COMMON HERITAGE.

The Log has a guest post by Stephan Stiller going over the much-discussed issue of language vs. dialect, but doing it with a fresh perspective and sparking an unusually interesting comment thread; I particularly enjoyed this, from frequent LH commenter J.W. Brewer:

We are of course all overlooking the fact that the long-term consequences of the Norman invasion of southern China in 1066 had a massive lexical and syntactic effect on the local topolect that other Sinitic varieties were not exposed to, such that it is unsurprising that modern Cantonese would end up more distant from modern Mandarin than Dutch is from Hochdeutsch.

Myself, I have given up on trying to convince the world to stop using the term “dialect” for forms of speech that from a linguistic point of view are clearly separate languages (notably the regional forms of Chinese and Arabic), but it would be nice if people could be brought to realize that whatever you call them, they are not like Boston English versus Atlanta English.
On another common-linguistic-inheritance front, bradshaw of the future has a typical bradshaw post bringing together far-flung descendents of a single Indo-European ancestral form, in this case queer and truss, both from Proto-Indo-European *twerk. I don’t know whether the blog’s proprietor is unaware of the current sense of that combination of sounds or was simply cheekily ignoring it, but I was as impressed by the lack of notice paid to it as Holmes was by the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

Comments

  1. Actually, queer and truss come from *terkʷ- ‘to twist’, and sarcasm comes from *twerḱ- ‘to cut’. Certainly twerk has lent itself to much cutting sarcasm lately.

  2. Whoops, misread the post — didn’t appreciate the metathesis. Never mind!

  3. I am puzzled by the phrase ‘to stop using the term “dialect” for forms of speech that from a linguistic point of view are clearly separate languages’ What does it mean?

  4. I don’t know whether the blog’s proprietor is unaware of the current sense of that combination of sounds or was simply cheekily ignoring it, but I was as impressed by the lack of notice paid to it as Holmes was by the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
    To be equally impressed, you should draw a firm conclusion, as Holmes did. The conclusion suggested by your analogy is that bradshaw did not write about the current word “twerk” because he has not encountered it – just as the dog did not bark at a stranger in the night because it encountered none. But did Holmes consider the possibility that there was indeed a stranger that the dog cheekily ignored ?
    You say that people often use the word “dialect” in an improper way. Could it be that they know the proper way, but are cheekily ignoring it ? Maybe they’re just ignernt. Ignorance of both the plain and cheeky kinds accounts for a lot of discursive friction.
    I agree, it would be nice if people could be brought to realize that they don’t know what they don’t know, but it ain’t gonna happen. Most people, like myself, find it hard enough to be ignorant, let alone knowingly ignorant.

  5. Myself, I have given up on trying to convince the world to stop using the term “dialect” for forms of speech that from a linguistic point of view are clearly separate languages (notably the regional forms of Chinese and Arabic)
    Chinese and Arabic are problematic examples. It is not linguistic ignorance that drives people to call the various Sinitic and Arabic languages “dialects”, it is ideology. You can’t use reason to persuade anyone in a case like that. Worse, many Chinese and Arabic speakers will conclude you are an “enemy” of their culture if you even try to bring the subject up.

  6. One has sometimes had the impression here that Mongolian is a further example.

  7. Isn’t it a bit presciptivist to want to tell people how to use “dialect”? If they use “dialect” to mean ‘a language I choose to disparage’ doesn’t that imply that that is a perfectly valid use of “dialect”? Use is all, isn’t it – far above considerations of misunderstandings, ambiguities and the like?

  8. dearieme,
    If they use “dialect” to mean ‘a language I choose to disparage’ doesn’t that imply that that is a perfectly valid use of “dialect”?
    In short, no. Like “passive voice”, “dialect” is a terminus technicus, a specialized term used in a particular domain with a specific meaning. As such, it belongs to a particular community and it’s that community that determins how it is used. “Passive voice” means what the community that uses it says it means, not what outsiders want it to mean and, like with all languages, people who actually use the term decide what its proper use is.
    Or to use another example: this is a pear. I know that some call it an apple, but who are you to say I can’t call it a pear?
    vanya,
    It is not linguistic ignorance that drives people to call the various Sinitic and Arabic languages “dialects”, it is ideology.
    Sometimes, sure. But oftentimes it’s not. The problem with the word “dialect” is that its was created in one context and then was extended to other contexts which at first glance seemed equivalent, but pretty quickly turned out to be fundamentally different. Still, they persist and even well-informed people not blinded by ideology such as myself will use the term “dialect” when referring to local varieties of Arabic because, after all, that is the basic meaning of the term “dialect” = a local variety.

  9. So, dearie, it appears that you must choose between perfect validity and having friends. As I understand bulbul, you are free to use, in any way you like, a word “belonging” to a lexical community. Should that use not suit its monitors, they excommunicate you.
    But you are always a community of one. There, that use will be perfectly valid for as long as you can brave the loneliness.

  10. If only we could revive tongue, with all its happy vagueness and lack of judgements.

  11. Myself, I have given up on trying to convince the world to stop using the term “dialect” for forms of speech that from a linguistic point of view are clearly separate languages (notably the regional forms of Chinese and Arabic)
    Israelis originating from Morocco and who understand the language commonly spoken there call it Moroccan and insist it is not Arabic. I submit this is so because only a few of these Israelis can read “Arabic,” and they cannot understand, or can only partially understand, the local non-Hebrew vernacular, referred to as /ערבית Arabic/.

  12. bulb: “dialect” is a terminus technicus, a specialized term used in a particular domain with a specific meaning. As such, it belongs to a particular community and it’s that community that determines how it is used.
    How it’s used within that community

  13. even well-informed people not blinded by ideology such as myself will use the term “dialect” when referring to local varieties of Arabic
    And often you would be correct about that, which is why the issue is so hard to resolve. For example, “Egyptian” and “Levantine” are arguably dialects of the same language. Even if not every linguist would agree, I think most speakers on the ground feel that’s the case.

  14. … , not elsewhere.

  15. Chinese and Arabic are problematic examples. It is not linguistic ignorance that drives people to call the various Sinitic and Arabic languages “dialects”, it is ideology. You can’t use reason to persuade anyone in a case like that.
    Which is why I have given up trying. As I said.

  16. “it belongs to a particular community and it’s that community that determins how it is used”: well you prescriptivists might very well say that but we descriptivists differ. If “dialect” is in fact used to mean something other than your preference, so much the worse for your preference: the dictionaries must, in the view of us descriptivists, record actual usage, not merely record some antique or arcane meaning treasured by nose-in-the-air stick-in-the-muds.

  17. “If “dialect” is in fact used to mean something other than your preference, so much the worse for your preference:”
    Used by whom? That is the salient point. His point is that it is immaterial how the general public uses the term because they are not part of the relevant community.
    That term originated among grammarians, the linguists of their time. This is different from botanists taking a word from common usage, like “fruit” and imposing their narrower and more exact meaning in it; in fact the direction of taking is exactly opposite.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    The claim that “dialect” is a term of art is itself an empirical claim, which should in principle be either confirmed or disconfirmed by reference to empirical evidence. Of course, it is also possible that “dialect” is used as a term of art by multiple specialist communities (e.g. “dialect humor” means something to scholars of 19th century American literature) with senses that have some family resemblance but are not perfectly coterminous.
    The 17th century OED example I posted in the LL thread (in which “the Russe, the Polish, the Bohemick, the Illyrian, and others” are all referred to as “Dialects” of the “Slavon tongue” itself seems rather like a specialist term-of-art usage, doesn’t it?

  19. To most Algerians, the word “lahja” (dialect) means “a speech form without a written standard”. As far as I can tell, that’s what teachers told them when they learned the word in the first place – I suppose they got the idea from French usage. Note that there’s no notion that a dialect has to be a dialect of some language: until recently, to most, Kabyle was a “lahja” not belonging to any “lugha” (language). I used to try arguing definitions, but eventually I realised that wasn’t getting anywhere: this is the local consensus, and there’s no way to change it short of taking control of the Ministry of Education.
    In the end, I’ve generally found it more fruitful to explain that:
    - not having a written standard isn’t an intrinsic property of the speech form, but rather something that can be changed any time if people want to change it;
    - not having a written standard doesn’t mean it has no rules, it just means that people obey the rules unconsciously.

  20. Bill Walderman says:

    “the Russe, the Polish, the Bohemick, the Illyrian, and others” are all referred to as “Dialects” of the “Slavon tongue”
    In the 17th century wouldn’t this have been nearly as valid referring to all the Germanic languages/dialects spoken in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland as dialects of a single “German” language (at least as the situation existed before the levelling that occurred over the past 30-40 years)? Perhaps “Illyrian” (which probably means “Serbo-Croatian”) would be excluded, but wasn’t there a broad continuum of local languages/dialects in Eastern Europe?

  21. “That term originated among grammarians, the linguists of their time”: so the implication is that migration of the word should be stopped by some sort of fence, run by a Department of Vocabulary Security? How very French.

  22. AJP,
    How it’s used within that community, not elsewhere.
    Well, my view is that if you’re going to use a term of art you’d should probably use it in its generally accepted meaning, otherwise I don’t really see why you would use it. If you don’t know what it means, you should not be using it. If you don’t really care what it means and you are only using it to give your pronouncements an air of authority (like peevologists often do with “passive voice”), you, sir or madam, are a pretentious asshole, in which case fuck you anyway.
    dearieme,
    the dictionaries must, in the view of us descriptivists, record actual usage, not merely record some antique or arcane meaning treasured by nose-in-the-air stick-in-the-muds.
    Oh by all means, let dictionaries do that. We’ve survived the extension of the term “football” to a game where an egg-shaped object is carried and thrown, I think we’ll survive this as well.

  23. And in local old news: Ľudovít Štúr’s 1846 book which laid the foundation for the establishment of standard Slovak is called “Nárečja slovenskuo aľebo potreba písaňja v tomto nárečí” which translates to “Slovak dialect or the need for writing in this dialect”. Štúr does use both “reč” and “jazik” to describe Slovak, so why that choice? To quote from page 10:

    Pred všetkím inším v tejto veci na kmenovitosť (die Gliederung in Stämme, divisio in stirpes) národa nášho Slovanskjeho pozor obrátiť treba, ktorá na viššom stupňi a rozviťejšja u nás sa nachádza jak v ktoromkoľvek druhom nároďe … Kďe v ktorom nároďe kmeni sa nachádzajú, musja biť tam rozličnje spuosobi hovoreňja jedneho spoločnjeho jazika, ktorje rozličnje spuosobi nárečjami (dialectus, Mundart) zovjeme, tím sa ukazujúce, že tá sama reč v rozličních rečních formách ňje len čo do sklo-(p. 11)ňeňja, ale aj čo do zvukou a skladu slov sa hovorí …
    But first of all, we must direct our attention to the tribal fragmentation (die Gliederung in Stämme, divisio in stirpes) of our Slavic/Slavonic nation which is of higher degree and more complex than in any other nation … If a nation is divided into tribes, there must exist different ways of using its one common language which we refer to as dialects (“nárečia”) (dialectus, Mundart) and which shows that the same language (“reč”) in its different varieties (“rečních formách”) differs not only in morphology, but also in its sounds and syntax.

    It is difficult to determine to what degree was this view of the Slavic ethnic groups and languages (generally referred to as Slavyanophilia or something like that) a reflection of actual linguistic reality and to what degree it was a romantic pipe dream, but it was held by large majority of the revivalists.

  24. Here’s the full OED1 (1895) article, excluding the obsolete sense of dialect which is a synonym for dialectic:
    Etymology: < French dialecte (16th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter), or < Latin dialectus, Greek διάλεκτος discourse, conversation, way of speaking, language of a country or district, < διαλέγεσθαι to discourse, converse, < δια- through, across + λέγειν to speak.
    1. Manner of speaking, language, speech; esp. a manner of speech peculiar to, or characteristic of, a particular person or class; phraseology, idiom.
    1579 E. K. in Spenser Shepheardes Cal. Ep. Ded., Neither..must..the common Dialect and manner of speaking [be] so corrupted thereby, that [etc.].
    1599 T. Nashe Lenten Stuffe 41 By corruption of speech, they false dialect and misse-sound it.
    1638 Penit. Conf. (1657) vii. 191 Such a dialect which neither Men nor Angels understand.
    1663 S. Butler Hudibras i. i. 8 A Babylonish dialect, Which learned Pedants much affect.
    1730 J. Clarke Ess. Educ. Youth (ed. 2) 172 The Lawyer’s Dialect would be too hard for him.
    1805 J. Foster Ess. iv. iv. 163 Naturalized into the theological dialect by time and use.
    1831 T. Carlyle Sartor Resartus (1858) iii. vii. 155 Knowest thou no Prophet, even in the vesture, environment, and dialect of this age?
    a1854 H. Reed Lect. Brit. Poets (1857) iii. 87 They lay aside the learned dialect and reveal the unknown powers of common speech.
    fig.
    a1616 Shakespeare Measure for Measure (1623) i. ii. 169 In her youth There is a prone and speechlesse dialect, Such as moue men.
    1860 R. W. Emerson Behaviour in Conduct of Life 158 The ocular dialect needs no dictionary.
    2. One of the subordinate forms or varieties of a language arising from local peculiarities of vocabulary, pronunciation, and idiom. (In relation to modern languages usually spec. A variety of speech differing from the standard or literary ‘language’; a provincial method of speech, as in ‘speakers of dialect’.) Also in a wider sense applied to a particular language in its relation to the family of languages to which it belongs.
    1577 M. Hanmer tr. Eusebius in Aunc. Eccl. Hist. iv. xxi. 70 Certayne Hebrue dialectes.
    1614 W. Raleigh Hist. World i. ii. xxiv. §1. 582 The like changes are very familiar in the Æolic Dialect.
    1635 E. Pagitt Christianographie 73 The Slavon tongue is of great extent: of it there be many Dialects, as the Russe, the Polish, the Bohemick, the Illyrian..and others.
    1716 London Gaz. No. 5497/1, He made a Speech..which was answered by the Doge in the Genoese Dialect.
    1794 S. Williams Nat. & Civil Hist. Vermont 200 A language may be separated into several dialects in a few generations.
    1841 M. Elphinstone Hist. India I. ii. iv. 203 Páli, or the local dialect of Maghada, (one of the ancient kingdoms on the Ganges).
    1847 J. O. Halliwell Dict. Archaic & Provinc. Words Eng. Dialects (1878) 17 The Durham dialect is the same as that spoken in Northumberland.
    1873 E. E. Hale In His Name viii. 71 That dialect of rustic Latin which was already passing into Italian.

  25. this is a really funny sketch depicting different dialects of Mongolian, parodying the Inner Mongolian TV programs,
    as a reportage from UB, with TV ads, then an excerpt of the movie Titanic dubbed, and English-Inner Mongolian audio dictionary lesson
    i hope SFR and Bathrobe, anyone interested in Mongolian dialects will enjoy it, cheers!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuzrbAYOJ8M

  26. ^the, the

  27. bulbul: if you’re going to use a term of art you’d should probably use it in its generally accepted meaning, otherwise I don’t really see why you would use it …[unless you're a]… pretentious asshole
    Generally accepted by whom, though? As Language pointed out in his post:

    I have given up on trying to convince the world to stop using the term “dialect” for forms of speech that from a linguistic point of view are clearly separate languages (notably the regional forms of Chinese and Arabic), but it would be nice if people could be brought to realize that whatever you call them, they are not like Boston English versus Atlanta English.

    So we’re not talking about linguists here. Linguists have, or ought to have, their own agreed definitions of ‘a language’ and ‘a dialect’. Without a Linguist Police you can’t expect the general public to abide by that or even know it exists, so it’s really a question of how far the public’s meaning and the linguist’s meaning can diverge before they become different meanings for the same word.
    Here’s another example: To a structural engineer strain is a ratio: the amount of deformation (elongation or compression) that occurs to an object, compared to its original shape when it’s stressed by a force. But if I ask my structural engineers if the strain on that rope will cause it to break, they’ll understand that I’m not using the word as precisely as they would and I’m not really discussing deformation (the generally accepted meaning to structural engineers), but exertion. On the other hand I’m not talking about straining the water out of the spaghetti or the strain of an old tune I can hear down the corridor. We’ve just got slightly different definitions for the same meaning of the word strain.

  28. Very good points, WW. This prescr./descr. business is a straining at gnats.
    In every discursive situation, misunderstandings may occur – especially ones that do not immediately present themselves as such. My experience is that one should be prepared, in principle, to consider the possibility that the other guy’s words and phrases may mean something other than I first thought – and vice versa.
    Prescriptivists believe that misunderstandings can be reduced by inculcating more rules. Descriptivists believe that misunderstandings can be reduced by adopting an understanding attitude. Ps are daddies, Ds are mommies.

  29. AJP,
    We’ve just got slightly different definitions for the same meaning of the word strain.
    Yes and that’s ok, because in this case, the word “strain” does indeed have two different meanings in two different domains. But in each of those domains, the respective meaning is clear and well established and that’s the important part. This is not the case with “dialect” which has no clear and well-established meaning outside of linguistic literature.* What does “dialect” mean to a layperson? “A language (variety) I chose to disparage”? “A language with no written standard?” None of the above?
    The other important thing here is that with “strain” and “fruit”, the narrower specialized meaning is secondary – experts just took an every-day word and adapted it for their purposes. It’s the other way around with terms like “dialect” where the specialized meaning is primary (well, more or less). And I find nothing wrong with insisting that the primary usage remain the only valid one. For home work, show that this attitude of mine is not a case of etymological fallacy.
    it’s really a question of how far the public’s meaning and the linguist’s meaning can diverge before they become different meanings for the same word.
    Is there really a public’s meaning? If yes, what is it?
    Also, what was that quote by Hat supposed to prove/show? What Hat is talking about is the fact that even the specialists’ use is different in different contexts (“… whatever you call them, they are not like Boston English versus Atlanta English”). It’s not about the term here, it’s about being aware of the different meanings and, more importantly, understanding the underlying situation. In short, the linguists should do a much better job of educating the public about these things and then maybe the terminological issue will go away by itself.
    Oh and by the way, this whole debate has nothing to do with prescriptivism or descriptivism. Why not P? Becuase nobody’s ordering anybody to do anything, nobody’s ostracizing or ridiculing anybody for their usage**. Why not D? Because descriptivism does not mean “anything goes”.
    *The fact that that established meaning may not be the same across all of literature (cf. the use of the term in Arabist vs. Sinologist literature) is beside the point. Yes, different people may use the same term differently, but that’s totally ok as long as they are aware of it and provide definitions of the terms they use.
    ** The above use of the terms “asshole” and “fuck you” in reference to certain hypothetical group of people was prompted by their hypothetical pretentiousness and ignorance, not by their hypothetical usage.

  30. “Because descriptivism does not mean “anything goes”.” Ya reckon? Who gets to prescribe what descriptivism is?
    “This is not the case with “dialect” which has no clear and well-established meaning outside …”. But the public is forever using words in a rather vague and malleable way. Is the use of all such words all to be denied to the public?

  31. dearieme,
    Is the use of all such words all to be denied to the public?
    I am not denying anything to anybody. Pointing out that you’re doing it wrong (vaguely, malleably) is something completely different.

  32. Bulbul, this attitude of yours is a case of etymological fallacy or, at least, you’re wrong about how people use ‘dialect’.
    What does “dialect” mean to a layperson? “A language (variety) I chose to disparage”? “A language with no written standard?” None of the above?
    As I’m sure you know, in Norway most Vestlandsdialekter use nynorsk as their written standard, whereas many other dialects like the Oslodialekt use bokmål for writing. It’s quite clear to anyone here that even though someone from Oslo may have difficulty occasionally understanding someone from Trondheim, they are still speaking roughly the same language with or without Danish influence. It may be weird-sounding, but there would be no reason to jeer at one another or claim some kind of class distinction on the basis of dialect. That’s less true within Britain, but good luck if you’re going to try and educate the average Briton to conform to a linguist’s way of using the words dialect & language. As Language himself said (though not about Britons specifically), “Myself, I have given up”. The best anyone can hope for is respect for other people’s usages, languages and dialects; linguists could certainly help out there by offering the public easily digested doses of historical linguistics, but that’s something else.

  33. AJP,
    this attitude of yours is a case of etymological fallacy
    No it’s not. Try to think why.
    As much as I appreciate your explanation of the Norwegian situation, I fail to see how it relates to the current discussion. And I utterly fail to see what class distinctions have to do with anything.
    Just to make sure we’re on the same page: you were talking about a public’s meaning of the word “dialect” and I was wondering whether such thing does indeed exist and what the meaning is. I, as you may have guessed, claim that there is no “public’s meaning” of the word, whether a single one or a set of them (unlike, say, “strain” or “fruit” or any other term with a specific meaning in a specific domain and a general one in every day speech) and thus every time a layman uses it to mean whatever they want to mean, they are simply using it wrong, like when people use “light year” as a unit of distance.

  34. … “unit of time”, naturally. My mistake.

  35. I vaguely remember such a misuse of light-year from old bad sci-fi movies, but the common collocations in COCA are light-years away ~ beyond ~ ahead ~ behind, which on investigation are used in contexts that suggest (to my ear, anyway) distance rather than time, though of course time is often metaphorically represented as space anyway. It used to be said that the figurative sense of astronomical should only be applied to large quantities (astronomical increase in fees, e.g.) rather than long distances, but I don’t think anyone worries about that any more.
    As for dialect, I think there is a clear popular meaning to be extracted from the ODO, AHD5, and M-W definitions, which are based on both popular and technical usage: something like “a variety of speech restricted to a regional, social, or professional group”. If it’s written down, it’s not a dialect; if it’s used widely, it’s not a dialect; if it’s standardized, it’s not a dialect. Considerations of Abstand and Ausbau just aren’t in the picture.

  36. like when people use “light year” as a unit of distance. … “unit of time”, naturally. My mistake.
    <*ahem*> A light-year is the distance light travels (through vacuum) in a (Julian) year. It’s a unit of length.
    Since the speed of light is constant (in a uniform medium), a light-year could be regarded as a vacuous unit of time – the time it takes light to travel a light-year through a vacuum, namely a year.

  37. time is often metaphorically represented as space anyway
    I’m not sure that “metaphorically” is a juste mot here. Time and space are definitely interconvertible, as are mass and energy. I can’t at the moment remember the name of the guy who demonstrated that.

  38. Bulb: As much as I appreciate your explanation of the Norwegian situation, I fail to see how it relates to the current discussion.
    You wrote: What does ‘dialect’ mean to a layperson? ‘A language with no written standard?’
    …”And I utterly fail to see what class distinctions have to do with anything.”
    You wrote: What does “dialect” mean to a layperson? “A language (variety) I chose to disparage”? Dialect varies according to the speaker’s class in Britain, but mostly not in (say) Norway. Therefore ‘speaking in dialect’ has a class-related meaning in Britain but not Norway. Two different meanings – geddit?
    Sorry Bul, you’ve used up all my time. Your main point, that linguists should dictate the meaning of ‘dialect’ to the rest of us, just doesn’t fly, as you can maybe tell from the reaction of the non linguists here. You can tell us your meaning is ‘more right’ than ours until you’re blue in the face, but until you can show why it’s to our advantage to abide by your meaning, we just won’t. We like our usage. That’s how language works, and I can’t believe you really are proposing such a thing.
    “like when people use ‘light year’ as a unit of distance.”
    It is a unit of distance. But anyway, if physicists can’t get people to see a simple thing like that a light year isn’t a unit of time, what possible hope is there that they’re going to line up behind your ‘dialect’ definition (whatever it is).

  39. If it’s written down, it’s not a dialect; if it’s used widely, it’s not a dialect; if it’s standardized, it’s not a dialect.
    That’s just wrong, John. See my Norwegian explanation above. Yes, it’s Norwegian not English, but it should still apply (see thisintegrated glossary translation into several languages).

  40. U lukomoriya .. in Buriad and Kalmyk, sounds two different languages, not dialects but perfectly intelligible by me or any Mongolian i believe, even though they are regarded as dialects within Mongolia
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPTFt9NHMgo&feature=youtu.be
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iK5Hu8ZaEqM
    Ukranian and Belorussian sound maybe similarly to a Russian
    the sketch i linked earlier is nothing mean or derogatory, he parodies famous television personalities in the Khalkha Mongolian too, so all is friendly and just too funny

  41. AJP: I grant that people speaking Norwegian don’t have this meaning, and Norwegian-speaking people speaking English may not have this meaning. But people speaking English uninfluenced by either other languages or technical terminology (which pretty much rules out most of us) do, I believe, have this meaning.
    Stu: That’s not the kind of interconvertibility I have in mind. The TIME IS SPACE metaphor is what licenses such English expressions as a long time, a short time, this point in time, looking forward to (something), the coming week, all of which use spatial words to refer to time.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    The TIME IS SPACE metaphor
    I think that this metaphor is perhaps a feature of human brain functioning, but interestingly enough it does not work the same way for all of us. For a language I know on the Pacific coast, it was explained to me that saying “the past is behind us, the future is in front of us” does not make sense: the past is actually in front of us since we know it already and we have images of it in our minds, while the future is behind us because we can’t see it. So it seems that European languages consider past and future from the point a view of a traveller looking ahead from a known point of departure towards an unknown point of arrival, while the other language considers a traveller pausing in the middle of the journey to look back on the distance travelled and therefore “turning his back” on a future still unknown. Note that a hiker or sled driver in unmarked terrain must look back frequently in order to memorize how the landscape will look for the return trip. So the past is living memory filled with vivid stored mental images, while the future is still featureless because undiscovered.
    The word journey ‘trip’ itself has its origin in a time word: the French word la journée ‘day’ (as a length of time, not a unit of time which would be le jour), therefore originally in English ‘trip lasting a day’, later more generally ‘trip’ (but usually, I think, from the point of view of experiences during the trip).

  43. i am reminded of a purportedly Tibetan proverb i read on fb saying something like it’s not time that is passing, it’s you who is passing for time is forever
    our sense of time is maybe the same with the european vs native american languages about front vs behind, but also perhaps something down to up, like the layers of earth, the depth of time or maybe it’s not languages but the individual person’s perceptions about time and anyone can perceive time however one likes not depending on the strict rules of their languages

  44. “Time and space are definitely interconvertible”: that must leave speed a very confused child.

  45. the past is actually in front of us since we know it already and we have images of it in our minds, while the future is behind us because we can’t see it
    The South American languages Aymara and Quechua are famous for taking this point of view: ass-backwards into the future we go.
    a very confused child
    The system of units used by relativity physicists, indeed, sets the speed of light to a dimensionless number 1.

  46. that must leave speed a very confused child
    “Daddy, are we there yet ?” … “Only another 10 miles, son”. … “Daddy, are we there yet ?”
    … “Only another 5 miles, son”. …
    Perhaps Zeno got his ideas from his children. I find that there is something today called “Zeno behavior”, yet another example of a paradoxical idea forged into a productive one. At the link there is also this:

    “… It may be that Zeno’s arguments on motion, because of their simplicity and universality, will always serve as a kind of ‘Rorschach image’ onto which people can project their most fundamental phenomenological concerns (if they have any).”

  47. JC people speaking English uninfluenced by either other languages or technical terminology (which pretty much rules out most of us) do, I believe, have this meaning…If it’s written down, it’s not a dialect; if it’s used widely, it’s not a dialect; if it’s standardized, it’s not a dialect.
    JC, This is written down, it’s standardised (see the glossary I linked to, above) and it’s used widely in Scotland. My guess is that most people would consider it dialect.
    Address To A Haggis
    Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
    Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
    Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
    Painch, tripe, or thairm:
    Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
    As lang’s my arm.
    The groaning trencher there ye fill,
    Your hurdies like a distant hill,
    Your pin was help to mend a mill
    In time o’need,
    While thro’ your pores the dews distil
    Like amber bead.
    His knife see rustic Labour dight,
    An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
    Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
    Like ony ditch;
    And then, O what a glorious sight,
    Warm-reekin’, rich!
    Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
    Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
    Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
    Are bent like drums;
    Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
    Bethankit! hums.
    Is there that owre his French ragout
    Or olio that wad staw a sow,
    Or fricassee wad make her spew
    Wi’ perfect sconner,
    Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
    On sic a dinner?
    Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
    As feckles as wither’d rash,
    His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
    His nieve a nit;
    Thro’ blody flood or field to dash,
    O how unfit!
    But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
    The trembling earth resounds his tread.
    Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
    He’ll mak it whissle;
    An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
    Like taps o’ trissle.
    Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
    And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
    Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
    That jaups in luggies;
    But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
    Gie her a haggis!

  48. This morning I asked a young Mongol woman from Xinjiang whether she understood the two Russian cartoons. She said the Kalmyk version was exactly how they speak back home in Xinjiang. The Buryat version was not quite as clear but still understandable.
    The main problem here is different Ausbau languages (Kalmyk standard in Kalmykia, Buryat standard in Buryatia), not different Abstand languages. My informant did, however, comment that Mongols from the eastern part of Inner Mongolia would have a hard time understanding the Kalmyk. In Inner Mongolia, the ‘dialects’ are so far apart as to be mutually intelligible. Which makes them closer to Chinese dialects, or to American English as spoken in Boston and LA?

  49. I’ve come from the ‘Can’t you see that Chinese is really a set of different languages, as different from each other as Spanish and Italian, or French or Romanian?’ school to gradually see the arguments of the other side.
    The usual European analogy isn’t a good one, since it largely assumes an idealised ‘one nation-state one language’ model that simply isn’t true. German, as people have pointed out, was originally a collection of pretty much mutually unintelligible languages. To a large extent, they were unwritten languages. With the adoption of a ‘standard’, German became a single written and spoken ‘language’ although the spoken form consisted of fairly disparate dialects. As time went on, thanks to the media, education, etc., the situation of mutually unintelligible varieties gradually changed. Some languages were largely lost (Low German); others gradually took on more of the characteristics of the standard (correct me if I’m wrong). The result is something much closer to German being a single language with dialects, and not a group of different languages.
    So why can’t the same thing be said about Chinese? Chinese consists of a number of mutually incomprehensible languages. But there has always been a written standard for all speakers of Sinitic dialects, and following the adoption of guoyu/putonghua, there is now also a spoken standard. This spoken and written standard has steadily gained ground at the expense of the old ‘languages’, and in a century it could be the case that Chinese pretty much approaches the German situation.
    The point is that people don’t (and didn’t) usually speak of German as being a collection of separate languages, even though they were. They recognised that they were all ‘dialects’ of German. What is the objection to treating Chinese the same way — as a collection of mutually unintelligible, unwritten dialects?
    In Japan there is also a standard language that everyone understands. And yet everyone knows that Tsugaru dialect in the north of Honshu and Kagoshima dialect in the south of Kyushu are mutually incomprehensible, and incomprehensible to speakers of standard Japanese, too. So why shouldn’t they be regarded as separate languages as much as Cantonese or Shanghainese or Alemannic or Franconian? There seems to be an innate prejudice here that the Chinese shouldn’t try and pretend that their linguistic situation is any different from the European ‘norm’. But what is the European norm, if not an idealised situation where every country has its standard written and spoken language, and its dialects that differ from the standard? The fact is that very few places have attained to this situation in China. There are no standard written languages for most Chinese ‘dialects’; the written standard for all of them was Classical Chinese in the past and putonghua in the present. Cantonese and to some extent Hokkienese may be exceptions, but you can’t hang your argument against ‘dialects’ on one or two exceptions. What is more noteworthy is the extent to which the local ‘languages’ have failed to develop into separate codified languages on the European model.

  50. The point is that people don’t (and didn’t) usually speak of German as being a collection of separate languages, even though they were. They recognised that they were all ‘dialects’ of German. What is the objection to treating Chinese the same way — as a collection of mutually unintelligible, unwritten dialects?
    The objection is (as the indignant bulbul has pointed out) that this is a drastic misuse of the term “dialect” from a linguistic point of view. I’m not sure why it was hard for you to “see the arguments of the other side”; they’re very simple, boiling down to “Chinese is one language just as China is one nation, and if you deny that you’re insulting us.” Which is an effective argument in practical terms when you have a couple million people in your armed forces and hold a big chunk of the world’s debt, but it’s intellectually vacuous. Really all that’s going on is that linguists are saying “Actually, language and dialect have useful meanings, even if it’s not possible to draw clear lines between them, and you can see the linguistic situation more clearly if you take the trouble to use those meanings,” and other people are saying “Shut up, we’ll use words however we want,” and since there’s no effective counter to the latter argument, yeah, one pretty much has to give up and say “OK, use words however you want.” That doesn’t change the underlying situation, though. The “dialects” of China, like the various mutually unintelligible varieties of European national languages, are separate languages whether people choose to call them that or not. (When you say “recognized,” you of course mean “claimed.”) Eppur si muove, like the man probably didn’t say.

  51. yes, the Kalmyk language is the Western (Oirad) Mongol dialect though there are slight differences in the dialect itself how the different ethnicities talk within it too, bayad or xoshuud or torguud or myangad, zakhchin, dorvod etc. The western dialects must be got influenced by the Turkic languages the most, in pronunciation and vocabulary, perhaps, while the Buriad by the languages of the people of Siberia. That the Western, the Buriad and the Ordos? (Inner) Mongolian dialects can be difficult to understand for each other, I haven’t realized that, while for The Khalha Mongolian speaker perhaps all three are of pretty much the same distance of intelligibility and incomprehensibility so must be the central dialect is something that connects them all, though it could be your friend’s just too young
    anyway the dialects dialects or dialects languages surely enrich each other adding much flavor and color and meaning and losing words in any of them will just impoverish the language language itself
    i wonder where is SFR, should have asked his fb or something when i could, to follow him elsewhere not *irritating* our host, sorry, cz it’s so easy to lose people that you find accidentally too of course

  52. Very innocently I would like to ask: What is the purely linguistic definition of ‘language’ vs ‘dialect’?

  53. My friend had no problem understanding. The intelligibility problem usually comes with people from Tongliao area (I think it’s the Khorchin dialect), whose speech is very different from Ordos or Xinjiang, or even Shilingol.

  54. speaking of the Mongol dialects, it like stands out when the western Mongol dialect is called Xinjiang, i think the Chinese could avoid much of their problems there just allowing it to be called Oirad or Western or whatever the language speakers and the region’s native inhabitants want to call themselves, a smaller milder step alleviates something that is irreconcilable something difference
    cz i dont believe in the United Mongolia, but in the right of autonomy and self-determination of the people wherever

  55. AJP,
    Dialect varies according to the speaker’s class in Britain, but mostly not in (say) Norway. … Two different meanings – geddit?
    Yes. So? You were the one speaking of the “public’s meaning” and as it turns out, there is no such thing. That’s just wrong, John. See what I mean?
    that linguists should dictate the meaning of ‘dialect’ to the rest of us
    No, that is not my main point. My main point is that if you are using terms we came up with, you might, just might, want to try to use them the way we use them. If you want to talk about X and use the words the experts use when talking about X, I don’t see why you wouldn’t use them the same way they do. I have some idea (see above), but I really don’t know.
    if physicists can’t get people to see a simple thing like that a light year isn’t a unit of time, what possible hope is there that they’re going to line up behind your ‘dialect’ definition (whatever it is).
    First, it’s not my “definition” of dialect. Secondly, there isn’t a single one. And finally, I hope you are not suggesting that I capitulate in the face of ignorance.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    What an awesome LL post. I’ve bookmarked it.

    In the 17th century wouldn’t this have been nearly as valid referring to all the Germanic languages/dialects spoken in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland as dialects of a single “German” language (at least as the situation existed before the levelling that occurred over the past 30-40 years)? Perhaps “Illyrian” (which probably means “Serbo-Croatian”) would be excluded, but wasn’t there a broad continuum of local languages/dialects in Eastern Europe?

    Pretty much. Standard Polish, Standard Czech and Standard Slovak are largely mutually intelligible today, and a conversation in Polish and Standard Croatian I heard a year ago was difficult and a bit one-sided but not outright impossible.
    (The Pole gave up and said nie rozumiemy się, “we don’t understand each other”. The Croat smiled in despair and insisted: “Razumjemo se!” :-) I guess abstracting palatalization in real time is easier than adding it.)

    Prescriptivists believe that misunderstandings can be reduced by inculcating more rules. Descriptivists believe that misunderstandings can be reduced by adopting an understanding attitude. Ps are daddies, Ds are mommies.

    …Strange gender roles you have there.

    while the other language considers a traveller pausing in the middle of the journey to look back on the distance travelled and therefore “turning his back” on a future still unknown

    Or there’s no journey, and instead we stand still and the future comes at us from behind so we can’t see it.
    Apart from Aymara, I’ve read that some languages in western Africa are known to share this.

    As time went on, thanks to the media, education, etc., the situation of mutually unintelligible varieties gradually changed. Some languages were largely lost (Low German); others gradually took on more of the characteristics of the standard (correct me if I’m wrong).

    There’s not much convergence going on. Roughly speaking, regional versions of the standard are replacing the local vernaculars in the north but not the south.

    What is the purely linguistic definition of ‘language’ vs ‘dialect’?

    There ain’t none. It’s like species vs. subspecies: most people outside the field believe there’s a simple definition, but that’s actually just one out of about 150, and depending on the definition there are from 101 to 249 endemic bird species in Mexico.

  57. David,
    Standard Polish, Standard Czech and Standard Slovak are largely mutually intelligible today
    I’m not so sure about Polish in this triangle. To some speakers of Slovak, Polish is easy, but to others, it might as well be Cantonese. I do plan to look into it as soon as I’m done with Maltese and Arabic.

  58. See what I mean?
    No. You also said “I…claim that there is no “public’s meaning” of the word ['dialect'], whether a single one or a set of them”. I think the public has quite clear ideas about what it means by ‘dialect’, but the meaning varies by country. I don’t see how you can argue with that given a) my explanation of how the word’s used differently in Britain & Norway and b) OED’s definitions & history of its usage. But never mind; it’s a red herring that I’m only even addressing because of your snide & patronising admonitions (though I do sympathise with your frustration at my ignorance and I expect I might have behaved similarly if we were discussing a different subject, one that I knew much more about than you).
    I hope you are not suggesting that I capitulate in the face of ignorance.
    No, don’t capitulate, but that’s not the issue. No one’s trying to stop you from educating us about dialect and language.
    Language: all that’s going on is that linguists are saying “Actually, language and dialect have useful meanings, even if it’s not possible to draw clear lines between them, and you can see the linguistic situation more clearly if you take the trouble to use those meanings,” and other people are saying “Shut up, we’ll use words however we want,”
    But people are only saying “we’ll use it how we want” because of the linguist. He’s the one saying “Use it my way or shut up”:
    bulbul: my view is that if you’re going to use a term of art you’d should probably use it in its generally accepted meaning, otherwise I don’t really see why you would use it. If you don’t know what it means, you should not be using it. If you don’t really care what it means and you are only using it to give your pronouncements an air of authority (like peevologists often do with “passive voice”), you, sir or madam, are a pretentious asshole, in which case fuck you anyway.
    The non linguists (and this was why descriptivism came up) just don’t want to be told that they’re using the word ‘dialect’ wrongly when they aren’t conforming to the linguists’ definition of the word – a definition that by the way I don’t think has ever even been given in this thread (see Bathtub’s comment, above) – they aren’t saying ‘we don’t want to learn what the linguist’s definition means’.
    there is no “public’s meaning” of the word ['dialect'], whether a single one or a set of them.
    Here is the OED definition of ‘dialect’, including its citations of usage:

    dialect
    [a. F. dialecte (16th c. in Hatz.-Darm.), or ad. L. dialectus, Gr. διάλεκτος discourse, conversation, way of speaking, language of a country or district, f. διαλέγεσθαι to discourse, converse, f. δια- through, across + λέγειν to speak.]
    1.1 Manner of speaking, language, speech; esp. a manner of speech peculiar to, or characteristic of, a particular person or class; phraseology, idiom.
       1579 E. K. Ded. to Spenser’s Sheph. Cal., Neither‥must‥the common Dialect and manner of speaking [be] so corrupted thereby, that [etc.].    1599 Nashe Lenten Stuffe (1599) 41 By corruption of speech they false dialect and missesound it.    1638 Penit. Conf. vii. (1657) 191 Such a dialect which neither Men nor Angels understand.    1663 Butler Hud. i. i. 93 A Babylonish Dialect, Which learned Pedants much affect.    1740 J. Clarke Educ. Youth (ed. 3) 172 The Lawyer’s Dialect would be too hard for him.    1805 Foster Ess. iv. iv. 163 Naturalized into the theological dialect by time and use.    1831 Carlyle Sart. Res. iii. vii. (1858) 155 Knowest thou no Prophet, even in the vesture, environment, and dialect of this age?    1857 H. Reed Lect. Eng. Poets iii. 87 They lay aside the learned dialect and reveal the unknown powers of common speech.
    fig.    1603 Shakes. Meas. for M. i. ii. 188 In her youth There is a prone and speechlesse dialect, Such as moue men.    1860 Emerson Cond. Life, Behaviour Wks. (Bohn) II. 384 The ocular dialect needs no dictionary.
    2. a.2.a One of the subordinate forms or varieties of a language arising from local peculiarities of vocabulary, pronunciation, and idiom. (In relation to modern languages usually spec. A variety of speech differing from the standard or literary ‘language’; a provincial method of speech, as in ‘speakers of dialect’.) Also in a wider sense applied to a particular language in its relation to the family of languages to which it belongs.
       1577 Hanmer Anc. Eccles. Hist. 70 Certaine Hebrue dialectes.    1641 Raleigh Hist. World ii. 496 The like changes are very familiar in the Aeolic Dialect.    1635 E. Pagitt Christianogr. 73 The Slavon tongue is of great extent: of it there be many Dialects, as the Russe, the Polish, the Bohemick, the Illyrian‥and others.    1716 Lond. Gaz. No. 5497/1 He made a Speech‥which was answered by the Doge in the Genoese Dialect.    1794 S. Williams Vermont 200 A language may be separated into several dialects in a few generations.    1841 Elphinstone Hist. Ind. I. iv. 203 Páli, or the local dialect of Maghada, one of the ancient kingdoms on the Ganges.    1847 Halliwell Dict. Eng. Dialects (1878) 17 The Durham dialect is the same as that spoken in Northumberland.    1873 Hale In His Name viii. 71 That dialect of rustic Latin which was already passing into Italian.
    b.2.b attrib., as dialect speech, dialect speaker, dialect poems, dialect specimens; dialect atlas, geography: see quots. 1933; hence dialect-geographer, dialect-geographical adj.
       1932 Missouri Alumnus Apr. 232/1 The American Council of Learned Societies is financing a Dialect Atlas of the United States and Canada.    1933 Bloomfield Lang. iii. 51 Dialect atlases, collections of maps of a speech area with isoglosses drawn in, are an important tool for the linguist.    1948 South. Folklore Q. Dec. 231 The project was‥inspired by the great European dialect atlases.
       1929 Germanic Rev. I. 291 In 1898 Carl Haag introduced the term ‘Kernland⁓schaften’‥into the treatment of dialect geography.    1933 Bloomfield Lang. xix. 321 The study of local differentiations in a speech-area, dialect geography, supplements the use of the comparative method.    1936 Language XII. 245 The dialect-geographers‥have found variations.    1948 Neophilologus XXXII. 183 The results of the English dialect-geographical inquiry.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not so sure about Polish in this triangle. To some speakers of Slovak, Polish is easy, but to others, it might as well be Cantonese.

    The Slovaks I’ve witnessed in such situations probably all came from the west.

  60. AJP,
    I think the public has quite clear ideas about what it means by ‘dialect’,
    Oh come on, the public doesn’t even have a clear idea what it means by “grammar” and that’s an easy one. Sometimes its means orthography (your vs. you’re), sometimes it means style (whether in regards to punctuation or use of what they view as inappropriate variety), sometimes it means lexical choice, sometimes it means something completely different. Same with “dialect”: sometimes people mean “language use typical of place X”, sometimes they mean “language use typical of social group Y”, sometimes they mean “uneducated speach”, sometimes they mean “language without a standard” and sometimes they mean all of it and nothing of it.
    a definition that by the way I don’t think has ever even been given in this thread
    A basic one was, by me: a local variety. It gets a whole lot more messy depending on where you are, but that’s the whole point: the facts on the ground are complicated and you it’s quite counterproductive to be slapping all kinds of labels on everything based on superficial similarities.
    The non linguists (and this was why descriptivism came up) just don’t want to be told that they’re using the word ‘dialect’ wrongly
    But sometimes you are. Not that it’s a problem, I can deal with it. I just don’t understand your stubborn insistance on being right. And don’t blame it on my allegedly snide & patronising admonitions. Would the situation be different if we were talking about something a little more arcane, like phonetics and the term “guttural” and “pharyngeal”?
    I fail to see what the OED is supposed to prove. On one hand, it is way too generic – “One of the subordinate forms or varieties ” – on the other it doesn’t cover many of the definitions we’ve seen here (John’s and Lameen’s “language variety without a written standard”, dearieme’s “a language I chose to disparage”, my “uneducated speech”), so it’s hardly representative of Ms. Jane Q. Public’s understanding of the term.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    Part of my research involves a linguistic group which is clearly identifiable but which (depending on definitional criteria, both linguistic and extra-linguistic) could be said to consist of one, two, three or four languages. In order to avoid the (real) terminological problems associated with the terms “language” and “dialect” I usually refer to individual members of the group as “speech varieties”.

  62. David Marjanović: Standard Polish, Standard Czech and Standard Slovak are largely mutually intelligible today
    bulbul: I’m not so sure about Polish in this triangle. To some speakers of Slovak, Polish is easy, but to others, it might as well be Cantonese.
    My father was born in what was then Czarist Russia in a small town midway between Bialystok, today in Poland, and Grodno, today in Belarus. He had family further east, possibly as far as Slonim, and he spent the WWI years in Tver, well within Russia proper. He grew up speaking Russian and Polish on the street; he never mentioned Belarusian, which makes me wonder how far it is from Russian. I do remember him telling me many years ago that he was able to converse, if imperfectly, with a fellow from Macedonia.
    My knowledge of Slavic languages is scant, and I went to Wikipedia to brush up before writing this post. There I learned that there’s a movement to declare Silesian a separate language, rather than a variant of Polish. I also came across lect, a term that may or may not help cool this thread’s fray.

  63. To some speakers of Slovak, Polish is easy, but to others, it might as well be Cantonese.
    I work with a Slovak from Bratislava and one from Kosice. Neither has any trouble understanding Polish, but, here’s the key, they’ve both been exposed to it for fairly extended periods of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Slovak who has never been exposed to Polish and has little linguistic background might need a while to adjust. Maybe it’s analagous to an American trying to understand Highland Scots. I find it interesting that my Slovak colleagues cannot speak Polish all that well, and often prefer to use English in business situations.

  64. m-l,
    I find myself increasingly preferring the term variety as well.
    Vanya,
    as David suggested, people from Eastern Slovakia (e.g. Košice which happens to be my almost home town as well) find it easier to understand Polish than people from the West, especially since Eastern Slovak shares a number of features with Polish. Thing is, we don’t really know what it is that makes mutual intelligibility easier, whether it’s linguistic features or simply exposure or both (as might be the case for Czech and Slovak). A pretty cool project at the University of Groningen is currently looking into that and I’d like to take a closer look at Western Slavic languages, too.

  65. it like stands out when the western Mongol dialect is called Xinjiang
    I wasn’t talking about the dialect as ‘Xinjiang’; I was talking about people (Mongols) from Xinjiang without specifically indicating their dialect.

  66. A basic one was, by me: a local variety.
    Well, that fits the Chinese dialects down to the ground! That is basically what the Chinese claim them to be, ‘local varieties’ of the Chinese language.

  67. Bill Walderman says:

    A personal experience. When I was in the US Army 40+ years ago, I was stationed with a military intelligence unit in Germany after a year spent learning Russian. In my unit there were a number of young men in their twenties (like me at the time) who came from a variety of eastern European backgrounds–Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Polish, Ruthenian, and maybe others too, having either been born abroad around the end of WWII or having grown up in immigrant households.
    Our unit had a volley-ball team that played other US Army units in the area with considerable success. On the court, and after the games, too, the team members communicated with one another pan-Slavically, that is, each spoke his own native language, but they all seemed to be mutually intelligible to a sufficient degree, leaving their opponents to wonder exactly which army they were playing against.

  68. Bill Walderman says:

    By the way, at the risk of offending someone or other, does anyone actually speak Belarusian? Standard Russian seems to be the primary language of Belarus, and my understanding is that official Belarusian was cobbled together in the 19th century out of some local languages spoken in rural villages in what was then western Russia. Legal documents I’ve seen emanating from Belarus have been in Russian, and everyone I’ve known from Minsk speaks Russian as their native language, but that’s a sample size of 1.

  69. @Vanya: The Highland Scots are (mostly former) Gaelic-speakers who speak school English with an accent. It’s the Lowland Scots who speak Scots.

  70. There’s been discussion of Belarusian at LH here and here (and doubtless elsewhere); I confess I’m not clear myself on exactly what the current status of the language is.

  71. I expect the facts on the ground in Belarus are pretty much what they have been since 1920:
    1) There is a fairly smooth dialect continuum from what is clearly Russian to what is clearly Ukrainian.
    2) The working language of officialdom in Belarus is Standard Russian.
    3) Standard Belarusian has, as Ethnologue tersely puts it, “largely symbolic use”.
    I was very moved by two quotations from Miłosz (or Česlovui Milošui, as he is called in Lithuania today): Esu lietuvis, kuriam nebuvo leista būti lietuviu ‘I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian’ and “My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English, so I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me.” (From Wikipedia.)

  72. J.W. Brewer says:

    The problem with bulbul’s “local variety” working definition is that it merely pushes the question back to “local variety of what?” The real question is whether linguists have reached consensus on technical definitions of *both* “language” and “dialect” (that will be consistently applied around the planet) that allow them to be used as a pair where a given language variety can with some confidence be put into one slot or the other. If that’s not the case then it’s hard to be that critical of lay usage. (And maybe better to use German technical terms like Abstand/Aufbau etc. – assuming they are even used consistently by specialists.)
    To the extent lay usage often uses “dialect” as a shorthand way of saying “dialect-other-than-the-prestige/standard-dialect-of-the-given-’language,’” that strikes me as parallel to a layperson saying that so-and-so speaks “without an accent” which the specialist will sniffily want to rephrase as “with the standard/prestige/unmarked accent for the relevant language in the relevant context.” But that seems like a very nerdview kind of criticism, and/or reflective of a naive belief that if only the Ignorant Masses would understand that the relative social prestige of language variety A v. language variety B is historically contingent rather than “natural” or “logical,” utopia would suddenly emerge and there would be no more social/class/etc. distinctions between language varieties.
    I think it may be hard to know what’s going on with Belarusian because of the political situation. In [the] Ukraine, attitudes toward the status of Ukrainian v. Russian are politically-charged, but both factions are reasonably large and to some extent alternate in power. The extent to which it’s probably still the case that most Ukrainians could function perfectly well in Russian if forced to do so is thus obscured by the political situation. During the Soviet era there were plenty of people living in the Ukrainian SSR who were L1 Russophones who really didn’t know Ukrainian at all and frankly didn’t need to. It’s not clear to me to what extent that’s still the case.
    whereas in post-Soviet Belarus the pro-Russian faction has been and remains in power, and with less risk of electoral turmoil. So the extent to which some/many/most Belarusians could function perfectly well in a language variety that is *not* standard Russian is thus obscured.

  73. J.W. Brewer says:

    Further to John Cowan’s point – even prior to the Polonization of the Lithuanian gentry class, the Lithuanians were not very imperialistic about their language even when they were politically/militarily expansionist. Part of the prehistory of modern standard Belarusian is the language variety sometimes known as Old Ruthenian and other times as Chancery Slavonic, which was used back in the day for administrative purposes by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania for the Slavic-speakers they ruled over. Because it ended up having a standardized written form which diverged (out of the same underlying East Slavic dialect continuum) from the form used for parallel administrative purposes in the territories ruled by the Grand Dukes of Muscovy during the same time period, you had two separate “languages” by application of the army-and-navy test.

  74. Is “Česlovui Milošui” nominative?

  75. J.W.,
    The problem with bulbul’s “local variety” working definition is that it merely pushes the question back to “local variety of what?”
    Which is why I said this was only the basic definition and things get complicated after that, depending on where you are.
    which the specialist will sniffily want to rephrase as “with the standard/prestige/unmarked accent for the relevant language in the relevant context.”
    “Standard” is good enough, “unmarked” is way too tricky. And no sniffiness necessary.
    But that seems like a very nerdview kind of criticism
    So about a week ago, a friend calls me up asking for my help. I ask what’s wrong, they say (and I quote) “My computer doesn’t work”. I ask “OK, what kind of computer?”, they answer (I quote again) “I don’t know any of your nerdy stuff.” Having been in a similar situation before, I take a deep breath and embark on a long journey of Q and A at the end of which I tell them to plug the tablet in question (which ran out of juice) into a wall outlet and wait for a few minutes.
    Moral of the story: it may seem like some unimportant nerdy stuff to you, but that shit has practical ramifications, son.
    naive belief that if only the Ignorant Masses would understand that the relative social prestige of language variety A v. language variety B is historically contingent rather than “natural” or “logical,” utopia would suddenly emerge and there would be no more social/class/etc. distinctions between language varieties.
    No. We linguists like distinction between language varieties. We dialectologists love it – hell, without it, we’d be out of a job. What we would like to teach the non-specialists is not only how these distinctions come about, but also that they are a lot less consequential than they have been led to believe or that they mean something completely different than what they think they mean. Human variability, including the linguistic one, often gives grounds for prejudice and all kind of other related nasty shit. By showing them for what they really are, we try to combat prejudice.

  76. I submit that people need ways to look down on other people and to assert their dignity or power. It’s a basic need like food and sex. If such differences didn’t exist, people would invent them.

  77. Bill Walderman says:

    With regard to Belarusian, the key question is: Can Belarusian be properly characterized as a language and not a dialect if it has an army but doesn’t have a navy?

  78. Rodger,
    no, Česlovas Milošas is the nominative. Česlovui Milošui is dative.

  79. What we would like to teach the non-specialists is not only how these distinctions come about, but also that they are a lot less consequential than they have been led to believe or that they mean something completely different than what they think they mean. Human variability, including the linguistic one, often gives grounds for prejudice and all kind of other related nasty shit. By showing them for what they really are, we try to combat prejudice.
    *stands, applauds*

  80. I submit that people need ways to look down on other people [...]. It’s a basic need like food and sex.
    I sit here at the keyboard eating rice pudding, after [censored], and look about at my racially, ethnically, sexually, and linguistically diverse household, and I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.”

  81. the Lithuanians were not very imperialistic about their language
    Such a thing is incredibly recent. Empires by military conquest don’t give a red rubber rat’s fundament about what languages the conquered speak: they are mostly interested in strong backs, and if they happen to be barbarians themselves, they are content to let the educated slaves they use to do business for them stick to their own languages. Indeed, they may fetishize the notion that their language belongs to the superior race and that nobody else should (or even can) learn it.
    Religious empires are either content if a few priests learn the language of the scriptures they are pushing, or develop a culture of translating those scriptures into all available vernaculars, depending on if they are “Catholic” or “Protestant” in general flavor. Trade empires want to sell people things, and the first rule of good salesmanship is to learn how to speak to customers, generally in the customer’s own language. It is only (late-19th and later) consumer empires that get upset if everybody doesn’t know English, and the upset isn’t likely to go as far as compulsory English classes, since the imperial subjects are generally quick to learn English anyway, if only for the tourist trade (and for posting on linguistics blogs).

  82. J.W. Brewer says:

    Two NYC anecdotes from today to back up JC’s paean to linguistic-etc. variousness:
    1. A Manhattan-resident facebook friend had an active comment thread with some high school classmates from Switzerland, all conducted in Swiss German (with “dialect” orthography) which is in writing semi-transparent to me (in the sense that given enough context I can make better-than-chance guesses as to the standardly-spelled Hochdeutsch cognates) but hilariously baffling to machine-translation software. (Maybe the NSA’s efforts to spy on the Swiss are so top-secret that that software isn’t available for civilian use yet?)
    2. I got a shave in a barbershop in midtown from a fellow who was speaking seemingly-fluent Russian to the other employees and spoke to me in English with an accent broadly consistent with my experience of immigrant L1 Russophones, but who was racially/ethnically East Asian in appearance. Now I know the old CCCP and its successor states were rather ethnically diverse, including Buryats, ethnic Koreans, etc etc., but you don’t see a whole lot of that side of it in the NYC post-Soviet diaspora. (I alas couldn’t think of a non-rude way to ask him about ethnicity while he had a razor to my throat.)

  83. “a non-rude way to ask him about ethnicity ”
    on the contrary, perhaps the person would have been pleased to be asked his ethnicity and from where he is, i never could get the x generation asian americans getting all offended when asked about their ethnicities, i think it’s different for someone from the post-soviet territories though

  84. When I was in NYC recently I found myself (while walking down Fifth Avenue) in hearing distance of two women racially/ethnically Asian in appearance who were speaking accented but fluent Russian; I wondered whether they were, e.g., an Uzbek and a Buryat, but I’ll never know.

  85. Mr. Cowan,
    after [censored],
    OK, now I’m really curious what the censored bit is.
    And a propos of absolutely nothing: remember Geoff Pullum’s termination policy regarding jokes about preposition stranding? I sometimes think it would be a good idea to introduce something similar for the ol’ “language is a dialect with an army and a navy” bit. Used to be funny, but geez the lame puns and pseudo-clever quips I’ve seen over the years…

  86. John Cowan – Ta da! you’ve just given yourself a reason to feel superior to the unenlightened, mono-lingual, -racial, -ethnic, -etc. masses!
    (kidding, of course)

  87. JC, sorry to spoil your rice pudding! And I’ve no doubt you’ve got a happy and varied family all living together, which I have no intention of maligning or disparaging.
    My bombshell statement was just that, a bombshell statement; but leaving aside the shock value, I think it’s true to say that ‘status’ is very important to people, and it shows up in many different ways. ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ is one of them. Being able to consider other peoples’ language incorrect or inferior is another. My suggestion was basically that people (in general) are good at finding ways to differentiate their status. There are always people at the bottom of the pile, and one of the ways they are stigmatised is through dismissal of their language, whether that is justified or not. I don’t intend to defend my position to the bitter end (it’s not worth it), but I would suggest it has a grain of truth to it, even if it put you off a perfectly good rice pudding.

  88. Read: I think Asian Americans object to being pigeonholed as Chinese or whatever, when they would rather be thought of as Americans first. It’s the spirit of Wong Kim Ark, who went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to establish the principle that even though his parents could never (at the time) be naturalized U.S. citizens, he was born in this country and therefore a U.S. citizen by birth.
    Bulbul: Well, Bathrobe mentioned food and sex, so I mentioned rice pudding as an instance of the former; I’m not going to tell you what the corresponding instance of the latter was.
    Someone: You have a point. But I don’t feel superior to people who live in monolithic neighborhoods (unlike my diverse one), I just feel lucky to live where I do. When I was younger, I felt superior to other people because of my book-learning, but I no longer do, I don’t think.
    Bathrobe: The pudding was entirely enjoyed, thanks. What you say is certainly true enough in general, and the fact that I don’t feel the need to one-up anyone has much to do with the fact that nobody whose opinions matter to me is trying to one-down me.

  89. I alas couldn’t think of a non-rude way to ask him about ethnicity while he had a razor to my throat.
    In my experience most people from the ex-Soviet Union wouldn’t find that inquiry particularly rude or strange. We’re talking about countries that routinely require people to note their “nationality” on their ID cards.

  90. J.W. Brewer says:

    Come to think of it, my most offbeat post-Soviet NYC language story (which I may have told here before in a different context) is probably from a few years back when I became so curious about the book a woman next to me on the train was reading that I surreptitiously jotted down the title so I could google it when I got to work. It proved to be an edition of an apparently well-known Soviet anthology of deemed-safe-by-the-Commies folk songs, of the sort people of certain generations would have learned around the campfire while doing time in the Young Pioneers. But what the woman was reading was the Esperanto edition.

  91. With great interest I read the dialect-vs-language discussion here. I cannot help but wonder: Whatever happened to the old freshman definition: “A Language is a Dialect with an Army and a Navy?”
    This seems to cover it all.
    -
    A sad example of its reality is perhaps to be found in the Serbian and Croatian language communities, where these two varieties have been considered separate LANGUAGES since the Yugoslavian Civil War, where formerly there was just Serbo-Croat, even though the Serbs used Cyrillic script and the Croats Latin. These days local hotheads damage or destroy road signs that were put up by the other group.

  92. But what the woman was reading was the Esperanto edition.
    I wonder if she was aware that the USSR made a serious effort to exterminate Esperantists?

  93. Frans: See bulbul’s comment, about 17 hours before yours. You might want to lay low for a while.

  94. J.W. Brewer says:

    That was just one of those regrettable Stalinist excesses. Commies and Esperanto go together like chocolate and peanut butter, as witness http://www.communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=65:james-connolly-and-esperanto (with awesome quote: “when, in 1990, the World Esperanto Congress was held in Havana, Fidel Castro told the congress ‘I am a soldier for Esperanto.’”).

  95. That is truly an awesome quote!

  96. John Cowan: the Roman and Chinese Empires were both products of military conquest, just over two thousand years ago, and in both instances the conquerors’ language (Latin and Middle Chinese, respectively) spread at the expense of the many languages spoken by the conquered. Imperial language spreads are nothing new under the sun, I’m afraid.

  97. Etienne: I don’t mean that the language of a military empire doesn’t spread. I mean that the conquerors themselves have no interest in spreading it. If and when it spreads, it does so because the conquered see a reason to learn it.

  98. Hat, how long does it take to go through and clean out the comments column? Spam seems to far outweith the amount of valid and useful traffic on the Internet.

  99. Hat, how long does it take to go through and clean out the comments column?
    It depends. Most days, not long—not more than a few dozen spams per open thread. Some days (fortunately few) there are hundreds. Today is in between, but for some reason they’re coming in thick and fast on this thread, so I’m going to close it; if anyone wants to add something, e-mail me and I’ll reopen it (or of course you can just comment in any open thread). As always, management apologizes for the inconvenience and issues a plenary anathema on all spammers.

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