Thursday, June 01, 2006

Minor-language follies

As we struggle with bilingual issues in the United States, a different approach is occurring in Europe. A recent report from European Union officials scrutinizes German compliance with the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. The report finds German performance wanting, specifically in neglecting the interest of fostering Low German, Sater Frisian, and Lower Sorbian.

These are very different. “Low German” (actually Plattdeutsch) is a northern variant of standard German, with an extensive literature. By contrast Frisian is an independent Germanic language, spoken in the Netherlands as well as in Germany. Upper Sorbian is a Slavic language with about 55,00 speakers in Saxony. Closely related to it, but less populous, is Lower Sorbian with only 14,000 speakers in Brandenburg.

I owe the information about the European report to Edward Rothstein, the always-stimulating cultural commentator of the New York Times (issue of May 29). The preservation of these minor languages is urged on the grounds of cultural diversity, as well as some vaguely articulated principle of recompense. Instead of allowing languages gradually to dwindle and die, as countless numbers have done in the past, they are to be placed on life-support. Aptly, Rothstein asks whether languages are like people, whose rights must be protected.

These ideas reflect a vein of linguistic romanticism that goes back to the ideas of Johann Friedrich von Herder in the eighteenth century. Herder, who lived in the linguistically rich East Baltic area, held that a language is the soul of a people. His ideas joined forces with a kind of normative diversitarianism that enjoyed popularity at the time. In this view variety is always better than uniformity. Clearly, contemporary ideas of cultural diversity derive from the thinking of Herder and his contemporaries.

I do not accept this view. At one time most of my ancestors spoke only Gaelic. Today, despite enormous efforts to stem the decline, Erse is dying in the Irish Republic. There are now more speakers of Polish in that country than of Erse. I say "goody." The sooner Erse expires the better. After all, we have many books and recordings in the language, which is more than we can say for Cornish. There is no need to prop up this Celtic-twilight fossil any further.

Linguistic diversitarians lament that about a thousand languages, with really tiny numbers of speakers, are scheduled to disappear in the near future. I say good riddance.

There is much confusion about what a language is. Over the years linguists have evolved reliable criteria for distinguishing languages. Thus Romance-language scholars will tell you that Sardinian is a language distinct from Italian. By contrast, Sicilian and Venetian are varieties of Italian, dialects if you will.

In the Iberian Peninsula Catalan is a language distinct from Castilian. Yet Asturian is not a language, but a variety of Castilian. All the same there is a special Wikipedia in Asturian. Such pseudodistinctions are often influenced by politics. During Franco’s time the government tried to force everyone in Spain to use Castilian. Now that Spain has overcome its Falangist heritage, there has been a diversitarian reaction.

The Danish philologist Otto Jespersen remarked sardonically that a language is a dialect that has acquired an army and a navy. I suspect that he was thinking of Norwegian, which Danes wrongly regard as a rustic variant of their language. Jespersen’s maxim certainly seems to be true in the former Yugoslavia. Now that both Croatia and Serbia are independent each has its own military. (I don’t know about navies, since Serbia is landlocked). In fact Serbo-Croatian is a single language with only minor regional variations. Now the Montenegro has opted for separation from Serbia, it will be interesting to see if a Montenegrin language appears. Look for it in Wikipedia.

Towards the end of his piece Rothstein makes an interesting mistake. He links multilingualism with the problems of Cyprus and Sri Lanka. In fact those countries are not multilingual, but bilingual (Turkish and Greek in Cyprus; Tamil and Sinhala in Sri Lanka). In an earlier posting I indicated the crucial difference between bilingualism and multilingualism in the political fortunes of nations. But most observers persist in conflating the two.

Historically, the immigrants made the United States multilingual. A hundred years ago there was no single competitor for English. The immigrants spoke Italian, Russian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Greek and so forth. Today we have a similar situation. But there is one difference. As in Canada, Belgium, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, we propose to elevate one language to coequal status with English. This is a recipe for disaster.


Blogger Bryce Wesley Merkl said...

Interesting comments on dying languages. Most blogs I've run across argue from the diversitarian perspective.

Can you believe that a language like Lower Sorbian (which you mentioned has only 14,000 speakers) actually has a Wiki Browser? Check it out: Dolnoserbski wiki browser

2:04 PM  

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