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Languages and dialects 14.XI.2005 05:06
The most intelligent thing ever said on the subject of languages and dialects remains Max Weinreich's comment from 60 years ago: 'a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.' Nevertheless, linguists and non-linguists alike devote an inordinate amount of time and print to discussions of whether this or that language is actually a language at all, seemingly oblivious to the fact that such a distinction teaches us nothing at all about linguistics. I think that this is one manifestation of the tendency towards overclassification that is present in dominant modern thought: we want to draw neat, sharp lines around everything, and always be able to say that it's one or the other.

The dialect/language issue is important enough that Wikipedia advises articles on Chinese languages to be appended with the generic label 'linguistics' so as not to offend anyone. But let's look at a particularly interesting example in the language/dialect debates: Hindi and Urdu. Now, I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of educated speakers will insist that these are separate languages with separate traditions, but this is clearly not the case. The problem is that too many linguists have accepted the very political divide of language vs. dialect, into which Hindi and Urdu don't fit at all.

Picture this situation in English. There's two towns, and in everyday matters everyone speaks the same language, with family, with friends, in the shops, the casual language is basically the same. However, sometimes in life the situation calls for an 'elevated' level of speech, with various degrees of pretentiousness. So, in Town A, when people want to speak dramatically, they use words of Latin origin, as Anglo-Saxons have done since the Battle of Hastings when trying to sound intelligent. But the residents of Town B are purists: they think English should never have abandoned its natural Germanic origins, and continue to create and appropriate Germanic words, considering these to be the best-fitting and best-sounding ones for the language. Additionally, while Town A has adopted the Roman alphabet, Town B continues to use a variation on Germanic runes.

So, what do we have here? I sincerely doubt we have two languages - these people sound exactly the same in most everyday situations. And yet it's not just a matter of dialects - the differing elevated vocabularies aren't a matter of different evolutions on the same thing, but wholly divergent traditions. This is essentially the situation with Hindi and Urdu - collectively, they form the Hindustani langauge, but while Hindi takes its educated vocabulary from Sanskrit, Urdu's comes from Persian and Arabic, very much like what happened to English at the norman conquest. Yet Hindi's commonplace vocabulary comes in good parts from Persian and Arabic as well - Bollywood films, for example, are in a variety of common Urdu which is perfectly natural and comprehensible to residents of Delhi. Because of the unnatural evolution of these languages, the language/dialect divide ceases to have meaning.

As is so common nowadays, instead of admitting the limitations of the terms 'language' and 'dialect', linguists created a baffling new term - 'diasystem' - to describe the special case of one language with two different standardisations. This is ridiculous. And yet, we see it throughout modern science - the debates over species and subspecies in biology, for one. I could talk for hours about the philosophical origins of such thinking, but I'll save that for another day - the point for the moment is that these artificial divisions take away from real scientific pursuits. Everyone knows evolution, be it linguistic or biological, is a fluid process - and yet when we look at contemporary matters, we want a perfect division, as if there's some microsecond when a dialect became a language, when a subspecies became its own species, where we can draw a line in the sand. These lines in the sand are a cancer on scientific thought, because they refuse to admit that it's all relative. A language's definition lies in the languages by which it's been affected, not into which artificial definition we're best able to fit it. But alas, fueled both by science on the one hand and politics on the other, it seems this kind of forced divide has many long years ahead of it.
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