Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat has an eloquent post on why the painstaking work of “unraveling the details of a given language family’s history” is worth it:

Well, for one thing, you end up showing interesting things about the history of the relevant part of the world, often things it would be hard or impossible to show any other way – that Madagascar was settled by people from Borneo, for example, or that Ijo slaves from Nigeria ended up on the Berbice River in Guyana, or that Persians and Swedes (along with a lot of other people!) ultimately both got their language from a common source. But that depends on your being interested in a particular region; why would a person working on the historical linguistics of (say) the Sahara care about the historical linguistics of New Guinea, or Alaska, or even Europe?

It’s because people are pretty similar everywhere – we all have roughly the same mouths and the same brains, and as a result we all tend to make roughly the same kinds of changes. Looking at changes in the languages of Europe, and at which direction they went, turns out to give you a pretty good idea of what kind of changes to expect in New Guinea – and vice versa… That means that all these individual small-scale studies are so many pieces fitting together to form a map of how language works.

Of course, as bulbul points out in the comment thread, the real reason is “Because it’s there and it’s fun”!

(While you’re over at the Mountain of Languages, check out Lameen’s latest post, on the idea that in the Arabic-speaking world “Fusha acts to insulate the majority of the population from the debates of intellectuals, keeping the powers that be safer from ideologically-inspired opposition and the intellectuals themselves safer (in the short term!) from popular reactions to their speculations.”)


  1. marie-lucie says

    Yeah, Lameen!

  2. There’s a 50s era Chinese novel (“The Tale of Li Youcai’s Rhymes”) in which the main character calls the language of Communist speeches “Mandarin language”, as though the Communist intellectuals were just Confucian oppressors in a new guise.
    It wasn’t an anti-Communist novel at all, it was an attack by the “Red” Communist faction against the experts and technocrats in the party.

  3. One wonders what the original term was, since “Mandarin” is exclusively Western. (I just learned from the OED that it was universally pronounced with the stress on the final syllable, man-da-REEN, until the latter half of the 19th century.)

  4. I actually could tell you the Chinese word, if I spent a couple hours digging in book-boxes. What he meant wasn’t colloquial Mandarin dialect, but the artificial, archaizing speech used by the actual Mandarins (literati), though I don’t think it was actually the literary language spoken aloud either.
    I should have written “literati-speak” or something. “You talk like a book” kind of idea.

  5. “One wonders what the original term was, since “Mandarin” is exclusively Western.”
    The term I have always heard was “guan hua” and “Mandarin” is a pretty exact translation. It refers to the way officials spoke though, not to Beijing speech exactly (which is nicknamed “jing pianzi” and someone I mentioned that to, an non-Beijinger, said oh, yeah – Bei3jing1 ren2 de tu3hua4 – Beijing people’s local patois.)
    No one really bothered to name the language we now call Mandarin, which is naturally slightly different from officialese, much before the 20th century. It was really part of the May 4 Movement and a new appreciation for the vernacular. To this day most Chinese will just give you the Victrola dog look if you talk about Yue or Wu or Minnan as separate languages. Apparently the fact that they can’t follow even one sentence in thise “dialects” doesn’t make them separate enough.

  6. marie-lucie says

    To me, historical linguistics is the most exciting kind of linguistics, because it is linked so much to history and society in general. Each language preserves in its own makeup traces of its genetic ancestry as well as of all that has happened to the society that speaks it. English, for instance, still has traces of its distant Indo-European ancestry, its closer relationship with other Germanic languages, its long-standing cohabitation with Scandinavians (Vikings) and its medieval domination by French-speaking ex-Vikings, as well as its later embrace of Latin and Greek and avid reception of words from all kinds of languages it came in contact with (of course, here “English language” is shorthand for “English speakers”). The multiple origins of English words reflect the upheavals in the history of its speakers, and recent changes or what appear to be changes in progress also reflect social trends (although not always in obvious ways).
    Furthermore, historical linguistics is not only a kind of archeological enterprise but even a paleontological one, not only working from historical documents but also trying to reconstruct unattested pre-historic stages and even the common ancestor of several related languages, together with something about the society that spoke them. And it can also discover links between languages which at first sight seem to have nothing to do with each other.
    For a linguist there is much to offer just from a technical point of view. You have to be very good at all the basics of linguistics (without going into a lot of theory as currently fashionable theories have little to offer from a historical point of view) and also very aware of the social concomitants of language. Much of the work of comparison and reconstruction is an elaborate form of puzzle-solving, highly technical and painstaking, and it cannot be improvised, so it seems forbidding to many people, especially if a textbook on historical linguistics concentrates on the details of possible sound-changes (which are many, sometimes giving the wrong impression that “anything can happen”, but tend to recur across languages simply because we are all human and share the same vocal tract anatomy as Lameen mentioned), without mentioning the much broader societal and historical background of language change.
    Unfortunately, historical linguistics is not considered very highly in the current North American context, although it is the part of linguistics that many people would best relate to (starting from social change to language change to the nitty-gritty of tracing changes and of reconstruction, not the other way around). I am very glad that people like Lameen are picking up the torch.

  7. A.J.P. Crown says

    m-l:domination by French-speaking ex-Vikings
    Everything else is terribly interesting, Marie-Lucie, but as a linguist you won’t be able to describe the Normans like this if you want to work with medievalists. They sound like Hell’s Angels who have been taking a language class.

  8. AJP, I used “French-speaking ex-Vikings” in order not to give the impression that they were “the French” as some people think. They had nothing to do with the king of France, to whom they were theoretically vassals but in fact did as they pleased.

  9. The French-speaking ex-Vikings who pioneered the Crusades by conquering Sicily were hardly “ex” at all. Just adventurers. William the Conqueror at least had a plausible claim to the throne.

  10. marie-lucie says

    The ones who were conquering Sicily were not the same ones who conquered England. Only the latter influenced the English language.
    “pioneered the Crusades by conquering Sicily”?

  11. m-l: They had nothing to do with the king of France, to whom they were theoretically vassals but in fact did as they pleased.
    The legend surrounding Hrolf the Walker, that ancestor of mine whose siege of Paris was so lethargic, says when he was to swear fealty to the French king he was supposed to “kiss the king’s foot”, (illustration from a Norwegian book commemorating the NATO pact) so he told one of his minions to do it. Hrolf’s minion picked up the king by the foot and the king fell on the ground.
    Whether or not the story is literally true or not, it does illustrate the type of “fealty” owed to the king by the first Norman in France.

  12. JE: Just adventurers. Just?

    Their Mediterranean jewel was more important –and far wealthier– than William’s rainy realm in the North Sea; revenues from the city of Palermo alone eclipsed those of all England.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Whether or not the story is literally true or not, it does illustrate the type of “fealty” owed to the king by the first Norman in France.
    It is not “the type of fealty” but how the powerful Normans felt about their nominal relationship to the king, who was very weak at the time (Normandy was bigger than the king’s possessions). Thoretically the Normans were vassals, but practically that was a fiction. (The diversion of their energies towards England may have saved the French throne at that time).

  14. ML: The bandit Normans in Sicily (led by the Hauteville family) were not crusaders, but the crusaders followed the trail they blazed. Also, according to Wike there were Hautevilles among the English Normans.
    Nijma, you seem far too attached to your bloody bandit ancestors. What I meant was that they didn’t bother with a religious pretext. They even supported the evil Jewish Antipope Anacletus II.

  15. The diversion of their energies towards England may have saved the French throne at that time
    The French King Charles the Simple insisted on marrying off his daughter to Hrolf. Having the Normans control the coastline was not all that bad of a deal. It had already been depopulated by generations of attacks from the sea; traditionally the way to stop this was to engage one band of warriors for protection against the others in exchange for land. Hrolf rebuilt all the stuff he had demolished, converted to Christianity, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and the countryside prospered under his rule. But oh, this must refer to 1066, when anyone who wasn’t a first son with inherited property was looking for a gig.
    your bloody bandit ancestors
    I assure you my ancestors were not Sicilian. Otherwise my name would end with a vowel, wouldn’t it. Besides, they were all Lutheran.

  16. marie-lucie says

    JE: there were Hautevilles among the English Normans as well as among those who went to Sicily.
    That does not prove that they were from the same family or generation. Hauteville “high town” is a rather generic name. Even if they were from the same family, some of the sons, nephews or other non-heirs might have gone to England, and others to Sicily or wherever their chiefs led them.

  17. The English Normans and the Sicilian Normans were obviously different individuals, since the two events were close together in time but far apart geographically, but they weren’t unrelated.
    During this same period there were also still-Norse “Normans” in the royal guard in Constantinople, Harald Hardrada (d. 1066) being one of them.

  18. If you look in the “just” link above,(and I’ve put it in my URL) it says that although the Normans who invaded England “were somewhat higher-born than their compatriots in Italy, their surnames typically based on familial fiefs in Normandy” some of the same knights were on both campaigns, having learned some military tactics in Sicily, (which they attacked at the behest of the pope, JE, not out of the clear blue sky without even a fig leaf of an excuse).

    In 1061, having assumed control of much of southern Italy, a Norman force crossed into Sicily at Messina and seized the city from its Saracen garrison. The Sicilian conquest now underway was slow and difficult. In 1066, a Norman force, including some knights who had fought in the Italian campaigns, won the Battle of Hastings (based in part on tactics learned at Messina), establishing the Norman presence in England. London was taken soon afterward. In Sicily, on the other hand, the de Hauteville brothers, Robert “Guiscard” and Roger, reached Palermo only in 1071. While Saxon lords paid fealty to William “the Conqueror” of England almost immediately, it took Roger and his knights more than a decade following the Battle of Palermo to bring the entire island under Norman control.

    True, this doesn’t appear to be a scholarly source–it’s a guy from Sicily–but why couldn’t it be true? Too bad they don’t talk about the dual popes; I missed what JE was saying about the Norman connection with that one. The usual Viking sources don’t usually talk about Sicily, although they do go into the mercenary soldiering bit in Rome and the East.
    As long as I’m pasting and as long as this is about language, let me paste this bit too:

    True, the Roman Empire had embraced many cultures, but it could be argued that Norman Sicily supported a truer equality than most places offered, and it was more benevolent than ancient Rome. Slavery was eventually all but abolished, and serfdom was never as prevalent as it was in England, France or Germany, while freedom of speech and literacy came to be considered every Sicilian’s birthright. The Normans’ system of justice allowed separate –but equal– jurisdictions based on Shari’a law for Muslims, Judaic law for Jews, Byzantine Greek law for Byzantines and Norman feudal law for Normans. Important documents were multilingual.

  19. A.J.P. Crown says

    I guess this is where I put in the historiography link again.

  20. True, this doesn’t appear to be a scholarly source–it’s a guy from Sicily–but why couldn’t it be true?
    That’s not what we call a compelling argument.

  21. marie-lucie says

    Why couldn’t it be true? is wishful thinking. In scientific or scholarly endeavour you always have to keep in mind that what you are doing or concluding could be wrong, and try to limit the damages by making sure that it is more likely to be right than wrong.
    If the Normans in England were more successful than those in Sicily, that must have something to do with the fact that William was in fact related to the royal family and thus had a claim to pretend to the throne, and before the invasion some other Norman nobles were still in touch with their congeners in England just on the other side of the Channel. The Normans in Sicily were complete interlopers and likely to be seen as barbarians by the local populations.
    As far as the Norman justice system in Sicily is concerned, without any proof I would think that the new rulers were content to leave things as they were rather than think up a whole new system. Such cases of multiple jurisdictions usually break down when there are disputes between communities rather than just within them, so if the various communities were satisfied with their arrangements there was no need to cause more problems by breaking them.

  22. That’s not what we call a compelling argument
    Obviously it’s not supposed to be. Anyone who follows the link can see that for themselves, but what about the people who don’t follow the link? It does have the advantage of being online and being written in a straightforward manner, plus it’s information that is not widely available in stuff written by established scholars, the author is very local to the history he is describing and probably has reason to keep track of what for others is rather esoteric knowledge, and he doesn’t appear to have an ax to grind about rewriting Viking history, as so many others with more obvious credentials have done before. I found it very interesting, or I wouldn’t have linked to it, and I’m sure if there are any inaccuracies, which I rather doubt, there are people here who will spot them.
    I don’t like the whole “argument” thing. People come here for fun, for collaboration, not competition.

  23. Nijma,
    argument has two meanings. I don’t think LH is trying to pick a fight with you. And there is plenty of argumentation on this blog, in addition to (and often at the same time as) collaboration and fun.

  24. People come here for fun, for collaboration, not competition.
    I like to think people also come for reliable facts. As for “argument,” what marie-lucie said.

  25. A.J.P. Crown says

    There’s a lot to be said for unreliable facts. Just as long as you can distinguish which is which.

  26. Well, if I installed my own Jewish Pope somewhere and he told me to invade somewhere else, I’d certainly do so!

  27. if I installed my own Jewish Pope somewhere and he told me to invade somewhere else
    Um, we’re talking about the invasion of 1061, and the pope of 1131?

  28. m-l: I don’t think LH is trying to pick a fight with you. Oh, I think if Hat wanted to quarrel with me he would come right out and do it. Nicely, of course.
    Hat: That’s not what we call a compelling argument This I take to mean “a course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating truth or falsehood” or “A fact or statement put forth as proof or evidence”. But no, I wasn’t trying to prove anything at all. I was just sharing a discovery before dashing off to class. I thought it was quite interesting that someone said some of the same Normans who were on the Sicilian gig also went to England later. I find it very interesting as this branch of the Vikings isn’t discussed by the usual “reliable” sources.
    LH: people also come for reliable facts What is truth? Kron’s historiography link is very apropos here. The study of history is very curious in that 1) history can’t be changed 2) history can’t be proven. There is no way to know what actually happened unless you were there yourself, which is impossible without a Wayback Machine.
    So who is the author of this discourse on Sicilian history? Google gets me nothing, so I am left with the internal evidence. Not a primary source, but that isn’t necessarily bad. Is a Sicilian, so that means he has access to and interest in information about Sicilian history. Has written biographies and is an editor of a tourism website whose target audience is the “top 10% of educated people interested in travel”. Doesn’t list sources (expected in a travel website.) Alludes to research in names when making his claims about the social status of invaders of England compared to invaders of Sicily. In other words, this guy has everything it takes for me to believe him except independently verifiable credentials. And as I pointed out before, there are certainly authors who have managed to get credentials whose writing about Vikings leaves a lot to be desired in the credibility department. So I posted the link along with a tongue in cheek caveat emptor–good advice for anything you read.

  29. Vikings had a lot of foresight.

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