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A pragmatic view of what a language is

February 24, 2012

Since this blog deals with acquiring languages, a discussion of what language actually is seems inevitable. Linguists regard the issue as a sociopolitical question as much as a linguistic question, an issue far more complicated than most laymen would imagine. A common quip is the quote (attributed to a variety of people) that, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” (Namely the issue of what is a language and what is a dialect is inextricably linked with politics.) Philologists tend to take a more functional approach. Namely a language is anything with the basic properties of a language and a group of users who regard it as a language. (Of course, I will also probably need write a post explaining the differences between multilingualism, polyglotism, linguistics and philology. That’s a different post all together though.) In a real sense, the philological approach, while more pragmatically oreinted in many ways, can be intellectually dissatisfying because it does not really answer the question. Implicitly the view is that the only way to answer the question is to understand its intent and context.

In comparative philology, the methods of which I plan to use extensively in this blog, focuses on the question: when are two given languages effectively the same and when are they different? Usually the first criterion then to be invoked is mutual intelligibility. Namely if a person knowing language A can because of the knowledge of language A understand language B then effectively language A and language B are the same language. To a layman, that distinction appears clear enough. In practice, such a criterion quickly breaks down.

Deutsch: Darstellungskarte der niederdeutschen...

Image via Wikipedia

The most famous example is as follows: Suppose a person walks from Hanover to Amsterdam, stopping to converse with locals at every five miles along the way. In Hanover, the local dialect is standard German because the stndardized German used in broadcasts, newspapers and other standardized media is based specifically on that dialect. At each five-mile interval along the way, the nearest local dialects will be easily mutually comprehensible, indeed virtually indistinguishable. Yet the local dialect of Amsterdam, namely standard Dutch, is not mutually intelligible with respect to standard German, the dialect of Hanover. Thus, anywhere one might demarcate a separation between Dutch and German will intrinsically be arbitrary. By convention for purely political reasons, the division is made at the border between the Netherlands and Germany.

Similarly, one may imagine a hypothetical time traveler in the city of Rome who stops and converses with the locals every ten years, beginning in the first or second century B.C.E. and continuing to the present era. Again, if one compares the local dialects at each ten year separation, the two will be easily mutually understandable and indeed will appear virtually identical. Yet at one end of the spectrum one will have Latin being spoken and on the other end modern Italian, which are clearly distinct languages. Again, where one makes the distinction remains arbitrary and is based on our perspective of history.

This commonality between languages forms the basis of comparative philology in many respects. The idea is that language is largely a continuum with  some frontiers between unrelated languages. Ideally, if one could follow the continuum of language through both time and space indefinitely, then ultimately in principle at least all languages would be related. In practice however, we just don’t have that level of documentation for languages and so languages are classed in groups and subgroups depending on how closely related they are. Then one can use the properties of how language changes along this continuum to use knowledge of one language to springboard one into knowledge of another language or languages. While comparative philology cannot predict how phonology, morphology, vocabulary, grammar and/or syntax will change between two different languages/dialects, the field does recognize a wide variety of patterns documented in the transitions between languages so that one can apply these patterns with practice. Indeed, with enough practice so that one trains one minds to think in terms of philology the act of recognizing that what one is reading or hearing is the same as it would be in another language, adjusting for those patterns, becomes virtually or completely (depending on the case) automatic. For example, I have been spoken to in both Portuguese and Rumanian and understood so automatically that I did not at first register that the person was using another language, and yet I could not actively express myself well in either language. Likewise I can read both languages fluently, but I could not compose a simple document in either language without a great deal of effort. Thus, the methods of comparative philology are most readily applicable to reading rather than speaking. To speak still requires the active effort to bridge the gap between passive and active understanding of a language.

The way one learns these patterns is through learning specific languages and throughout the process comparing dialects within each language, the language as it changes over time and languages more and less closely related to one another. The most familiar such patterns to the layman will be phonological changes; most people have heard of cognates at least. Yet to a trained philologist, pairs of words such a English through and German duerch are just as much cognates as French main and Spanish mano. To distinguish false cognates such as English man and Spanish mano, which are not related, from the reliable pairs of cognates requires use of contextual clues and knowledge of languages’ history. By knowing the history of English and what sorts of words derive from which contributing language (namely that more basic words in English have Germanic roots than Latin or Romance roots) one is able to know that the English word man is unlikely to be related to the Spanish word mano.

In principle then each language is used by a specific group at a specific time and place in a certain context where the groups and contexts are defined as much socially as geographically in most cases. Yet at the same time, one can usefully view the ancient Greek of Homer, Herodotus, Euripides and Polybius as the same language although each uses a separate and distinct dialect.

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