A Language, For Whatever Reason

It is said that a language is a dialect with an army. What this means, at least in practice, is that whether or not something counts as a language or dialect often depends on whether there is a nation who demands that their particular tongue have its own identity or not. Perhaps most famously in this regard, the very similar tongues of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro are all considered to be different languages because there are different (and sometimes extremely hostile) national governments who want these tongues to be considered as separate languages despite the fact that they are mutually intelligible to a high degree. One of the reasons why it is such a fruitless task to try to make for clear definitions of languages is that there can be reasons why people–and often powerful people–wish for a general degree of inconsistency, for which there is always a reason.

It is hard to be neutral when it comes to languages. We have already seen that nations which speak very similarly are sometimes prone to differentiating their dialects as languages because of an unwillingness to concede a similarity with a rival. Whether or not this is irritating or not to the people who speak those languages is unclear, as it would appear to be a feather in one’s cap to claim that one spoke four or five languages simply because one could grasp the subtle nuances that would allow one to speak and write Croatian as opposed to Montenegrin, for example. (Montenegro has areas where Bosnian and Serbian are common as well as its own native Montenegrin, which makes for easy polyglot status that monolingual English and American people can only be envious of.) The same thing can be said of the Eastern Slavic languages Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Russian, where especially in the case of the latter two, the hostility between those two nations is likely to harden the linguistic differences between what would otherwise be two similar languages. The difference between Kiev and Kyiv may not appear to be great, but such minor differences in spelling have much larger implications.

As might be expected, this tendency goes the opposite direction as well. Just as there are very similar tongues which are considered to be different languages because of politics, there are also tongues that are not mutually intelligible that are nevertheless considered to be part of the same language because of politics. Two cases here stand out in particular, namely Chinese and Arabic. Both languages have the same phenomenon attached to them that their extreme cultural prestige has led people to consider what are in fact two language subfamilies to be considered as single languages with dialects that are not possible to understand by sound, but are all considered to belong to a single tongue. In the case of Chinese, not only are different varieties of Chinese not mutually intelligible, but even the smaller units of Chinese are not always mutually intelligible within themselves. This is not too surprising in the case of either Chinese or Arabic that this situation would take place. Chinese has been a prestige language for at least 3000 years, since the beginning of the Chou dynasty, when the Chou’s native Trans-Himalayan tongue was transformed into Old Chinese with the influence of the native Shang and other substrates of the region that drastically shaped its development thereafter. Arabic, on the other hand, has been a prestige language for about 1400 years, plenty long enough to have diverged greatly, with similarly diverse substrate influence from other languages, and with a similar desire to consider their tongue to be Arabic because of the prestige of the Quran and the hadiths that form the basis of Islam.

Nor do these two sorts of cases exhaust the nature of languages and what are considered to be the same language. Thus far we have compared the language of groups of people and pondered how identity concerns have led some tongues to be considered languages and others as dialects, but this phenomenon also divides spoken languages from written languages. As one might expect, Chinese has this phenomenon, but it is also present in a great many languages that have an ancient prestige form (like Hebrew and Tamil, to give two examples) as well as a more modern spoken form that has greatly diverged from its classical written form. A great many people want to think themselves as speaking the same language as was the case in the past, but while the classical text has been fixed, the verbal form of the language has changed dramatically over that time.

What this suggests is what we might have well guessed from the start, and that is that there are a great many reasons for the inconsistencies that exist in how we deal with languages. Some of these reasons drive people to consider their tongues to be different from very similar tongues spoken of by those who for whatever reason have become mortal enemies. Some of these reasons drive people who cannot truly understand each other to consider themselves nevertheless to be speakers of the same language because they or others cannot bear for these people to be considered as different, for whatever reason. Finally, the desire to be seen as belonging to an ancient and noble literary tradition can lead people to consider themselves to speak the same language as in the past even when this is not strictly the case. We all have longings with regards to our tongues, and we shape our definitions to fit what we want out of language.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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