, it is largely the older generation that speak the aforementioned Italian dialects. The same is the case in France, where ardent opposition to recognising regional languages has led to their decline. In countries that were formerly subjected to colonisation, standardisation is beginning to affect local languages as well.

There are of course economic advantages to standardised languages, and it might just be that it’s easy to geek out over the idea of hearing a language change bit by bit as you travel from town to town—but too often we lose sight of where language comes from. We can do both— teach standard language, while protecting and promoting the diverse history that non-standard varieties represent for so many people.

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