How Did Latin Become A Dead Language?

Jules Suzdaltsev (“a big fancy journalist, editor, and host from Los Angeles, California”) has a three-minute video purporting to explain what happened to Latin. I post it not because I expect anyone here to learn anything from it (summary: Latin split into what we call the Romance languages) but because it manages to say such odd, silly, irrelevant, or just plain wrong things in such a short stretch of time. “Part of the reason that Latin passed out of common usage is because, as a language, it’s incredibly complex”: no, actually people can go on speaking incredibly complex languages indefinitely; visit the Caucasus sometime. At the start he seems to be saying that Latin spread throughout the Empire because it was the chosen language of the Catholic Church. His map shows Romanian as not being spoken within the Empire. He says the meaning of something said in Latin “is always clear, although difficult to parse in a sentence.” He gives the Italian, Spanish, and French descendants of Latin tres ‘three’ and says they’re “all similar, but culturally distinct.” Wha? I watched it twice just to make sure I had heard what I thought I heard. Anyway, this guy may be a fine fellow but I wouldn’t advise going to him for linguistic history. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Comments

  1. Most likely unintended typo, in the last line: “Anyway, this guy may be a fine fellow but I would advise *against* going to him for linguistic history.”

  2. Fixed, thanks!

  3. Well, in the way anything “becomes dead”: it fell, or was pushed.

  4. I think he is basically right about Latin being overly complex as a reason for its demise, but he omits several important points.

    We should start with a basic historical fact that Latin was very much a minority language imposed on the mass of population of Italy and then most of Europe and parts of North Africa.

    These people learned Latin, because it was a language of conquerors, but learned it badly.

    And Latin’s very complex grammar was the first thing which newly Latin speaking populations simplified.

    Hence, Romance languages.

    Of course there are languages with complex grammar, but these languages are spoken by native peoples who spoke it for millenia, not by unwilling mass of conquered populations.

    I am pretty sure that if, say, by some accident of history, millions of Russians had to learn some hideously complex Caucasian language (Chechen, for example), within a few generations it would be simplified beyond recognition.

  5. It’s possible, but I don’t think that’s necessary as an explanation. English also went through a lot of morphological simplification historically, and it’s controversial whether or to what extent this was a result of second-language acquisition. From what I understand, North Germanic languages such as Norwegian also simplify some things in a similar manner to English even though the historical circumstances where they were spoken were different.

  6. BTW, if anyone is interested, most of the latest issue of Language Dynamics and Change is, at least at this moment, Open Access. The issue consists of Faarlund and Emonds’s résumé of the “Viking Hypothesis”—the idea that Middle English is North Germanic, not West Germanic, and thus not descended from Old English. The paper is followed by nine commentaries (mostly disapproving), and a reply to them by the authors.

  7. Wouldn’t the in-depth penetration of systematic education in the externally imposed imperial language be a more important factor than the perceived complexity (or otherwise) of that language? A full education in literary Latin was only available to a small elite, who didn’t have the numbers or institutions to impose the formal language on conquered peoples, and couldn’t send out an constantly replenished corps of administrators and teachers to make all imperial subjects speak proper.

    By contrast, when the European imperial powers began to extend education beyond tiny local elites to subject peoples in the early twentieth century, a critical mass of good students were able to master the imperial formal language. Of course the European languages in question don’t have the synthesizing complexity of certain Caucasian languages or even of Latin. But they have substantial complexities that are burdensome to learners whose native languages have no parallels – e.g. the range of verb inflections in French or Portuguese, irregular/illogical spelling in English or French. And many of those learners still worked away until they got it right.

    I suggest therefore that if the future Chechen hegemony over Asia and Europe chooses to prioritise education in Chechen among its benighted subjects, people will drive themselves (or be driven) to master correct formal Chechen. OTOH it may be that SF Reader is right and there’s a threshold of complexity beyond which non-native speakers, no matter how motivated, can only default to simplification.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    Is Latin much more complex than Russian? Are Caucasian or Central Asian dialects of Russian simplified?

  9. – it’s controversial whether or to what extent this was a result of second-language acquisition.

    For some time, I have been toying with an idea that modern literary English is a result of second-language acquisition of commoners speech by the English elite (which spoke Norman French as native language)

    And then this strange bastardised form of English became standard and displaced real English dialects (which came to be regarded as uneducated and vulgar).

  10. -Is Latin much more complex than Russian?

    Yes.

    -Are Caucasian or Central Asian dialects of Russian simplified?

    These regions were conquered only in 19th century, so there wasn’t any time for such dialects to form, I believe.

    Anecdotal evidence* suggests that something like this was developing in former Soviet republics, but collapse of the USSR finished these forms of Russian for good.

    * Russian language lesson in Georgian school.

    Teacher: “Kids, you must remember that vil’ka and tarel’ka are written without soft sign, but sol and fasol are written with the soft sign. You have to remember this, because it defies all understanding”

  11. -A full education in literary Latin was only available to a small elite, who didn’t have the numbers or institutions to impose the formal language on conquered peoples, and couldn’t send out an constantly replenished corps of administrators and teachers to make all imperial subjects speak proper.

    I note that this applies to Italy itself. All Italian Romance languages, including the Italian proper are result of this process.

    Italian, is, as we all know, a Tuscan Romance dialect, and the region of Tuscany, as the name suggests, was populated in antiquity by Etruscans who switched to Latin. Now, Etruscan is believed to have been a non-Indo-European language, so the form of Latin the Tuscans ended up speaking was quite alien from language of Cicero and Caesar.

    Hence, we could reasonably say that Italian is essentially Latin spoken by Etruscans.

  12. SF Reader: Hence, we could reasonably say that Italian is essentially Latin spoken by Etruscans.

    I presume this is hyperbole… But yes, the same dynamics of imperial language acquisition would have operated within Italy as outside Italy, and of course earlier in Italy. (But would the presence of large numbers of native Greek speakers in southern Italy and increasingly in Rome itself have been a complicating factor that might have extended the life of inflectional complexity in colloquial Latin? i.e. because of the prestige and commercial usefulness of Greek compared with, say, Gallic languages.)

    Whether in or outside Italy, the vast majority of non-patrician inhabitants of the empire got their Latin from the market-place or the barracks, not in school; hence dialectical simplification. Once the schools start to determine the processes of language acquisition, they place greater value on formal complexity (or just plain difficulty) as an indicator of cultural prestige and thus an aspiration for all learners of the imperial language.

  13. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4a/Iron_Age_Italy.svg/864px-Iron_Age_Italy.svg.png

    Useful linguistic map of Italy before spread of Latin.

    Chechen is spoken by less than 1 percent of Russia’s population. It seems Latin originally was spoken by similar percentage of Italy’s population.

    So 99% of Italian population learned Latin as a second language

  14. I think he is basically right about Latin being overly complex as a reason for its demise, but he omits several important points.

    We should start with a basic historical fact that Latin was very much a minority language imposed on the mass of population of Italy and then most of Europe and parts of North Africa.

    These people learned Latin, because it was a language of conquerors, but learned it badly.

    I don’t think it was like that – Romance languages in the peripheral areas aren’t more deflexionized than in the core ones, presumably Latinized early on. Spanish and Italian are very comparable in this respect. If anything, inflection kept on longer peripherally, in the particularly ‘badly Latinized’ areas – vide Old French and Romanian case systems (the latter largely rebuilt, a vocative ending was even borrowed from Slavic IIRC, but with remarkable conservative elements; and Romanian has a very noticeable Paleo-Balkan substrate).

    Morphologically complex fusional languages are transmittable to large foreign populations without jettisoning their fusional nature – cf. South Slavs who are genetically very Mediterranean, to a large extent descended from pre-Slavic populations of the Balkans, yet they were capable of adopting the morphologically complex Common Slavic and preserving certain important verb forms like the aorist, imperfect, supine that were lost in Polish or Russian. Bulgarian seems to be an exception but in fact its analytic features developed long after the original Slavic incursions (some blame it on prolonged bilingualism with an Eastern Romance variety).

  15. David Marjanović says:

    We should start with a basic historical fact that Latin was very much a minority language imposed on the mass of population of Italy and then most of Europe and parts of North Africa.

    These people learned Latin, because it was a language of conquerors, but learned it badly.

    And Latin’s very complex grammar was the first thing which newly Latin speaking populations simplified.

    Hence, Romance languages.

    No. Just a few days ago we were introduced to the letters of Claudius Terentianus, which show that the cases fell one at a time, for almost purely phonetic reasons (endings came to sound the same).

    I also find it very noticeable that the tense/aspect system was preserved with very few changes – the future tense was lost, but the western languages promptly innovated a new one!

    It’s of course true that Latin wasn’t native to most of the empire. But almost the whole western half previously spoke Italic and Celtic languages that had very similar grammars to Latin. On top of that, substantial numbers of colonists from Italy settled at least in Spain – they may not have spoken Latin natively, but most likely did speak some kind of Italic.

    There have been many fanciful attempts to find substrates in Romance languages. AFAIK they’ve practically all failed, except for the large number of words shared by Romanian and Albanian: the French [y] isn’t Gaulish, and the modern Tuscan [ɸ θ x] aren’t Etruscan. French has something like 10 or 20 Celtic words, much like English, and that’s it. In contrast, the Romance languages have substantial numbers of Greek words even for relatively basic concepts: off the top of my head, French lisse “smooth” is straight from Greek lissos.

    The language shifts to Latin were also unlike more recent ones in that the Romans didn’t actively do anything to make them happen. In Italy and elsewhere, the local languages often survived for centuries; most of the Gaulish we have was written within 200 years after the conquest. Languages simplify from foreign influence when large numbers of people learn a language quickly and badly and speak that to their children, and then the children can’t find people who speak a native variant because almost everyone around them is in the same situation; this doesn’t seem to have happened much in the Roman empire.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    BTW, if anyone is interested, most of the latest issue of Language Dynamics and Change is, at least at this moment, Open Access.

    Found it!

  17. -almost the whole western half previously spoke Italic and Celtic languages that had very similar grammars to Latin.

    That explains why they switched to Latin so quickly, but, of course, it doesn’t guarantee that they would learn correct Latin.

    Consider a Pole learning Russian. Both languages have broadly similar and quite complex grammar, but I would argue that broad similarity of grammar doesn’t help, but actually hinders process of learning proper Russian.

    He would keep using all the wrong prepositions and mix genders hopelessly.

  18. Well as every English schoolboy knows (or used to know):

    Latin is a dead language,
    As dead as dead can be.
    First it killed the Romans
    And now it’s killing me!

    🙂

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    Only someone who had never learnt Greek could possibly think that Latin is complex.
    (Come to think of it, I believe that the Greeks still speak Greek …)

  20. Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek.

  21. Italian is essentially Latin spoken by Etruscans.

    Added to the Essentialist Explanations queue.

    (Come to think of it, I believe that the Greeks still speak Greek …)

    Only in the sense that Romance-speakers still speak Latin. Hellenic is just as much a language family as Romance, it’s just smaller.

  22. -Is Latin much more complex than Russian?

    Yes.

    I started both at age twelve and have the opposite impression, but I suppose I have to consider the following:

    –I was studying Latin in school and Russian on my own (via a TV course).

    –As a native English speaker, I already knew a huge chunk of Latin vocabulary. (However, the actual pronunciation of Latin came as a complete surprise on the first day.)

    –As a Westerner, I found the Latin tense system pretty transparent and the Russian aspect system baffling at first.

    –And of course learning a new alphabet and getting used to mad initial consonant clusters (he said, in a language full of mad final consonant clusters).

    I was relieved to find a language with one noun declension and one adjective declension, a feature I adopted for a conlang in my teens (reinforced, by that time, by German).

  23. Now that you mention Greek, I think I should write a paper about how complex morphology correlates with a troubled economy (Greek and Russian vs. English and Mandarin). No worse than some other papers recently published and fussed over. Must be because people can’t concentrate on work while inflecting.

  24. The western Roman empire spoke Latin and the eastern Roman empire spoke Greek. The western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic peoples, and the eastern Roman empire, later, by Arabs and Turks. The conquerors of the western empire were or became Christians. The conquerors of the eastern empire imposed Islam. The western empire ending up speaking Romance languages, but the eastern empire did not end up speaking Greek-derived languages. There were pockets of Greek-speaking Christians in the Ottoman empire but they were a minority.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to identify cause and effect, but it’s interesting that the two halves of the Roman empire went in such different directions.

    A friend of mine who is basically Calabrian in ancestry had her DNA tested and found that genetically she is quite a bit Greek. Of course the Greeks had colonies in southern Italy at one time.

  25. As with so many things, Monty Python knew all about the degradation of Latin: https://youtu.be/XbI-fDzUJXI

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Of course the Greeks had colonies in southern Italy at one time.”

    The Albanians too. Giulio Variboba
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giulio_Variboba
    a major Albanian literary figure, was from Calabria.

  27. SFReader: under the right sociolinguistic circumstances I see no reason to doubt that Chechen could spread through language shift and become a demographically much more important language without its structure being significantly modified through L2 acquisition.

    And the reason I say this is because such language spreads must have happened in the past. Let’s take the most demographically important Native American language spoken in the United States today, Navajo: its grammar is not exactly simple (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navajo_grammar). Its phonology (glottalized affricates, phonemic tone…) is not “simple” either: as I once observed here at the Hattery, Edward Sapir himself saw Athabaskan languages as the most complicated North American Native languages.

    And yet:

    A-It is utterly banal by Athabaskan standards: to a speaker of Chipewyan, Dogrib, Carrier or Hupa the grammar, phonology and basic vocabulary of Navajo would probably seem boringly mundane,

    B-Navajo spread in the American Southwest through a process which must have involved large-scale language shift, with the result that there are today more L1 speakers of Navajo than of all other Athabaskan languages combined.

    I thus conclude that language spread through shift needn’t have a significant impact upon the structure of the expanding language.

    David Marjanović : actually, the total number of Celtic loanwords in French, if you include local dialect words, is in the range of some 180: but a large number of these, please note, had spread far and wide in spoken Latin even before the fall of the Roman Empire, and thus are not specifically French today: Late Latin *cambiāre (“to change”: the English word is French in origin, of course) for instance, is Celtic in origin, but has reflexes in most Romance languages, most of which were not directly in contact with Celtic.

    All: and that is a core weakness of substratum theories in Romance: most of them seem to take for granted a stability, a continuity between pre-Roman and post-Roman settlements/ethnic groups which flies in the face of what the (uncontroversial) linguistic evidence (such as vocabulary: cf. the example above) points to. Let’s imagine that the Latin spoken in Tuscany indeed originally had Etruscan-derived features: now, over the centuries such features could either have disappeared (had they been lacking in prestige) or spread far and wide beyond Tuscany (had they been prestigious). It takes an enormous leap of faith to accept that some substrate-derived feature in Tuscan Italian, or for that matter in any Romance variety, still today has the geographical distribution it had in late Roman times.

    Maidhc: Actually, everything indicates that Greek was the dominant language of Anatolia and of Eastern Mediterranean coastal cities such as Alexandria before the spread of Turkish and Arabic: it is thus not a matter of Greek not spreading in the Eastern Roman Empire, but rather of its having been replaced on a much larger scale than was the case for Latin/Romance in the West: like Greek, Latin/Romance was (locally) replaced by post-imperial, expanding languages (Basque, Albanian, Breton, Berber, Continental West Germanic and South-Western Slavic varieties).

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Navajo spread in the American Southwest through a process which must have involved large-scale language shift

    Are you sure about that? I thought it spread into an empty area after the Anaasází had all starved to death? Of several agriculture methods, only that of the Hopi survived; the Navajo came in, found an economic niche for themselves, and thrived.

    I don’t know how much of the thriving happened after the shift to a sheep-herding lifestyle a bit later.

  29. Etienne:

    Navajo spread in the American Southwest through a process which must have involved large-scale language shift

    Do you have references for this? The stories the Navajos tell suggest assimilation of immigrants, voluntary and involuntary, of various out-groups who became Navajo clans, and all in fairly recent times: the Naakaii Dine’é still remember that their clan ancestor was a Mexican slave woman.

    with the result that there are today more L1 speakers of Navajo than of all other Athabaskan languages combined.

    I should think this would be accounted for by differential attrition rather than original spread, plus the network effect (majority communications technologies grow, minority technologies shrink).

  30. John + David: have a look at

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287201963_Dene-Yeniseian_Migration_and_Prehistory

    Especially section 2.0, and references therein.

  31. I think there’s an awful lot of projecting backwards from modern schooldays in the assumption that acquiring another language is difficult. Languages are only complex if you are trying to learn them from a textbook. If you can’t read and your language is not written you have no concept of all the potential cases, conjugations etc. You use what you need and pick up more as you are more exposed to the language.

    Here in Africa it’s not remotely unusual for anyone to know several completely different languages. Certainly not native-level fluent in each but to express admiration at their language ability would be met by bemusement. It’s normal. Oftentimes a trader will speak to you in your language and you reply in his language.

    This is surely what was happening in Roman era Europe

    What is difficult, if not nigh on impossible, is learning subtle sound differences. After childhood it is incredibly difficult which is why some people never lose a foreign accent no matter how fluent they are in a language.

    I can’t imagine anyone in the Roman empire thought learning Latin was ‘difficult’. It was just something that happened if it was necessary. There were certainly no obscure phonemes to master for most people. And after that language change progressed as it always has and always will, speeded up by the fact that most people were in pre-literate societies so had no written texts to hold them back to their previous tongue.

  32. Etienne: not exactly shift: Ives talks about Apacheans (typically men) marrying local non-Apacheans (typically women), as supported by genetic evidence. Call it “half-shift”.

  33. The Navajo population expanded exponentially in the 20th century. While enumeration wasn’t perfect, the Indian Bureau, with a pretty strong mandate to get a genuine number, came up with about 17,000 in 1890. Though intermarriage among native Americans was common in the 1900s, there is little reason to believe Navajo “spread resulted from language shift” in any major way.

    This is consistent with the demographics of certain other native groups. Thus, the Lakota “population was first estimated at 8,500 in 1805, growing steadily and reaching 16,110 in 1881. The Lakota were, thus, one of the few Native American tribes to increase in population in the 19th century.[5] The number of Lakota has now increased to more than 170,000,[6] of whom about 2,000 still speak the Lakota language.” (from Wiki.)

    By contrast, the O’odham population was estimated to be over 10,000 in the late 1800’s, in the same league as the Navajo. There are now some 40,000 O’odham, while Navajos are 170-300,000. Hopi numbers have been relatively stable for 4 centuries. The Navajo expansion is a 20th century expansion of a grouping that was not notably large prior to Anglo American contact.

  34. I think Alex is right about this being projection of schoolroom frustration. And I should think Russian is the best counter-example, really. Maybe native Muscovites, etc., could pick out regionalisms and substrata-derived accents among the various originally xenophone Central Asian Turkic, Mongolian, Persian, and Caucasian populations where Russian fluency is quite unremarkable now, but simplified grammar? And pace SFReader, I can’t see by what standard Russian is obviously easier than Latin, though of course I’m willing to entertain arguments .

    Of course, if the comparison is between colloquial Russian and the specialized rhetoric of Classical Latin prose, maybe. But as we know, it wasn’t exactly high Ciceronian the subjects of the Western empire were learning to buy horses and sell lettuce in. I recall reading some medieval (French?) Alexandrian romances in Latin years ago that were astoundingly easy despite all the complicated inflectional grammar — it’s the style that makes the difference.

    Imagine if all English prose we possessed was written in the style of Henry James.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    Russian easier:
    – Way fewer declension classes.
    – Fewer conjugation classes.
    – Fewer tenses, thus fewer opportunities for irregularity.
    – Indeed almost no irregular verbs.
    – No morphological passive.
    – No morphological subjunctive (Latin has one for almost each tense in active and passive).

    Latin easier:
    – Almost no separation between declension classes of nouns and of adjectives: it’s very common that an adjective and the noun it refers to have the same ending.
    – In practice one case less: a single ablative where Russian distinguishes the instrumental from the prepositional.
    – No aspect system in practice. There is the imperfect tense, but it’s surprisingly rare.
    – Three participles: present active, perfect passive, future active. Russian has four, all of them in actual written use: present active, present passive, past active, past passive.
    – It’s dead! You don’t need to care much about pronunciation. Or indeed about active competence in general.

    Latin easier for Westerners:
    – Much of the vocabulary is already familiar.
    – The ways the irregular verbs are irregular tend to be more or less familiar; it’s still hard, but not as hard as for other people.
    – Lack of Slavic quirks like using the genitive with any and all negations or not using the nominative plural with numbers.

  36. @ maidhc
    Of course the Greeks had colonies in southern Italy at one time.

    There are actually still some Greek languages (“dialects”) spoken in southern Italy:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griko_dialect
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calabrian_Greek

  37. – Much of the vocabulary is already familiar.

    Latin is one of those languages when you know every word in the sentence, but can’t figure out the meaning.

  38. But SFReader, you’re not taking the parsing of written Latin as any index to the difficulty of spoken Latin, right?

  39. Is Russian hard?

    “Ahne Gotts gnade kan nemandtt de rusche sprake lehren.” (c) Tönnies Fenne’s Low German Manual of Spoken Russian, Pskov, 1607 AD

  40. Mmm, Italiot Greek really is a dialect of Contemporary Standard Modern Greek, though more divergent than most due to its lack of a Dachsprache. I was talking about Tsakonian, Cappadocian, and Pontic, which are separate languages by anyone else’s standards.

  41. Nicholas Ostler talks about relatively few cases where empires spread the language of the imperialists in “Empires of the Word.” After all, Iranians still speak Iranian languages even after being governed in Elamite and Aramaic and Arabic for a couple thousand years! He likes the theory that the Celtic languages and whatever the Britons spoke were relatively close to Latin, so it was relatively easy to confuse them and for the prestigious “Latin” forms to slowly replace Celtic ones.

  42. Well, for Achaemenid Iran we should not forget is that while the bureaucracy wrote Aramaic, important parts of the elites (Iranian nobility, Zoroastrian priests) spoke Persian.

  43. No aspect system in practice. There is the imperfect tense, but it’s surprisingly rare.

    I wouldn’t say that — imperfects are commonplace in Latin. The reason they’re not always where you might expect them to be is that the Latin imperfect is pretty much strictly a narrative background tense (unlike in Greek, or I believe Russian), so imperfective aspect is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for its use. When an imperfective event is in the narrative foreground, you often get the historical infinitive instead.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    you often get the historical infinitive instead

    I hadn’t noticed, but I think this is correct.

  45. David Eddyshaw says:

    “He likes the theory that the Celtic languages and whatever the Britons spoke were relatively close to Latin, so it was relatively easy to confuse them and for the prestigious “Latin” forms to slowly replace Celtic ones.”

    When the English arrived in Britain, the natives were still speaking Brythonic Celtic, not Latin. We still do … (probably saved from assimilation by our famous backwardness, mentioned by Claudius himself.)
    Latin took root in Vasconic Aquitaine as thoroughly as in Celtic northern Gaul. Same with the Iberians; whatever it was they spoke before the Romans came, it wasn’t much like Latin.

    I think you could perhaps make a better case for supplanting of kindred in a different empire: Arabic has wiped out its Afroasiatic cousin Coptic, and severely restricted the domain of its Berber cousins and Aramaic sisters, while the unrelated Persian, Kurdish, Turkish and so forth are all going strong.

  46. When the English arrived in Britain, the natives were still speaking Brythonic Celtic, not Latin.

    Yes, but early Celtic was very much like Latin; the Celtic languages didn’t collapse into the unrecognizable mush they now display until well after the Romans departed. Check out the early inscriptions.

  47. David Eddyshaw says:

    What I meant was that despite the (alleged) similarity, my forebears (bless them) did *not* switch to Latin; while some of those continental types who didn’t even speak proper Indoeuropean *did*.

    “Unrecognisable mush?” Fighting words, there, Hat …

  48. David Eddyshaw says:

    In fairness, I must concede that Welsh actually contains quite a lot of Latin loanwords, which have been duly mushified along with the Celtic base, often to the the point of near unrecognisability. (Mind you “esgob” is hardly more mushy than “évêque” or “obispo”, even if it is funnier.)

  49. (Mind you “esgob” is hardly more mushy than “évêque” or “obispo”, even if it is funnier.)

    Right, it’s all mush these days — I certainly didn’t intend to single out Welsh, a noble language I greatly enjoyed studying in grad school!

  50. In my family, we refer to the Episcopalians (a church – largely consisting of mild-mannered middle-class WASPs – to which my mother and I have, in the past, belonged) as “pistol packers”.

  51. David Eddyshaw says:

    I hereby exonerate you, Hat …

    I’m not persuaded by all this replacement-by-similarity stuff. Obviously there must be cases where it’s valid, as with the eradication of dialects in the face of modern national standard languages, where the similarity is so great that one is perhaps not even really talking about language replacement. But in the case of the great empires there must surely have been much more significant factors at work, such as the general availability of education in the conqueror’s language, whether the indigenous social structure was conducive to underlings adopting the language of the overlords, how far the local languages were identified as important culturally to the speakers in their own right or as markers of ethnic identity … given that human beings in virtually all other eras and areas than our own dull monoglot homogenised modern West have always been very good at picking up languages, I don’t believe that difficulty of a language itself would play much part except maybe in extreme cases.

    We had a discussion not long ago where Étienne (I think it was) proved me wrong by citing instances where French looks set to supplant indigenous languages in some African cities. From an African perspective French is exotic and consequently difficult, but that is unimportant in the context of powerful overriding reasons to adopt it.

  52. David Eddyshaw says:

    I recall reading somewhere about the paradox that the Pama-Nyungan languages seem to have spread over almost all of Australia in what seems to be a surprisingly short time, given the absence of evidence of any of the supposed usual mechanisms like large scale military conquest, or language following in the wake of radical innovations in material culture. The writer suggested that the explanation might be the adopting of Pama-Nyungan languages as part of a highly valued cultural complex. I recall another more or less contemporary account (wish I could track down the reference!) of some Warlpiri basically “converting” some (willing) members of a different group to Warlpiri culture, showing that the thing is at least conceivable in the Australian context.

  53. in another thread I recently suggested very radical mechanism which could explain this paradox.

    what if Pama-Nyungan was the first language in Australia?

  54. David Eddyshaw says:

    That seems unlikely, because although all the Australian languages are most likely ultimately related (albeit at a fairly mind-boggling time depth) the non-Pama-Nyungan languages show much more diversity. The (comparative) uniformity of Pama-Nyungan is likely to be a sign of (comparatively) recent wide-scale expansion, rather as the contemporary world-spanning domination of Indoeuropean is the consequence of (even more recent) expansion.

  55. The (comparative) uniformiity of Pama-Nyungan is likely to be a sign of (comparatively) recent wide-scale expansion, rather as the contemporary world-spanning domination of Indoeuropean is the consequence of (even more recent) expansion.
    The genetic imprint of the population expansion from NE Australia over the last 10K years, likely associated with Pama-Nyungan explosio, has just been published in Nature. With a hypothesis about climate change being the driving force.

    In the abstract: We infer a population expansion in northeast Australia during the Holocene epoch (past 10,000 years) associated with limited gene flow from this region to the rest of Australia, consistent with the spread of the Pama–Nyungan languages. We estimate that Aboriginal Australians and Papuans diverged from Eurasians 51–72 kya, following a single out-of-Africa dispersal, and subsequently admixed with archaic populations. Finally, we report evidence of selection in Aboriginal Australians potentially associated with living in the desert.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature18299.html

  56. David Eddyshaw says:

    Very interesting. Well found! Paywalled, alas. The references command credibility – a lot of proper Australianist linguists in there.

    Not as romantic as the cultural contagion idea. Pity.

  57. Well found! Paywalled, alas
    the stunning coincidence is that it appeared in today’s issue (a special one with a whole series of publications on the genetic origins of the Australians). I have a subscription, can share if needed.

  58. David: That was one of the themes of Ostler’s book. He looks at the ways in which Assyrian and Persian kings spread Aramaic (not Assyrian or Old Persian, although Iranian languages did spread a bit to eastern Anatolia), Spanish rule in the Americas began by spreading the local linguae francae not Spanish, Sanskrit culture survived in India long after speakers of other languages took power, etc. Quite a few empires are not interested in providing education in the imperialists’ language.

    I think that learning languages is incredibly difficult, which is why people only do it when forced, and why few people manage more than two or three (say a native language, a lingua franca, and a sacred or scholarly langauge).

    I have read Akkadian letters where they keep slipping in West semitic morphology, like sticking a suffix to mark the person on iprus (which normally takes the person-marker as a prefix). For example, line 26 of the stele of Idrimi http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/aemw/alalakh/idrimi/corpus/ has urtabbiˀāku where someone in Babylon would write urtabbi (Dta-stem of rabû “to be great”).

  59. I think that learning languages is incredibly difficult, which is why people only do it when forced

    But that’s clearly untrue. In situations where populations are mixed, people routinely learn each others’ languages, not because they’re “forced” but for business, love, or simple desire to communicate. Monolingualism is the product of not being exposed to other languages, not an inevitable state.

  60. languagehat: I see things from a different frame. If you need another language to keep afloat in a struggle with other small businesses, that is pressure. If your circle of friends has not settled on a single lingua franca and you will be excluded unless you can handle several, that is pressure. If the local authorities don’t acknowledge the language that you speak at home, that is pressure. But there is a lot of evidence that language learning is a very demanding task, and that like other hard things few people get good at it without pressure.

    I don’t have the citations to hand, but some people have looked at the thesis that “children learn languages painlessly” and observe that children clearly struggle to master even a single native language, and that attempts to encourage them to speak extra languages often produce pushback.

    I live in a place and subculture where young people usually speak and read about three languages … but even in a favourable environment, people who can handle say six are still very rare. So I stand by my position that speaking two or three languages is common, but much more than that requires so much work (or such favourable circumstances) that few people will undertake it.

  61. Also, Ostler talks about how languages which are successful at recruiting new speakers tend to have ‘glamour’: people can learn Japanese because of manga, Arabic to read the Koran, or French to see what a favourite philosopher really says. But unless they find a place in a subculture which supports their efforts, relatively few people who start learning a language for these kinds of reasons attain the proficiency which they seek, because languages are hard. One of his points is that this kind of glamour has at least as much to do with why some languages spread widely as imperialism and commerce.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    I would think that few urban Francophone Africans have learnt French to see what a favourite philosopher really says. French is assuredly the most glamorous of all languages, but I don’t think that has much bearing on its expansion in Africa.

    Knowledge of Hausa is very widespread in northern Ghana. I wouldn’t call Hausa “glamorous”, at least in what I take to be the sense you mean. On the other hand, it is very, very *useful.*

    Surely this is a take on language diversity and language learning which is coloured by our own highly aberrant historical and geographical position?

  63. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Sean M:

    Reading what you’ve written more carefully (which perhaps I might usefully have done before replying) that’s probably what you’re actually saying …

    I agree that learning languages as a first-world hobby is not easy, except maybe for a few lucky/very talented people. But in the scheme of things that must be about the least common reason for learning a foreign language.

    When I lived in Ghana I learnt the local language, and am one of only a (possibly literal) handful of Europeans ever to get farther than a few greetings in it. It took a lot of (enjoyable) effort, analysing the grammar from scratch and what have you. My eventual abilities in the language were pitiful compared with those of a southern Ghanaian colleague who after a year actually spent entirely living among speakers was able to do pretty much everything in the language, having started, like me, from nothing. Her mother tongue was no closer to the local language than English is to Urdu. The only way that she was (linguistically) exceptional was that she didn’t regard the local language as a mere “dialect” unworthy of serious consideration (sadly a fairly common attitude to northern Ghanaian languages among southerners.) Which is, neatly, the other side of the coin to your point about “glamour.”

  64. Trond Engen says:

    Dmitry Pruss: The genetic imprint of the population expansion from NE Australia over the last 10K years, likely associated with Pama-Nyungan explosio, has just been published in Nature. With a hypothesis about climate change being the driving force.

    On that time scale anything can be within the broad vicinity of a climate change. Or do they mean something more upheaving, like rapid desertification vacating a large part of the continent and Pama-Nyungans being the first to adapt and filling in from the east?

  65. because languages are hard.

    *shrug* I simply don’t believe this. They’ve never been hard for me, because I grew up in multilingual environments. Of course they’re hard for people who grow up surrounded by a single language, but as others have pointed out, this is not the norm for humanity. I’ve been reading a biography of Marina Tsvetaeva; when she was nine her family moved to northern Italy for her mother’s health, and she and her sisters picked up Italian in the course of the year. Then they moved to Lausanne, where their French became fluent (they had of course been exposed to French as well-brought-up Russian girls). Then they moved to the Black Forest and acquired perfect German (again, they had been exposed, but from that time Tsvetaeva considered German as much a native language as Russian). Nobody was “forcing” them; they were surrounded by a language, so they learned it. This is easy and natural for kids.

  66. I used to work with an older gentleman who had quite an amazing life story. His family was ethnically Chinese so they spoke, I guess, Cantonese at home, but they lived in Vietnam, so outside the home they spoke Vietnamese. When he went to school he had to learn French, but then the Japanese came in so he had to learn Japanese. Then the French came back, and finally the Americans came and he learned English. His English was pretty good even though he learned it as an adult.

    There’s a little Vietnamese sandwich store near here. The gentleman who works the counter knows very little English, just enough to distinguish among the different types of sandwich. If you want anything else you have to do it by pointing. One day I was waiting for my sandwich when another customer came in and said “Una torta de carne asada, por favor”. The counterman just rang him up, and I realized however little English he had, he had equally as much Spanish too. There are some restaurants here where they only speak Spanish and if you want anything to eat, you’d better learn enough Spanish to order it.

    People who sell vegetables at the farmers’ market here not only converse with customers in two or more languages simultaneously, they keep running totals for each in them in their heads at the same time.

    People who work in hotels in Europe often speak several languages, maybe not to be able to discuss philosophy, but enough to deal with “I need more towels” or “How do I go to the Louvre from here?”.

    I imagine things in the Roman Empire must have been much the same.

  67. David, thank you for taking the time to re-read my reply. I agree that “learning languages as a first-world hobby is not easy” but I also think that learning languages is almost always hard and painful for almost everyone. Immersion makes it harder to dodge the work, and possible to cram the necessary hours into a shorter period … but it does not make it easy. I have some knowledge of ten or so, which I learned to read things for work, to read things for hobbies, and to speak the language of the country that I emigrated to. But I would never claim that this is easy.

    In my observation of world history, people thrust into the middle of a community speaking another language often respond by speaking mostly with people who they share a language with, and learning just enough of the local language to get by. The colony speaking its own language in a sea of other ones is pretty common. Part of the attraction of linguae francae is that they reduce the burden and increase the incentives: if lots of things are written in them, or lots of people who one wants to talk to speak them, its easier to justify the required effort.

    A good, informal discussion of the problems is http://www.zompist.com/whylang.html

  68. the ideas in Sean’s link may be outdated by 20 years or so, judging by recurrent references to tape recorders and players… and I wonder if we accumulated statistical proof of the idea that adults who speak more than one language are an impediment to their children’s learning a lesser of these languages?

  69. I have some knowledge of ten or so, which I learned to read things for work, to read things for hobbies, and to speak the language of the country that I emigrated to. But I would never claim that this is easy.

    Did you learn any of those languages as a child, or did you grow up monolingual? If the latter, your experience (with respect) is irrelevant.

  70. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Nobody was “forcing” them; they were surrounded by a language, so they learned it. This is easy and natural for kids.

    My daughter became fluent in English and Spanish at home, and in French at school. She found it relatively easy to learn German at school (though I think she has forgotten most of it now, from disuse). After a couple of days in Lisbon she could understand a lot more Portuguese than I could, and likewise with Italian and Roumanian.

  71. Re: people can learn languages in school myth.

    What matters here is not the language which is taught (almost never succeeds despite years of effort), but the language of instruction – the language which teachers speak to children.

    Hence, American schools are very bad at teaching Spanish to Anglo students, but they are very good at teaching English to immigrant kids (with exception of disfunctional schools in ghettos where no real teaching takes place at all)

    This is because language of instruction is English, not Spanish.

    And speed of learning English by immigrant kids in school environment is often astonishingly high.

    In many cases, a kid starts school without a word of English and learns the language by Christmas break.

  72. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me (tangentially) of an ex-Peace Corps chap I knew whose wife was Moba (from Togo.) He is one of about three people in the whole world not from the locality who can speak Moba, and pretty well, at that. He told me he used to speak it to his daughter until she was old enough to start correcting his grammar (“Non, non, Papa! Pas comme ça!”) After that he gave up and he communicated with her henceforward in French.

  73. David Eddyshaw says:

    (Parents are so *embarrassing*)

  74. “Roumanian”? What century is this?

  75. I keep hoping it’ll turn out to be the nineteenth, and the whole last century will turn out to be a bad dream, but no such luck so far.

  76. Au contraire, it’s our Triune Monarch who comes to learn, standing on the bridge in Bella, that his empire will be forgotten by the 20C, forgotten like a dream.

  77. Bring me my black bread and goose grease, waiter!

  78. In my case, for “waiter” read “Mama” (and more polite). Ahhhhh…..

  79. I’m working on getting my black bread recipe working again, I stopped doing it for a few years and there’s some step I’ve forgotten so I can’t get it to bake through properly. And then I’m going to render down a goose… home made black rye bread with goose fat and salt, I could eat that for lunch every day of the year.

    If that makes me a nineteenth century person, I accept the distinction with pleasure!

  80. That not only makes you a nineteenth-century person, it makes you an honorary citizen of the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. Don’t bother learning Vlox, though.

  81. J.W. Brewer says:

    I fear I am perhaps failing to follow a learned allusion by the estimable hat, and googling the key phrase turns up only a fascinatingly bizarre article from the May 14, 1894 edition of the Baltimore Morning Herald (“Mr. Kjellman says the Lapps are a hospitable people. Everywhere he went they received him with open arms, and bid him to feasts of black bread and goose grease.”) Assuming that was *not* the locus classicus to which hat was alluding, I would be delighted to have my ignorance dispelled.

    My bride reminds me of a line from an old movie (Sabrina): “The 20th century? I could pick a century out of a hat, blindfolded, and get a better one.”

  82. You need to read more Avram Davidson. (I didn’t know about the sad final decades of his life, and am almost sorry I googled up that link.)

  83. J.W. Brewer says:

    Separately, the traditional Slovak approximate equivalent to Hot Buttered Rum can be and is made w/ bacon grease rather than butter, so it seems like Transbalkanians ought to be able to come up with some sort of wintertime potation involving goose fat and rye whiskey. http://slovakroots.blogspot.ch/2013/02/hriato-two-ways-hriato-na-dva-sposoby.html

  84. J.W. Brewer says:

    Ah, here’s the hat thread from five years ago where I had actually been inspired to get an anthology of Davidson out of the New Rochelle public library because of a complimentary mention at this site, but it obviously didn’t all sink in. http://languagehat.com/central-europe-as-city/

  85. David Marjanović says:

    what if Pama-Nyungan was the first language in Australia?

    It has a bunch of relatives in Australia…

    What matters here is not the language which is taught (almost never succeeds despite years of effort), but the language of instruction – the language which teachers speak to children.

    No. None of my teachers used the language they taught as the only language of instruction. Maybe the monolingual sink-or-swim approach works splendidly on extroverted, adventurous people, but not everyone is like that.

    It’s just like with everything else in school: how good is the teacher at explaining and motivating, how motivated were the students already before that, how good are the textbook and the workbook…

  86. J.W. Brewer says:

    That might seem odd for French, but it’s probably true that for a number of centuries the vast majority of Gentiles in the world who invested the effort to learn Hebrew did so only for the purpose of being able to read a single book. And a book they’d almost certainly already read in translation!

    I’ve long idly wondered whether Ph.D. candidates in philosophy who intend a dissertation focused on Kierkegaard are told “you better go out and get yourself reading proficiency in Danish even if you’ll have no other use for it” or whether they’re allowed to evade the need to read-in-original if for some reason their philosopher of choice wasn’t market-savvy enough to publish in French/German/Latin/Greek.

  87. That’s such an amazing anecdote. How could no one have pointed out the flaw in his approach before?

  88. J.W. Brewer says:

    Bonus irony points since Augustine is famous or notorious for being the first major Christian theologian to be unable to read Greek fluently, which deficiency may or may not help explain what was distinctive (to use a polite word) in his own contributions. And the decline of Greek fluency even among the intelligentsia in the West as the dark ages got darker might have been inevitable anyway, but Augustine’s lack (which he himself lamented, although he alludes in the Confessions to having heartily disliked his childhood instruction in Greek, which may be why it didn’t take) may have helped embolden subsequent generations to not even feel it as a shortcoming.

    Actually, one passage (in a public-domain translation into a perhaps archaic/affected register of English) may be relevant to some of the themes adverted to earlier in this thread. After describing his enjoyment as a boy reading the Aeneid, he goes on to say:

    Why then did I hate the Greek classics, which have the like tales? For Homer also curiously wove the like fictions, and is most sweetly-vain, yet was he bitter to my boyish taste. And so I suppose would Virgil be to Grecian children, when forced to learn him as I was Homer. Difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed, as it were, with gall all the sweetness of Grecian fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments. Time was also (as an infant) I knew no Latin; but this I learned without fear or suffering, by mere observation, amid the caresses of my nursery and jests of friends, smiling and sportively encouraging me. This I learned without any pressure of punishment to urge me on, for my heart urged me to give birth to its conceptions which I could only do by learning words not of those who taught, but of those who talked with me; in whose ears also I gave birth to the thoughts, whatever I conceived. No doubt, then, that a free curiosity has more force in our learning these things, than a frightful enforcement.

  89. That’s not archaic or affected, it’s hardly English at all.

  90. Esquisse d’un Programme is not a book. It’s, for God’s sake, a grant proposal. And I highly doubt you need to actually learn French to understand it. The minimal subset of French needed can be probably acquired in a month, if not a week.

  91. FWIW here’s the same passage from Augustine in Henry Chadwick’s more recent translation:

    Why then did I hate Greek which has similar songs to sing? Homer was skilled at weaving such stories, and with sheer delight mixed vanity. Yet to me as a boy he was repellent. I can well believe that Greek boys feel the same about Virgil when they are forced to learn him in the way that I learnt Homer. The difficulty lies there: the difficulty of learning a foreign language at all. It sprinkles gall, as it were, over all the charm of the stories the Greeks tell. I did not know any of the words, and violent pressure on me to learn them was imposed by means of fearful and cruel punishments. At one time in my infancy I also knew no Latin, and yet by listening I learnt it with no fear or pain at all, from my nurses caressing me, from people laughing over jokes, and from those who played games and were enjoying them. I learnt Latin without the threat of punishment from anyone forcing me to learn it. My own heart constrained me to bring its concepts to birth, which I could not have done unless I had learnt some words, not from formal teaching but by listening to people talking; and they in turn were the audience for my thoughts. This experience sufficiently illuminates the truth that free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion.

  92. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I’ve long idly wondered whether Ph.D. candidates in philosophy who intend a dissertation focused on Kierkegaard are told “you better go out and get yourself reading proficiency in Danish even if you’ll have no other use for it” …
    The Kierkegaardians I’ve met have learnt Danish.

  93. I know a Russian guy who learned English to read “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hofstadter.

    No, I put it in wrong order.

    Actually he learned English in the process of deciphering GEB, all 777 pages of it, word by word, sentence by sentence, using electronic dictionary (this was in 2001, before Google Translate came).

    When he finished (it took several months), he learned English, read the book and made its translation into Russian. Pretty accurate, by the way.

  94. Could there be a similar debate about how English became a dead language one or two centuries from now? Is it possible for the lingua franca of our times to eventually develop into different, mutually unintelligible languages while it itself dies off? I guess not, as it will always be spoken as a first language in Anglophone countries (not so sure about the US). Still, I wish I could travel forward in time and see how much I could understand reading a newspaper article or overhearing a discussion between native speakers.

  95. Ariadne: since I believe global industrial civilization is coming to an end I likewise believe that future generations will witness a stunning increase in linguistic diversity, as the factors that are reducing linguistic diversity (the mass media, universal education and literacy, large-scale travel…) and maintaining linguistic unity will become more marginal and then disappear. And indeed English (and perhaps other languages as well) may well follow the path of Latin and become a language widely used in writing as a lingua franca by educated individuals with a wide range of spoken vernacular L1’s, some of which will historically derive from forms of present-day spoken English.

    And no need for you to travel forward in time to witness mutually unintelligible varieties of English. Consider the following five groups of lower class teen high school dropouts: A) African Americans in Inner City Detroit (United States); B) Whites in a working-class neighborhood in Glasgow (United Kingdom), C) Maori in Auckland (New Zealand), D) Aboriginal Australians at a reservation in rural Queensland (Australia), and E) Whites in rural Newfoundland (Canada).

    I would maintain that if all five groups were thrown together, each would find the “in-group” spoken “English” of the four other groups incomprehensible: they could speak to and understand members from all groups, IF they speak slowly and repeat themselves a lot, but members of all five groups would quickly realize that their respective in-group discussions are incomprehensible to members of the four other groups. And to outsiders such as you and me. And had there been no mass media in their lives, I suspect that the ability of any one of them to effectively communicate with members of the four groups other than their own would be very limited.

    I would also maintain that all of them, despite being “in theory” native speakers of English, would have a much poorer active command and passive understanding of Standard Written Engish than many an educated native speaker of a language other than English. Much in the same way that in the days of Charlemagne a literate monk or priest whose L1 was a Germanic or Celtic vernacular had a much better command of Latin than most native speakers of a Romance vernacular…

    In short, the future is already here, as a science-fiction writer put it: it’s simply not evenly distributed.

    I believe I have already quoted here the writer and blogger John Michael Greer, whom I greatly admire: this very lucid and haunting post of his

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/2014/06/the-broken-thread-of-culture.html

    is pretty much what inspired this comment of mine.

  96. @Etienne: Aha, another JMG admirer! Hi.

  97. Etienne, what are teen Maori English and teen Australian Aborigine English like?

  98. Y: On Australian Aboriginal English there is a fair deal of social/geographical variation, but according to the following article

    (T.E. Dutton “The Informal English Speech of Palm Island Aboriginal Children, North Queensland” Journal of English Linguistics March 1969 3: 18-36)

    it is only partly intelligible to non-aboriginal speakers of Australian English (p.21), from which I concluded that it is probably largely or wholly unintelligible to non-Australian Anglophones. While it does have features which seem due to contact with Australian Kriol (past tense marker “bin”, for instance), its phonology/prosody is chiefly what hinders comprehension with other varieties of English.

    I believe the same factor is what makes Maori English partly or wholly incomprehensible to Anglophones not from New Zealand: if you wish I think I could dig up a scholarly reference or two on the topic.

    Rodger C: You probably won’t believe me, but John Michael Greer’s writings have helped me make sense of some aspects of the linguistic history of the Roman Empire which, before I discovered his writings, struck me as very puzzling.

  99. if you wish I think I could dig up a scholarly reference or two on the topic—please do! Thanks!

  100. David Marjanović says:

    this very lucid and haunting post

    I find it underwhelming. Sure, the US is an oligarchy, but this druid dude seems to assume the rest of the First World is, too – and in the process he reinvents Oswald Spengler’s square wheel.

    Of course, the other thing that could happen to English soon may not be that much more appealing…

    “Civilisation was indeed doomed, though not for that reason.”

    John Michael Greer’s writings have helped me make sense of some aspects of the linguistic history of the Roman Empire which, before I discovered his writings, struck me as very puzzling.

    Interesting. What for example?

  101. I believe I have already quoted here the writer and blogger John Michael Greer, whom I greatly admire: this very lucid and haunting post of his is pretty much what inspired this comment of mine.

    Hmm. Very interesting and intelligent, but this has a whiff of something that disturbs me:

    The first traces of that process are already visible; just as young Romans in the fourth century adopted the clothes and manners of Visigoths, it’s not unusual to see the children of white families in the suburban upper middle class copying the clothing and culture of inner city gang members.

  102. Y: On New Zealand Maori English the following study-

    ◾McCallum, Janet, 1978, ‘In Search of a Dialect: an exploratory study of the formal speech of some Maori and Pakeha children’. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies 13, pp. 133-143.

    -is a classic, with later studies largely confirming what she discovered, namely that Maori English makes heavier use of several non-standard features (use of “seen” or “been” as simple past forms, for instance) than non-Maori New Zealand English.

    As fellow hatters know I am not an anglicist: my reading up on these varieties of English was related to my search for varieties of Romance, Germanic or Slavic languages spoken as L1’s by monolinguals with (a) loan phoneme(s) from a non-Romance/Germanic/Slavic language (I have found five such varieties, four Romance and one Germanic, with such borrowed phonemes, as I reported late on this thread: http://languagehat.com/pronouncing-an-igbo-name/#comments

    I thought varieties of English spoken by Maori New Zealanders or Australian Aborigenes might give some nice examples of such borrowed phonemes ; alas, no luck.

    David, Hat: If you want to evaluate John Michael Greer’s thinking I’d recommend you at least read a book or two of his, and not a single blog post. I’d start with THE LONG DESCENT.

    David, on your question: basically, what puzzled me about the linguistic history of the Late Roman Empire was this: On the one hand there is good evidence for a number of indigenous languages other than Latin having survived in the Empire for centuries, with some authors claiming that the population movements after the fall of the Empire caused Latin/Romance to spread far more widely than it had in imperial times. On the other, there is equally good evidence that a number of non-Latin languages once spoken within the Empire (Brythonic Celtic, Basque, Albanian, possibly Berber) had expanded at the expense of Latin during the centuries immediately after the fall of the Empire. So: why the difference? Why did Latin replace some languages in the Empire, and, *at the same time*, was being itself replaced by other languages within the Empire (and others from outside)?

    Greer’s discussion of the fate (fall) of empires made me realize that one of the consequences of such a fall is a break-down of economic exchanges on a large scale. Thus, within the Roman Empire those non-Latin speaking groups which had been most geographically/socially marginalized and hence participated the least in the broader imperial economy were in a much better position to thrive, economically, than their better integrated (and thus more often than not Latin/Romance-speaking) neighbors. Hence it is unsurprising that the former expanded at the expense of the latter, linguistically.

    See this thread: http://languagehat.com/the-most-interesting-language/

    -for some scholarly references which I supplied to the Hattery on the expansion of Brythonic, Basque and Albanian at the expense of Latin/Romance.

  103. There are already several English-based creole languages which are utterly incomprehensible to English speakers.

    For example, this used to be a form of English language back in 17th century:

    U ta jei wan töngö kuma wan basia ta bai a di sabana taa,
    ‘Un seeka di pasi oo, be a ko dë tololoo da Masa!
    ˻Un seeka di libi fuunu buta a tatai liba!˼’

  104. Thanks very much. I’ll look it up next time I’m at the library.

  105. SFReader: Yes, English creoles are indeed as a rule quite incomprehensible to L1 English speakers. Since Ariadne’s question involved future diversification of English I thought it wiser to focus upon varieties which are normally considered forms of English, pure and simple.

    Of course, speaking of creoles, various pidginized varieties of English (and other languages perhaps?) may nativize and become new creole languages sometime in the future, doubtless contributing to a gradual increase in linguistic diversity…I could easily imagine such a process happening in a large, stable, multi-ethnic refugee camp, for example.

  106. Could there be a similar debate about how English became a dead language one or two centuries from now?
    Not unless there is another Dark Age. Whatever happens to English will be documented, preserved, and researched with abundance.

  107. Very interesting and intelligent, but this has a whiff of something that disturbs me

    Greer could certainly have put that more tactfully, but I take his point to be that Visigoths and inner-city folk are seen in much the same way by the children of the elite.

    Sure, the US is an oligarchy, but this druid dude seems to assume the rest of the First World is, too

    Somewhere else in this series, he conjectures that one day Europe may stand to America as Anatolia did to Gaul and Britain: a decayed but still viable civilization versus a howling, depopulated waste. Those of us who live in the interior of North America sometimes think we’re already seeing the beginning of this.

    and in the process he reinvents Oswald Spengler’s square wheel

    He quite consciously deploys Spengler’s wheel, whatever its shape.

  108. I wasn’t so impressed with The Broken Thread of Culture. It’s very impressionistic and a quick look at his examples reveals what appear to be pretty big holes.

    The transition from the kids of Dade County to Christianity in the Roman Empire is something of a leap. Greer appears to see the Roman Empire like a Hollywood movie, with the devout, persecuted, poor-but-honest Christians standing up against the savagery and decadence of the Roman Empire, which eventually loses the respect of its people. I can’t help feeling that this is a very simplistic presentation of the facts. The people of the Roman empire were experimenting with all kinds of religion before Christianity came along, and I’m not sure that the ones who embraced Christianity were anything like the children of Dade county. The early Christians don’t necessarily appear to have been homeless people; it attracted plenty of honest, industrious people and became a relatively respectable religion, with believers found in the elite of the empire. The culmination came when it was adopted by the empire itself. In other words, Christianity did not destroy the power elite or respect for the empire; it simply took the empire over. It was a natural evolution within the empire itself, quite unlike what appears to have earlier destroyed the civilisation of the Greeks. (Connecting the fall of early Greek civilisation with the fall of Rome also seems a bit of a leap.)

    The next leap is comparing Christianity with Buddhism in China. While it’s possible that the official account is hopelessly biased in favour of an elite narrative, a quick look at the history of Buddhism in China shows that it was positively embraced by the rulers themselves — they actively arranged for the translation of Buddhist works — not forced on them by the discontents of the empire. This hardly fits the thesis that civilisations fall because the power elite no longer commands the admiration and affection of the masses. The rise of Buddhism also doesn’t appear to have given rise to a Dark Ages in the Chinese empire, involving the disruption and loss of civilisation.

    Greer still might have a point, but the huge leaps, from homeless kids in Dade county to the Christians of the Roman Empire (and the earlier fall of Greece) to the Buddhists in China, are just too breath-taking to be credible. It all makes a great story, but does it really ring true? To me it doesn’t, and it will take a lot more than a few plausible-looking “grand sweep” statements to convince me otherwise.

  109. Yes, what Bathrobe said. Aside from the bit I quoted, I got a strong sense of pop-historical oversimplification-to-the-point-of-uselessness from the whole thing. Someone has read too much Spengler/Toynbee and too little actual history from current historians.

  110. Hat, Bathrobe: I can only encourage you to read some of Greer’s books: I assure you that Greer can be accused of many things, but oversimplification isn’t one of them: if anything I tend to blame him for the opposite fault: to my mind he often tends to resist coming to a conclusion if ALL of the facts and details he examines do not yield a clear-cut picture.

    Bathrobe: Christianity in the Western Roman Empire was first adopted by the lower, poorer strata of society, just as Greer points out. Early Christian (written) Latin contains so many Vulgar Latin features and Greek loanwords which re-surface later in the Romance languages that it is very clear that Christianity first became widespread among the poorest, least educated, socially most marginalized speakers of Latin.

  111. David Marjanović says:

    Greer’s discussion of the fate (fall) of empires made me realize that one of the consequences of such a fall is a break-down of economic exchanges on a large scale. Thus, within the Roman Empire those non-Latin speaking groups which had been most geographically/socially marginalized and hence participated the least in the broader imperial economy were in a much better position to thrive, economically, than their better integrated (and thus more often than not Latin/Romance-speaking) neighbors. Hence it is unsurprising that the former expanded at the expense of the latter, linguistically.

    Oh, certainly. I also once read somewhere that, in the Caucasus, the valley languages expand uphill in warmer, economically better times, while the mountain languages come down in colder, economically worse times.

    He quite consciously deploys Spengler’s wheel, whatever its shape.

    OK, I’ll look for it.

    I’ve read, 3 times or so, an abridged version (from 1953, IIRC) of Spengler’s Decline & Fall of the Occident* and was actually quite impressed. It’s very obvious, however, that the book was written in 1918; some of the predictions in it promptly came true, some first appeared to come true and then took a twist in a completely different direction, and some are the outright opposite of what has happened – for reasons Spengler couldn’t have foreseen, but that’s the point.

    * DER
    UNTER
    GANG
    DES
    ABEND
    LANDES
    in letters so large there’s no space left for the hyphens in UNTERGANG and ABENDLANDES, fitting the bombast of the text – though I should say that Spengler really managed not to make it sound ridiculous. It’s never like TRUMP.

  112. David Marjanović says:

    OK, I’ll bite:

    to my mind he often tends to resist coming to a conclusion if ALL of the facts and details he examines do not yield a clear-cut picture

    So why does he call himself a druid? He seems to have an actual religion going on there.

  113. was first adopted by the lower, poorer strata of society, just as Greer points out

    So were jazz and the blues. That didn’t destroy Western civilisation. What could destroy it, speaking from an early 21st century viewpoint, is the inability of the Western system to stop the holders of wealth from running off with all the spoils, marginalising more and more people in the process. But I’m not the first one to say that.

  114. David: he does indeed have an actual religion going. He has another blog on religious/spiritual matters (a topic he has written a great deal about), whose initial post I found fascinating:

    http://galabes.blogspot.ca/2014_06_01_archive.html

    Bathrobe: Greer does not claim Christianity destroyed the Roman Empire. Please re-read his post (he writes very clearly, I find): He claims (and I tend to agree) that as the Roman Empire became increasingly Plutocratic Christianity was adopted by the poor because the older Roman Religion did not offer their lives any meaning. Christianity filled a vacuum, but did not create said vacuum.

  115. SFReader: I know a few people who learned a language by reading a single book. You get your grammar book and your dictionary and start in. It might take you a week to puzzle out the first sentence, but by the time you get to page 564 you have a reasonable grasp of the language. It helps if you have both the audiobook and the text.

    The only problem with depending on a single book is that you could understand “my heart is like a burning coal within my breast” but not “The Minister for Industry stated that increased economic activity in the resource extraction sector can be expected to lower the rate of unemployment”.

  116. DER
    UNTER
    GANG
    DES
    ABEND
    LANDES

    Hey, that’s where you would put the spaces to make it look right to a Chinese speaker!

  117. I am not competent to comment on early Christianity or Roman empire, but somehow the sweeping pronouncements about history taking several hundred years are suspect. Between early Christianity and the fall of Roman empire in the West there is a gulf of 500 years. This is about as much as between the Hundred Years and the Second World wars. Will anyone seriously entertain the idea that whatever changes happened in the latter 500 years span in Europe can be reduced to just one factor?

  118. D.O.: Reread Etienne’s last post.

  119. David Marjanović says:

    David: he does indeed have an actual religion going. He has another blog on religious/spiritual matters (a topic he has written a great deal about), whose initial post I found fascinating:

    I don’t, actually.

    Sure, evolutionary epistemology is much less widely known than it should be.

    Sure, Spengler’s discovery that Western culture is the only one to represent distance by foreshortening and one of very few to represent distance at all is important and generally underappreciated. Greer does seem to take this idea farther than Spengler did, though. On the one hand, Western children don’t spontaneously try to draw things foreshortened; they’re taught to do this years after they’ve already learned to take a whole list of other cultural assumptions for granted. On the other hand, directly contradicting what Greer says, those few Ancient Greek cities that were planned – Alexandria notably – were in fact laid out on a grid just like Manhattan, while naturally grown Western cities are just as convoluted and tangled as ancient Athens. It’s not that the Ancient mind literally couldn’t see straight lines extending into infinite distance, and I don’t think Spengler claimed this; such things were just considered unessential.

    But the point of the whole post only comes up in the last paragraph, the last two sentences; and that paragraph implies Greer doesn’t believe in his religion at all*, but just sees it as a method of applied psychology. 😐

    * A much more widespread phenomenon than you might think. I can name two somewhat prominent Catholics, both deceased in recent years, who have publicly stated that they didn’t have any reason to think Catholicism was somehow correct. (One of them was a bishop.) They just believed, they’ve explained, that you have to hold something as true with metaphysical certainty so you can build on that, or you’ll be unable to make any decisions or to understand anything from any angle. Being offered a wide range of worldviews, they made the simplest choice (unlike Greer) and stuck to the one they had grown up in. – Being a scientist, reading about this almost literally gave me a stomachache (both times). How can people want to deceive themselves, want to con themselves into believing something without evidence? Epicurus was wrong, it’s perfectly possible to live with uncertainty and to build on it; doubt is harmless, doubt is good. But I digress from my digression.

  120. doubt is harmless, doubt is good

    Preach, brother!

  121. David Marjanović says:

    OK. 🙂 I’ll try to search the other blog for conscious applications of Spengler’s cyclical theory tomorrow, then.

  122. Up to a point, Minister. Even scientists have to have some belief in their abilities to observe and to reason (see “Cartesian doubt”). The post-meningitis me knows very well how brittle the latter can be.

  123. “that paragraph implies Greer doesn’t believe in his religion at all*, but just sees it as a method of applied psychology.”

    Actually, having been reading his posts on and off for a while, I’m pretty sure he actually has managed to come up with an epistemological framework in which a somewhat Terry Pratchett-esque brand of polytheism makes sense to him – which, for a 21st-century Westerner, is almost as remarkable an achievement as Pierre Menard’s. He’s sort of the C. S. Lewis of neopaganism.

  124. AJP Ross & Cromarty says:

    Montaigne is supposed to have had Latin as his first language but I’m not sure who he learnt it off besides his parents, who had it only as a second language.

  125. That’s not a problem; the various first-language Esperanto speakers learned it from parents for whom it was a second/third/fourth language.

  126. David Marjanović says:

    Even scientists have to have some belief in their abilities to observe and to reason (see “Cartesian doubt”).

    Nope! I can’t prove I’m not the solipsist. Sure, solipsism is unparsimonious enough that it can be safely ignored for practical purposes – but that’s not a proof.

    He’s sort of the C. S. Lewis of neopaganism.

    OK, that’s impressive. (Not in a good way, really, but still.) – Can you tell me more about this Pierre Menard? The French Wikipedia has articles about several Pierres Menard or Ménard, but none has anything about a religion.

    Montaigne is supposed to have had Latin as his first language but I’m not sure who he learnt it off besides his parents, who had it only as a second language.

    Is he the one with the German tutor who only spoke Latin to him? Of course it was the tutor’s second language; but back then, university students who didn’t have other languages in common spoke Latin with each other, and the rest of university life was in Latin as well, so fluent speakers who could bring up a child in Latin weren’t rare at this level of society.

  127. Can you tell me more about this Pierre Menard?

    Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.

  128. Having once suffered from a thought disorder, it took me a long time to be sure I had recovered.

  129. David Marjanović says:

    Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.

    That’s the one who is an achievement.

  130. Not sure what you mean. His achievement was to recreate the Quixote, which is obviously what’s meant in the original quote you were asking about.

  131. I think he meant he was Borges’ achievement.

  132. His initial question was:

    Can you tell me more about this Pierre Menard? The French Wikipedia has articles about several Pierres Menard or Ménard, but none has anything about a religion.

    Which implies he was unaware of the Borges story. But maybe he was making a joke/point too subtle for me. My brain is fried today from some particularly brain-frying editing.

  133. David Marjanović says:

    I wasn’t making a joke. I hadn’t known about the story by Borges, but after I read the article, it still didn’t click that coming up with such a religion is like coming up with the whole Quixote.

    I did mean that the fictional Menard was an achievement by Borges, though.

  134. Indeed he was!

  135. I always think of Pierre Menard when I see the name of Louis Menand (whom I know almost nothing about).

  136. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “Roumanian”? What century is this?

    I know, I know, but if you live in France it’s the spelling that comes naturally. The Roumanians want us to write “Romanian”, but o has always struck me as a ridiculous way of representing an oo sound (words like “who” and “woman” should be regarded as bizarre exceptions, though “women” is even more bizarre, not as models to be followed.) Does anyone pronounce it in the way that “Romanian” suggests? It’s as if we were to insist that they give up “Anglia” in favour of “Englia” on the grounds that we prefer it with an E. I don’t know why I dislike the spelling “Rumanian”, which has become common, but I do.

    Besides, even if we’re now in the 21st century I was born well inside the first half of the 20th.

    I had occasion to refer to the country in both of my recent books, and both publishers, one in Germany and one in the USA, allowed me to spell it in the way I wanted.

  137. I prefer Rumanian myself, in line with most other European languages. (The ou looks just a tad excessive to me.) I think it’s been noted here before – or maybe on Language Log – that there’s this weird dynamic where people often insist on the use of an unassimilated form in English, presumably because of its global primacy, while raising little or no objection to the use of assimilated forms in ‘lesser’ major languages. Look at the links to the left of this article, for example, and you’ll see that non-anglophone Europe is almost unanimous in retaining Peking or something similar – a form which, in English, is now unbearably gauche.

  138. The story with R(o)(u)manian seems to be that the regularly formed word rumân came to mean ‘peasant, serf’ and so was partly displaced by the adapted Latin borrowing român ‘Romanian’. At first this did not affect the name of the region, but having a name that looked like ‘Serf-land’ didn’t seem appropriate, so Rumânia was switched to România. This came too late to affect the pronunciation and spelling in other languages.

    English, however, almost always in modern times borrows words in their foreign spellings, more or less, and then pronounces them according to its own orthographic rules. So it’s a special case, and everybody tries to get their spellings into English writing, even if actual anglophones mangle them beyond recognition in speech.

  139. -but having a name that looked like ‘Serf-land’ didn’t seem appropriate,

    aha! that explains how Servia became Serbia

  140. Trond Engen says:

    It’s hard to be surrounded by Slavs.

  141. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Look at the links to the left of this article, for example, and you’ll see that non-anglophone Europe is almost unanimous in retaining Peking or something similar – a form which, in English, is now unbearably gauche.

    True, as far as I can see Norwegian, Danish (but not Swedish) and, interestingly in this context, R(o)umanian seem to be the only national languages in Europe that follow the English lead, but there were probably some I overlooked. I wonder why English jumped so soon on the Beijing bandwagon. In my experience Chinese people speaking English usually stick with Peking, just as Indians usually stick with Bombay and Madras.

    I was amazed at how many languages that article is available in, including some I hadn’t heard of. Whoever prepared the pages in Na Vosa Vakaviti and Zazaki need to do some work on them.

  142. I wonder why English jumped so soon on the Beijing bandwagon.

    There’s no actual entity “English” that can make such choices; they are made by particular people with cultural clout, who in my view have been for decades now far too eager (in some cases, such as “Myanmar,” cravenly so) to leap on name-change bandwagons. When I bring up my discontent with such things, somebody always comes along to compare geographical names with personal names to show me how wrong I am (“If someone tells you to call him Albert, are you going to call him Al anyway?”), but to my mind that’s an absurd comparison. Countries are not people, geographical names are not personal names, and (some tiny irritated subset of) the speakers of one language have no right to tell the speakers of another language what form to use for geographical names in their own damn language. I also find it repellently hypocritical for English speakers to get all high and mighty about using the “correct” (i.e., currently officially favored) forms for foreign names in English when they show no concern at all for the forms that other languages use for English place names.

  143. J.W. Brewer says:

    As Dorothy Parker put it, “and I am [Marie/Mary/Maria] of [Roumania/Rumania/Romania].”

  144. Or, as some might say, Maria a României.

  145. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Here in the midwestern U.S., I’ve always heard “Romania” as /ˌɹəʊˈmeɪniə/ and I never thought of that as a word with variable pronunciation. Is a pronunciation with ɹʊ or ɹu common somewhere else in the Anglosphere?

    btw, I have a habit of writing “Rumantsch” but I usually say /ˈɹəʊˌmæn(t)ʃ/ … this is a case where I guess I would say the word differently if I were reading aloud something I had written.

  146. J.W. Brewer says:

    Meanwhile, the Romansh for Romania turns out to be Rumenia (at least according to the Rumantsch Vichipedia), so there’s more than one vowel where you can decline to follow the indigenes’ orthographic lead if you so wish.

  147. marie-lucie says:

    “Montaigne is supposed to have had Latin as his first language but I’m not sure who he learnt it off besides his parents, who had it only as a second language.”

    Montaigne was probably bilingual in French and Gascon as a small child. In addition, at the age of 5 or 6 he was given a tutor who spoke very good Latin and taught it by a very original method: he convinced the child that together they were inventing a secret language, which Montaigne much later realized was not so original but had prepared him very well for his further studies: This is described in one chapter of the Essays.

  148. a tutor who spoke very good Latin and taught it by a very original method: he convinced the child that together they were inventing a secret language

    What a brilliant idea!

  149. David Marjanović says:

    he convinced the child that together they were inventing a secret language

    😮

    Does anyone pronounce it in the way that “Romanian” suggests?

    I thought that was the whole point?

  150. David Eddyshaw says:

    “the regularly formed word rumân came to mean ‘peasant, serf’”

    That’s illuminating. I always supposed it was just the desire to identify with Rome that led to the aberrant spelling.
    It’s remarkable how many people’s own names for themselves have at some stage acquired a pejorative meaning (and sometimes been forcibly rehabilitated by modern nationalism.)

    Έλληνες is “heathens” in mediaeval Greek; “‘Arma:ye:” is “heathens” in Syriac; “Türk” is “peasant” in Ottoman Turkish …

  151. In my experience Chinese people speaking English usually stick with Peking

    I don’t think I know anyone who still says “Peking” in English, whether Chinese or foreign.

    The adoption of “Beijing” is obviously a victory for those who want to wash off the taint of colonialism. This is not a whit marred by the tendency of many people to use /ʒ/ instead /ʤ/, presumably because it’s a chic consonant we got from that other colonial language, French.

  152. David Marjanović says:

    “Türk” is “peasant” in Ottoman Turkish …

    So that’s why Atatürk emphasized that word so much!

    possibly because that’s a chic consonant we got from that other colonial language, French.

    People know that Beijing is Not English, so they pronounce it the Not English way…

  153. The adoption of “Beijing” is obviously a victory for those who want to wash off the taint of colonialism.

    If, of course, one chooses to see a traditional form of a place name as bearing “the taint of colonialism” — particularly tough in China’s case, since China was never a colony. And I wonder how the Chinese would feel if the Japanese demanded they pronounce Japanese place names as the Japanese do; surely it’s disrespectful at the very least to say “Dongjing” instead of “Tokyo.”

  154. J.W. Brewer says:

    We Anglophones could perhaps go back to using the impeccably non-colonialist alternative “Peiping”?

  155. David Eddyshaw says:

    “And I wonder how the Chinese would feel if the Japanese demanded they pronounce Japanese place names as the Japanese do”

    The Japanese pronounce (famous) Chinese names à la japonaise (not surprisingly, given the history of Japanese writing, Kanbun, etc.)
    The murderous Great Helmsman is Mō Takutō on Japanese Wikipedia.

  156. Chinese should stop immediately neo-colonialist practice of pronouncing name of the American capital as Huáshèngdùn!

  157. My 1979 Pinyin Chinese-English dictionary has a very helpful list of how to write and pronounce most of the countries in the world, along with their capital cities and currencies.
    Aodalia = Australia
    Babuya Xin Jineiya = Papua New Guinea
    Jianada = Canada
    Lusenbao = Luxembourg
    Luwangda = Rwanda
    Luomania = Romania
    Ruidian = Sweden
    Ruishi = Switzerland
    Tuerqi = Turkey

    Close enough for world government work!

  158. David Eddyshaw says:

    To be fair, a lot of those are at least the closest you can get to the original with Mandarin sounds, and as far as I know the PRC has yet to take exception to our Western running-dog revisionist habit of misrendering the initial stop of “Beijing” and getting the tones wrong.

    Perhaps that will come as part of the newly aggressive foreign-policy stance?

    Death to neo-colonialist plosive voicing!

  159. The murderous Great Helmsman is Mō Takutō on Japanese Wikipedia.

    Actually, for “contemporary” public figures (defined rather loosely), it’s becoming more common to encounter pronunciations that attempt to approximate the Chinese of today rather than medieval times—depending on where you look. For example, the current premier Xi Jinping’s name’s Japanese pronunciation is given as しゅう きんぺい (Shū Kinpei) in Wikipedia, precisely as a good kanbun student would read the Hanzi in his name (習近平), but (for example0 the Asahi and Yomiuri Shinbun=s both prefer to offer a pronunciation much closer to the pinyin, in katakana. (Only problem is they can’t agree what exactly it should be… Asahi has シー チンピン, “Shii Chinpin”, while Yomiuri has シージンピン, “Shii Jinpin.”)

    Incidentally, Asahi gives Mao the same pinyinizing treatment, while I couldn’t find a story offering a pronunciation of his name on Yomiuri. But it is fair to say the standard pronunciation of his name in Japanese is still Mō Takutō. (Whereas Xi, on the other hand, didn’t really have a standard pronunciation in Japanese before his recent ascent to the premiership because only China wonks had heard of him.)

  160. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    A few years ago I went to a meeting in Gothenburg. The local organizer gave the welcoming introduction and started by saying that Gothenburg was clearly the most important city in Sweden as it was the only one with an English name different from its Swedish name.

    The idea that a place doesn’t really exist if it doesn’t go by a distorted name in English (or whatever) in quite old. Years ago i read an article somewhere by someone who’d been poring over many world atlases from different countries. He said that the only city in the USA that nearly everyone in the world believed to be real was Filadelfia, though Nueva York (or Nova Iorque if you’re Portuguese) couldn’t be far behind.

  161. The Japanese pronounce (famous) Chinese names à la japonaise

    Sure, but to my knowledge the Japanese don’t complain about the way we render Japanese place names.

  162. We Anglophones could perhaps go back to using the impeccably non-colonialist alternative “Peiping”?

    IIRC, Dean Rusk said that to his dying day.

  163. J.W. Brewer says:

    Come to think of it, while I assume ordinary Taiwanese mostly call it (at least when speaking Mandarin) by the underlying Mandarin name variously rendered Beijing, Peking, etc., I wonder if there’s some theoretical official ROC position that it’s still Peiping and that the name change by the Communist bandit regime in de facto control of the mainland was not officially valid. The guy in charge of maintaining that position could have an office right down the hall from the guy in charge of maintaining the official ROC position re continued sovereignty over Outer Mongolia.

  164. David Eddyshaw says:

    I, for one, would rather live in Londres than in London. The food would be better, for one thing. And it would be more folklorique.

  165. David Eddyshaw says:

    Come to think of it, the food might be worse. Nothing but rosbif, très cuit …

  166. I wonder if there’s some theoretical official ROC position that it’s still Peiping and that the name change by the Communist bandit regime in de facto control of the mainland was not officially valid

    When I was living there in the late ’70s there was nothing theoretical about it — I was corrected when I said anything but “Peiping.”

  167. Naah, they stopped saying “Communist bandits” and “Chiangist bandits” a long time ago.

  168. Lots of Chinese renderings of foreign terms and placenames were first written in hanzi by speakers of Cantonese (in Hong Kong and Canton/Guangdong) and other southern Chinese languages who had not palatalized king to jing, ka to jia, and so forth. (In Cantonese, the hanzi for Beijing/Peking sound more like Buck-king.) That’s why Canada 加拿大 and curry 咖哩 start with jia (加) in modern Mandarin. (Japanese ka in both hiragana か and katakana カ came from the same character.) And it’s also why English adopted the spellings Nanking and Peking to write the Chinese capital cities, instead of Nanjing and Beijing. Sun Yatsen (aka Sun Zhongshan from Zhongshan, Guangdong) and his modernizing crowd were mostly southerners. Here’s a passage from I book I recently finished (and blogged bits from).
    The founder of the republic, the late Sun Yatsen, had argued that it was essential to move the seat of government away from Beijing, because “the light of the 20th century” would never be able to penetrate the Forbidden City where generations of Qing Dynasty rulers had contented themselves with being caretakers of a stagnant society, seemingly unable to cope with the requirements of the modern world. (from Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen)

  169. Right, so it’s not so much “We want you to abandon your colonialist/imperialist foreign-imposed degradations of our glorious Chinese terms” as “We want you to collude with our suppression of local topolects and dump into the memory hole anything which might suggest that anything other than the official language exists.”

  170. Yes, and if the place isn’t the capital, there’s not much sense in calling it “North-capital”, is there.

  171. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think, although I may be out of my depth here, that the k-instead-of-j thing was also common in some regional versions of Mandarin, including that prevalent around Nanking — although usage there may have naturally or otherwise shifted considerably toward j over the century-and-a-half since a lot of the early romanized spellings became standard. The extent to which pronunciation changes over time in the source language should change the standard latin-alphabet orthography may be a recurrent one, e.g. should betas in Greek proper names be represented in English by B’s or V’s?

  172. David Eddyshaw says:

    IIRC the lack of all-the-way palatalisation in forms like “Peking” reflects Nanking (sic) Mandarin, which was probably the Ming koiné, and was much favoured by 19th century missionaries and other Europeans who wanted to learn Mandarin.

    (I notice that the lickspittle fellow-travelling spellchecker on this site objects to “Nanking” and wants me to type “Nanjing.” Dirty commie.)

  173. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah! JWB types faster than I do …

  174. It is in your browser, not in the Hat, that you are made a fellow-traveler. As you type text, the site hasn’t even seen it yet.

  175. David Eddyshaw says:

    “should betas in Greek proper names be represented in English by B’s or V’s”

    and vice versa: there is an Odhos Vironos in Athens, named for the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Lord Viron.

  176. David Eddyshaw says:

    “It is in your browser, not in the Hat, that you are made a fellow-traveler. As you type text, the site hasn’t even seen it yet.”

    Indeed. It is evidently Firefox that is UnAmerican. As a foreigner, I feel unworthy to use Internet Explorer, however.

  177. “The name “Konqueror” [for a web browser] is a reference to the two primary competitors at the time of the browser’s first release [in 2000]: ‘first comes the [Netscape] Navigator, then [Internet] Explorer, and then the Konqueror’. It also follows the KDE [application suite] naming convention: the names of most KDE programs begin with the letter K.”

  178. David Marjanović says:

    Death to neo-colonialist plosive voicing!

    Voicing of initial plosives in English is quite unreliable, actually, outside of professional singing (mostly) and before L and R (commonly).

    It also follows the KDE [application suite] naming convention: the names of most KDE programs begin with the letter K.”

    …where KDE stands for K Desktop Environment, and K comes right before L which stands for Linux.

  179. And L comes right before M, which stands for the Many things she gave me.

  180. “We want you to collude with our suppression of local topolects and dump into the memory hole anything which might suggest that anything other than the official language exists.”

    This might possibly be a little uncharitable. I wouldn’t argue that this sentiment doesn’t exist, but there might be a bit of “We want you to use this consistent system which we designed ourselves and are confident we can teach to our entire population, rather than the jumbled hodgepodge you decided would be best for us during the period in which, even if we weren’t technically a colony, we were still being patronized and treated with contempt as part of the same general approach to foreign relations” in there too.

    I wonder how Chinese people in Shanghai or Chengdu feel about “Beijing.” My impression is that even language communities within China that understand and resent the active suppression of their language still tend to feel that pinyin place names are “correct” for English (and, importantly, recognize the legitimacy of the government that made that decision, so quite unlike the case in Burma/Myanmar).

    Pinyin names for Tibetan places, though, that’s something worth getting upset about.

  181. This might possibly be a little uncharitable.

    Well, of course. This is not a topic on which I feel especially charitable.

    “We want you to use this consistent system which we designed ourselves and are confident we can teach to our entire population, rather than the jumbled hodgepodge you decided would be best for us during the period in which, even if we weren’t technically a colony, we were still being patronized and treated with contempt as part of the same general approach to foreign relations”

    But nobody’s imposing it on the Chinese, who are perfectly capable of deciding what system they want to use (or, to be more accurate, are capable of following the system their Glorious Leaders decide they should use, but never mind, at least their Glorious Leaders are fellow Chinese). They want to impose their system on us, and we have as much right to decide what forms to use in English as they do what forms to use in Chinese.

  182. Pinyin names for Tibetan places, though, that’s something worth getting upset about.

    And Uighur. And Mongolian.

  183. I’ve read that the old Chinese name Annam ‘Peaceful [= pacified] South’ rankles some Vietnamese nationalists.

  184. People who enjoy being rankled can find endless things to be rankled about. (Not dismissing that particular concern, or any particular concern, just making a general psychological observation.)

  185. gwenllian says:

    Etienne, what are teen Maori English and teen Australian Aborigine English like?

    Maori

    NZ Anti-Drink Driving Commercial – Legend

    DELETED SCENE FROM BOY

    Aboriginal

    Beneath Clouds Trailer (by Ivan Sen)

    Toomelah (Ivan Sen, Cannes 2011)

  186. James Kabala says:

    I agree with the comment above that, rightly or wrongly, “Peking” has been successfully killed off in English (whereas “Bombay,” for example, has not been).

  187. They want to impose their system on us, and we have as much right to decide what forms to use in English as they do what forms to use in Chinese.

    I suppose I don’t really see it as much of an imposition. They’re not marching through our towns and ransacking our homes tearing up old travel guides that say “Peking”. Presumably when they get foreign governments to sign up for Pinyin spelling it’s based on mutual agreement rather than secret campaigns of murder and intimidation. (It’s not like the English-speaking world doesn’t get anything out of the deal – Pinyin is consistent and frankly more convenient than Postal/Wade-Giles, and the PRC do a pretty good job of supporting it, I think, in terms of dictionaries and educational materials; furthermore, it’s been a couple of decades and there’s no sign of capricious change or bad-faith abuse of such agreements as far as I can tell.)

    I have heard vague rumblings about pressure applied to Sinologists to switch to Pinyin if they wanted to keep visiting China, but if Anglophone Sinology as a field dealt with it without closing up shop on principle it can’t have been that bad—and again, although the switch might have been painful and annoying for those already familiar with Wade-Giles, it’s clearly better for English-speaking books about China to match the romanization used by China.

    As far as I can tell, the only real consequence of an individual English speaker using “Peking” is fellow English speakers thinking of them (mistakenly) as uninformed or outdated or bigoted. And in that case the beef surely should be with those other English speakers for accepting Pinyinization without a struggle, rather than with China for promoting it using soft diplomacy over a period of decades.

  188. And more power to the Chinese if they can get things to their liking by adding little paragraphs to preferred trading partner treaties or whatever. I suspect that if Denmark tried it, for instance, all we’d get would be a resounding “Do what?”

    There really are no technical reasons to avoid native (Latin alphabet) spellings any more since it is probably hard to find someone in the US whose document preparation system cannot handle a cut and paste of København, even though the user may not know where ø is on their keyboard.

    (It might rankle a bit in Northern Germany, though, since there is a large German-speaking minority in the Danish part of Southern Jutland (Nord-Schleswig) who of course have Platt versions (and probably Standard too) of all place names — and a Danish one in the German part (Sydslesvig) who have Danish versions (Standard and dialect) of the place names there).

    So what is the difference between Danmark (and Sverige and Norge) and Myanmar?

  189. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am curious as to the empirical basis for Matt’s implicit minor premise that Anglophone Sinology was dominated by persons of such impeccably strong moral principles that they could not possibly have disgraced themselves (they would rather have “closed up shop” than lost their integrity, we are told) as an academic field by kow-towing, as it were, to a brutal and barbarous government that both controlled their physical access to things they wanted to do research on and also (as it became prosperous as well as brutal) controlled directly or indirectly quite a lot of potential funding.

  190. I suppose I don’t really see it as much of an imposition. They’re not marching through our towns and ransacking our homes

    Well, if that’s how you define imposition, sure. I’ve been following this issue for decades now and it’s clear to me that a lot of pressure has been applied on all levels, from governments to publishers, journalists, and academics, and as China’s gotten more clout more and more people have caved in. I personally think China has no business even caring how we write foreign place names, let alone pressuring us to change, and I thoroughly agree with J.W. Brewer about the cravenness of those who caved in.

    It’s not like the English-speaking world doesn’t get anything out of the deal

    So presumably the Chinese would be fine with our pressuring them to drop the characters, since they would get a much simpler system out of the deal.

  191. David Marjanović says:

    So what is the difference between Danmark (and Sverige and Norge) and Myanmar?

    Oh, it’s different in a different way. /bəˈma/ (first syllable toneless, second with a phonemic tone) is how the country used to call itself. Then the junta dug up the Classical form /mjanma/ (both syllables with tones) and made it official. The -r is a British spelling device.

  192. There really are no technical reasons to avoid native (Latin alphabet) spellings any more since it is probably hard to find someone in the US whose document preparation system cannot handle a cut and paste of København, even though the user may not know where ø is on their keyboard.

    Surely you’re not suggesting the only possible reason for objecting to anything is technical.

  193. Surely — not at all. But 30 years ago there were technical difficulties. It was even hard to write Danish on computers in Denmark. Now it’s a purely a matter of choice, I’m after the reasons for that choice.

    different in a different way — but how does that make it more eligible for adoption as the default name used in English? Why is it worse to persist in writing Burma than in writing Denmark?

    (Of course Danes are just fine with the way things are, we _don’t_ want a disconnect with everything written about us in English for the last thousand years. I’m wondering what makes the situations different for English speakers — lack of activism from the Danish side, lack of colonial unease towards Denmark, something else?)

  194. Of course Danes are just fine with the way things are

    Well, that’s the difference. Almost everybody is just fine with the way things are, and therefore there’s no motive to change. Which is great, since there’s also no reason to change.

  195. Why is it worse to persist in writing Burma than in writing Denmark?

    My understanding is that inside Burma, people like Aung San Suu Kyi always thought the junta’s name was absurd, and foreign proponents of Burmese democracy have followed her lead. Thus it is a Good Thing to write Burma.

  196. Exactly. And yet I’ve seen a lot of people insist that Myanmar is the Official Name and therefore it’s disrespectful not to use it. Disrespectful to a bunch of murderous thugs? I’ll risk that moral stain.

  197. marie-lucie says:

    “Pinyin vs Wade-Giles”

    I know very little about Chinese and even less about the details of the controversy, but as far as I know the Wade-Giles system (whatever its merits) was set up by English speakers mostly for the use of other English speakers, but it seems to me that it is to the advantage of the Chinese government (also whatever its merits) in having a uniform spelling for use by foreign countries whatever their language (at least the ones using the Roman alphabet).

    In “Cambodia” (originallly a Portuguese spelling, corresponding to French “Cambodge”, a word of two syllables) the government changed the spelling to “Kampuchea” which was somewhat adequate for English speakers and readers as an approximation of the native pronunciation but much less so for speakers of other languages; such as French, Spanish, Italian or even German, for whom the reformed spelling would suggest an almost completely different pronunciation in four syllables.

    In either case I don’t think the forms and attitudes of the actual governments are relevant to the linguistic merits (or not) of these spelling reforms.

  198. I think there are two species of objections to Myanmar: a result-oriented objection that it would be like insisting that Germany be called Diutisklant — for external consumption only, and a process-oriented objection that the name can be changed, but there is nobody around with the authority to change it, as the current murderous thugs have no authority, only power.

  199. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Pinyin names for Tibetan places, though, that’s something worth getting upset about.

    Maybe. Note that there are two pinyins in questions here: Hanyu Pinyin and the government standard transcription of Tibetan, which people sometimes call Tibetan Pinyin. The latter resembles Hanyu Pinyin to the extent that the conventions of the Tibetan Pinyin are obviously modelled on the older Hanyu Pinyin. In English-language materials about Tibet produced in China, one might readily see either. For instance, the city གཞིས་ (conventionally “Shigatse” in English) might be referred to as Rikaze (the pinyin for its Chinese name) or as Xigazê (the pinyin for its Tibetan name). People (I’ve seen this on Wikipedia) sometimes think that the “Xigazê” spelling is “the Chinese name” or something like that, but of course those languages have their own scripts; it’s an adaptation of the Tibetan name.

    In practice, English-language sources such as the English edition of People’s Daily tend to be highly inconsistent in their implementation of Tibetan Pinyin, so you might find hybrid spellings. Government-published maps are perhaps more consistent, assuming that they are attempting to represent the Tibetan pronunciation to begin with.

  200. David Marjanović says:

    as far as I know the Wade-Giles system (whatever its merits) was set up by English speakers mostly for the use of other English speakers

    It follows other traditions, though, in the way it marks the aspiration contrast. Mandarin has aspirated and unaspirated plosives and affricates, all of them voiceless. The Wade-Giles system emphasized this voicelessness by marking aspiration with an apostrophe: p, t, k, ts/tz, ch vs. p’, t’, k’, ts’/tz’, ch’. Pinyin maps the two sets of stops to the two sets offered by the Latin alphabet: b, d, g, z, j/zh vs. p, t, k, c, q/ch. This fits better if your starting point is English, where p, t, k are aspirated by default and b, d, g are often voiceless (especially at the beginnings of words), but remain lenes (like the Mandarin ones).

    Interestingly, this may have been influenced by the (older) Russian transcription system, which does the same thing, even though the Russian /b d g/ are reliably voiced and there’s no aspiration there.

    (The distinction between j/q and zh/ch in Pinyin – dorso-palatals vs. retroflexes – is blamed on the following vowel in Wade-Giles: ji, qi, zhi, chi = chi, ch’i, chih, ch’ih, where ih is [ɨ]. Remarkably, [ɯ], the same phoneme under any analysis, was not spelled ih, but u; Pinyin si, zi, ci, su, zu, cu = ssu, tzu, tz’u, su, tsu, ts’u! The digraphs ss and tz did not occur in any other syllables. – The use of digraphs with h for the retroflexes in Pinyin lines up with the use of sh for the retroflex fricative; the palatal fricative is x. Wade-Giles was inconsistent there in spelling out the three-way distinction on the consonants: s, x, sh = s, hs, sh.)

  201. So presumably the Chinese would be fine with our pressuring them to drop the characters, since they would get a much simpler system out of the deal.

    First of all, I’m sure they would be delighted with the rest of the world wasting its time on that. It takes a bit of effort to gather together experts, write white papers, etc. It takes no time at all to say “No, we won’t be doing that” and get back to the business of repression and aggressive expansion.

    Second, characters vs alphabet is a whole different issue. If they were insisting that English speakers write “北京” instead of “Beijing,” it still wouldn’t be the same, and no-one thinks the New York Times would go for that.

    Thirdly, people in other countries do tell them how to write things in characters. They complain about dog radical in names for non-Han places and peoples and other unflattering transcriptions. I don’t know or care how successful those protests are, but clearly all sides have opinions on how the others should write things.

    Perhaps this is just generational. By the time I was aware of such things, “Beijing” was already the norm in the newspapers I read. I don’t see it as tyranny or bullying because I wasn’t there to be pressured into changing and I don’t feel that Pinyin is oppressive as such (i.e., it’s not like every five years we’re asked to change everything again) or that it’s illegitimate in principle for one language community to ask others to spell its place names differently. (Put another way, I don’t think that the rest of the world should just accept whatever demands China makes about how they treat it, but nor do I think using Pinyin names is a demand that should be rejected on moral or ethical grounds.) Looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.

  202. Just to remind people that 北京大学 is still officially Peking University. 北京协和医院 is still Peking Union Medical College Hospital.

    As for pressure to change kanji names, the Koreans won a major battle when they browbeat the Chinese into adopting 首尔 Shǒu Ěr instead of 汉城 Hàn Chéng for Seoul. Of course there were nationalistic considerations involved. 汉城 looks like “Chinese city”, when it is actually named after a river…

    I do think there is a case for asking the Chinese to spell foreign place names in Roman letters. Why Niǔ Yuē when most other people know it as “New York”? Why not “Tokyo” instead of Dōng Jīng. Why not “Sydney” instead of Xī Ní (or Xuě Lí if you’re in HK or Taiwan)? Why do Japanese people’s names have to be garbled?

    Of course it’s charming that the Chinese have gone to all the effort of picking arbitrary combinations of characters to represent foreign names, and characters represent thousands of years of culture and civilisation that no red-blooded Chinese would even consider giving up, but really, isn’t it a rather silly and, one might say, arrogant way of treating other countries’ names?

    Not to mention the mildly irredentist implications of calling Vladivostok 海参崴 Hǎi Shēn Wǎi instead of 符拉迪沃斯托克 Fú Lā Dí Wò Sī Tuō Kè.

  203. Dungan spells Russian place names and borrowings (of which it has a lot) Russian-style, even though otherwise it’s within the Mandarin dialect system.

  204. Alexander Mitcheson says:

    My rule of thumb is the standard ISO/IATA city codes. So it’s PEKing, BOMbay, CalCUtta etc. If a government is that bothered about traditional English names it can apply for a new code, but very few every do. BEI is available but China has never asked for it to be assigned where as SAY (Salisbury) was substituted by HRE (Harare) in 1984. The exception which proves the rule is old communist codes such as St. Petersburg (LED), Podgorica (TGD), Bishkek (FRU) which I am happy to ignore.

    I’ve also noticed that English language publications which eagerly adopt ‘new’ names still always refer to ‘the Ivory Coast’.The Ivoirien government officially announced via the UN in 1982 that the country name should always be Côte d’Ivoire; languages using a non-Latin alphabet can transliterate the name but not translate it. But being a little former French colony the panjandrums at the New York Times or Guardian don’t appear to feel guilty enough to pay any attention.

  205. I do think there is a case for asking the Chinese to spell foreign place names in Roman letters.

    I don’t at all think there’s such a case. Mandarin is written with Chinese characters just as Russian is written with Cyrillic, Hindi with Devanagari and English with Latin, and I wouldn’t ‘ask’ any people to change their writing system. If they want to, then fine.

    Why Niǔ Yuē when most other people know it as “New York”? […] Why not “Sydney” instead of Xī Ní (or Xuě Lí if you’re in HK or Taiwan)?

    Because – aside from the simple question of writing system – Mandarin has rather strict phonotactics as well as tones, so merely writing those names in Latin is not a good indicator of which syllables the speech community has decided on. Chinese characters are, provided that you know them. ‘Naked’ Latin spellings of foreign words would essentially become a whole new set of characters which users in each Chinese-speaking jurisdiction would have to familiarize themselves with.

    Why not “Tokyo” instead of Dōng Jīng. […] Why do Japanese people’s names have to be garbled?

    Because of the unique heritage of shared characters and etyma within the Sinosphere, which is treasured just as much in Japan as it is in China.

    but really, isn’t it a rather silly and, one might say, arrogant way of treating other countries’ names?

    …No? I just don’t understand the default presumption made by so many people that exonyms are arrogant or undesirable.

  206. I’m pretty sure Bathrobe wasn’t serious about that, just having a session of “turnabout is fair play.” Which I, for one, support.

  207. I’m withdrawing this comment because I’m pretty sure most everyone else here has a better understanding of the orthographic background than I do.

  208. And to underscore how out of my league I am, I wonder whether I’m the only one here for whom the primary reference for Pierre Menard is the source of the eponym for Menard County IL. I’m vaguely aware of the Borges thing, but each time I come across it, as in the posts above, my first thought is “must be a fellow central Illinoisan commenting!” before realizing I’ve been led astray.

  209. I vaguely wondered how Russians used to call Beijing before they picked Peking from French mapmakers.

    No big surprise here – most 17th century Russian accounts use the Mongolian name for the city – Khanbalyk (King’s town)

    But Cossack Ivan Petlin who visited Peking in 1618 also uses unique name – Bolshoy Kitay (Grand Cathay) to refer to the Chinese capital. I have no idea where he got this name.

    Interestingly, Petlin’s account of travel to China was promptly translated into English as “A Relation of two Russe Cossacks travailes, out of Siberia to Catay, and other Countries adjoyning thereunto. Also a Copie of the last Patent from the Muscovite. A Copie of a Letter written to the Emperour from his Governours out of Siberia”. Published as Chapter XI in: Samuel Purchas, Haklutyus Posthumus (or, Purchas His Pilgrimes), vol. XIV, pp. 272–291. 1625.

  210. My pet peeve is “Kyiv”. I sympathize with Ukrainians desire for respect and for the world to understand that Ukraine has a separate identity and tradition that has nothing to do with Russia, but that spelling is an abomination in English. Ironically “Kiev” looks like a European city, “Kyiv” looks like an outpost founded by the Golden Horde.

    And having met countless Europeans and North Americans who cannot for the life of them figure out how to say “Wrocław” (“rocklaw”? “Vrocktof”? “rotesrow”?), I am starting to wonder whether the Poles should consider using “Breslau” for foreign consumption. I think we are safely removed from any serious German irredentism, and “Breslau” would have a nice pan European ring to it.

  211. I’m pretty sure Bathrobe wasn’t serious about that

    I was only half serious. I’m aware that it’s unlikely to ever be adopted, but I’m not convinced by arguments that the proposal is simply too outrageous to contemplate since Mandarin is written with Chinese characters just as Russian is written with Cyrillic, Hindi with Devanagari and English with Latin.

    Outrageous as it may seem, the Chinese and many others have adopted Roman letters for other purposes, such as international units and chemical elements. The Chinese, like many others, have also adopted international (i.e., Western) punctuation, the Western direction of writing, and many other aspects of Western linguistic culture.

    True, they adopted these innovations under their own volition — but what is “own volition” here? Under the KMT the “Chinese government” adopted what is colloquially known as bo po mo fo as a phonetic writing system for Chinese. It is an excellent system that fits in well with the form of Chinese characters. Under the Communists, the “Chinese government” abandoned bo po mo fo in favour of the Roman alphabet (pinyin) because it was more ‘international’. So who exactly made these decisions on behalf of “the Chinese”? The answer is, not the Chinese people but the government in power at the time.

    The Mongolians abandoned their traditional script on the orders of (gasp!) an outsider known as Joe Stalin. Much as I personally lament the loss of the old script for cultural and romantic reasons, the Cyrillic script is superior to it in many ways, which is why the Mongolians won’t be going back to it in the foreseeable future. The Mongolians are “saddled” with Cyrillic because they didn’t have the luxury of insisting that “this is how it is and this is how it always shall be”.

    The Japanese, like the Chinese, once used Chinese characters to write foreign place names like 倫敦 Rondon and 巴里 Pari. “They” decided to switch over to katakana, which retains the phonotactics of Japanese while simplifying the ‘spelling’. For major Chinese place names they still use Chinese characters but give them ‘colonialist’ pronunciations, such as 北京 pronounced Pekin. Of course the Japanese are coming from a different background, so this approach could not be adopted for Chinese without modification. But proposals should be considered on their merits, not rejected along the lines of “How dare you even contemplate suggesting changing something that is set in stone?”

  212. Dungan spells Russian place names and borrowings (of which it has a lot) Russian-style, even though otherwise it’s within the Mandarin dialect system.

    Mongolian does the same. World place names in Mongolia are largely based on Russian (with some regular modifications). Therefore “Australia” is Австрали avstral. Major world place names are the same in Inner Mongolia (for example, “Japan” is yapon), but more newish names can be different. For example, “Australia” comes out as something like aüstraliya.

  213. “Kyiv” looks like an outpost founded by the Golden Horde.

    What’s wrong with the Golden Horde!

  214. For Côte d’Ivoire, Arabic speakers (and, more importantly, broadcasters) almost always use the translation sāḥil al-ʕāj, but I’m surprised to discover that the transliteration kūt dīfwār shows up in a few official contexts, like UN websites: http://www.unicef.org/arabic/infobycountry/cotedivoire_26381.html . So I guess its government’s lobbying has had some effect after all.

  215. What’s wrong with the Golden Horde

    Nothing at all, as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t think that is the connotation Ukrainian nationalists are striving for.

  216. David Marjanović says:

    Dungan spells Russian place names and borrowings (of which it has a lot) Russian-style

    That wasn’t their decision. All “Soviet languages” do that.

    Only Azeri managed to avoid the foreign [ts] in sosializm.

  217. My pet peeve is “Kyiv”.

    I too dislike it, for the same reason. At least you can still pronounce it the old way; it would take a pretty virulent nationalist to insist that foreigners adopt Ukrainian phonotactics when pronouncing Ukrainian place names.

    I am starting to wonder whether the Poles should consider using “Breslau” for foreign consumption. I think we are safely removed from any serious German irredentism, and “Breslau” would have a nice pan European ring to it.

    An excellent idea! And L’viv should revert to Lemberg for foreign consumption.

  218. Not much difference between “key-EV” and “key-IV”, really. The “yi” is just because in Ukrainian “y” transliterates the tense vowel and “i” transliterates the lax one.

    I suppose next we will hear that New York should revert to Nieuw Amsterdam for foreign consumption? In a word: NIMMER.

  219. For convenience of Asian readers, let’s translate L’viv as Singapore…

  220. @SFReader: Thread won

  221. I suppose next we will hear that New York should revert to Nieuw Amsterdam for foreign consumption? In a word: NIMMER.

    Nah, I think that one’s safe. Why they changed it I can’t say, but people just like it better this way, or so I hear.

  222. Sir JCass says:

    Hmm. Gdansk and Tbilisi have stuck despite the pronunciation difficulties. I can’t see a return to Danzig or Tiflis. In the UK, for a certain generation at least, I suspect “Breslau” will have comic overtones, evoking the shade of the Carry On actor Bernard Bresslaw.

  223. I can’t see a return to Danzig or Tiflis.

    Well, I can’t either, but I still like the idea.

  224. When I was a kid, I thought “Gdansk” was one of the most fun place names I had ever heard. When I learned about the events leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, I found myself wondering how anybody could prefer the name “Danzig.”

  225. J.W. Brewer says:

    It would make lots and lots of sense for written Mandarin to use bopomofo to transliterate foreign proper names into some approximation that fits Mandarin phonotactics, the same way katakana is used for that purpose in Japanese, but I guess even in bopomofo-friendly Taiwan they have still stuck to the let’s-pick-some-kanji-that-may-or-may-not-involve-either-apt-or-humorously-inappropriate-semantic-overtones approach for that purpose.

  226. J.W. Brewer says:

    To the extent “Kyiv” might cue a modestly-different default “spelling pronunciation” in English than “Kiev,” it’s such a modest difference that I don’t feel any such push enough to have to consider whether or not to resist it. Plus the naive spelling pronunciation of Kiev in English might be “rhymes-with-sheave,” and I’m already used to that not being right …

    Possibly my least-favorite post-Soviet re-transliteration is Kirghizstan -> Kyrghyzstan, because it seems like it it is *trying* to somehow signal “pronounce the vowels differently than you used to” but with absolutely no cue to Anglophone readers about what the new-and-different pronunciation ought to be. I believe the problem may be that the name was respelled in Cyrillic in a meaningful way, i.e. with the change in Cyrillic letters actually effectively telling Russophones “pronounce it this way instead of that way.” but failing to consider that there might not be a conventional or coherent way in Romanized-transliteration-for-Anglophones to convey the phonetic information that particular contrast in Cyrillic spelling would convey to a Russophone, thus making it unnecessary and unhelpful to have the Cyrillic change flow through into Latin script. At the first stage, Russophones might well have found it irksome to be told to change their pronunciation, but at least they understood what was being asked of them.

    Say whatever else you want negative about the Bolsheviks and their oppressive brutality, but they didn’t really seem to care how their Cyrillic-scripted names for things were transliterated in English (or insist that there be a uniform transliteration across Latin-scripted languages – we could use “Soviet” while the Germans used “Sowjet” etc etc).

  227. Most people don’t, even brutal dictators, and there seems no rational reason to, which is why it both puzzles and annoys me that some do (and others abet them).

  228. name was respelled in Cyrillic in a meaningful way

    Exactly so, from Киргизия ‘Kirgizia’ to Кыргызстан ‘Kyrgyzstan’. A more Turkic spelling would be Qırğızstan or at a pinch Qirghizstan.

  229. Vitali Volodymyrovych Klitschko and his brother Wladimir Wladimirowitsch have Ukrainian-to-English and Russian-to-German Romanisations respectively.

  230. J.W. Brewer says:

    John C.: Was there some more meaningful way to express the relevant и / ы distinction in Latin-script-as-understood-by-Anglophones that they missed a chance to use, or is it just not something that can be expressed meaningfully given the limitations of our particular set of interactions between orthography and phonology? At least assuming that getting most Anglophones to understand the import of the Kemalist distinction between dotted and dotless i’s is not practicable?

  231. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am amused to see that the English wikipedia article about the Klitschko brother who apparently prefers the Ukrainian version of the patronymic says at the top that he is currently serving as Mayor of Kiev but then devolves into hopeless internal inconsistency on the Kiev/Kyiv issue throughout the body of the piece, I assume due to some editing war between rival factions that somehow never reaches a conclusive result?

  232. Was there some more meaningful way

    I don’t think so. In English, the vowel letters are “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y” and that’s all you get. In Kyrghyz you have eight vowel sounds, just as in Turkish, and need ways to write them. Writing the front rounded vowels as ö ü is at least familiar to Europeans; the back high unrounded vowel needs some representation, and if you eschew ı you are stuck with y, which you also need for the dorsal approximant. Vowel harmony helps you much of the time: I was able to mostly pronounce the food items on a Turkish menu written solely in English letters, though c/ç and s/ş defeated me.

    I had the Ukrainian transliteration wrong above. The trouble is that whereas in Russian the /i/ vowel is written и and the /ɨ/ vowel is written ы, in Ukrainian и is used for the /ɪ/ vowel and і for the /i/ vowel. So Uk. Київ is transliterated Kyiv, whereas R. Киев is transliterated Kiev.

  233. J.W. Brewer says:

    English has a lot more than eight vowel sounds and we have various ways of distinguishing them orthographically. That may not help when the particular foreign vowel is one with no English equivalent, although wikipedia claims that the GOOSE vowel is unrounded for many speakers of California English, which might be close to the K*rgh*z vowel being transliterated as “y”? So maybe “Koorghoozstan,” with a footnote saying “pronounce like a stereotypical surfer dude”?

  234. Well, “y” is the traditional Slavistic transliteration for Cyrillic “ы” and Ukrainian “и”. So it’s not something the Kyrghyz or those writing Kyiv came up with on their own.

  235. J.W. Brewer says:

    Hans is no doubt correct, but this is a species of “nerdview.” Using the y instead of i is probably meaningful for the tiny handful of Anglophones who are Slavicists and who prefer a transliteration that more transparently reveals some feature of the original language. But if you inform 99.9% of Anglophones that “the Russian equivalent of the given name Cyril is Kirill but the Ukrainian equivalent is Kyrillo,” they are still going to default to pronouncing the first syllables of both names the same, and if you lost the ending and told them “not Kirill, Kyrill” they would not know what you wanted them to do differently pronunciationwise unless you did it orally — in which case they might be able to mimic the difference in vowel quality but would instead be unsure what you wanted them to do differently orthographically. Russian Yelena v Ukrainian Olena for English Helen we can by contrast figure out, but that’s a different and more meaningful use of the y in English orthography.

  236. Well, the point is that these transcriptions originally were not made for the average public, but for those who know how to read them. The rest have a choice – to learn how the rules work or to mispronounce. There is no simple way to transliterate these vowels in a way that both reflects the distinction between ы and и and won’t be mangled by an English’speaker who doesn’t know how these langages are pronounced, as most versions of English don’t have the sound represented by ы. ( What many foreign speakers of Russian do is simply to ignore the distinction and use [i] for both.)

  237. J.W. Brewer says:

    Yes, which is why a politically motivated change in Russian pronunciation that will sound to most Anglophones (or speakers of other Latin-scripted languages) like a change from [i] to … um, closest I can come to saying it is still [i] should not lead to a change in Latin-script spelling even if it involves a meaningful-to-those-who-can-read-it change in Cyrillic spelling. The sequence of letters k-y-r-g-h-y-z is so exotic/impenetrable from the perspective of usual English spelling conventions that the subliminal message ends up being “this word is not merely Foreign but Super-Foreign – there’s no way you could ever pronounce it so why even bother to try?” Although it’s not like the less off-putting “Kirghiz” spelling had previously been attracting lots of tourism and investment from Anglophone countries.

  238. David Marjanović says:

    The “yi” is just because in Ukrainian “y” transliterates the tense vowel and “i” transliterates the lax one.

    …hiding the fact that there’s a [j] in the middle; the letter ї is [ji].

    But of course that’s rather far outside English phonotactics as far as /j/ goes; on the other hand, plenty of Anglophones do automatically insert [j] into vowel clusters that contain [i] or [ɪ], so they get this part right anyway. SCIYENCE!

  239. David Marjanović says:

    the let’s-pick-some-kanji-that-may-or-may-not-involve-either-apt-or-humorously-inappropriate-semantic-overtones approach

    Sometimes people just give up, though.

    (I’ve also seen this with the names of insufficiently famous people.)

  240. David Marjanović says:

    More on Chinese transcriptions: every Chinese-speaking jurisdiction does it separately, and the outcomes are diverse.

  241. James Kabala says:

    I definitely have seen Côte d’Ivoire in English-language print. It is favored by the CIA, no less, but not by Wikipedia.

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/iv.html

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivory_Coast

  242. a politically motivated change in Russian pronunciation
    That’s not what it was about. It was a change from the Russian spelling to the Kyrghyz spelling of the name. In Russian phonotactics, кы гы are impossible and are substituted by ки ги, and most Russians I know still pronounce it “kirgiz”, with /i/, and many use the old spelling. Promoting the Kyrghyz spelling over the Russian spelling is part of the self-assertion of Kyrgyzstan after independence; it’s basically saying “hey, we’re a separate people with our own language and orthography, and we don’t want to be defined by our old colonial masters”. You can choose to ignore that, but that has its own implications.

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