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Languages are not inmutable

October, 20 2009 Leave a comment

People see languages as rigid, not mutable. This is a very Victorian concept that is as absolutely wrong as generally accepted.

The most evident fact that denies this precept is that most languages feature some degree of internal variability. Sometimes this is easy to appreciate. People from one city not necessaryly spokes the same way people from other nearby city does. This theme came out in a conversation I had some days ago. In that conversation, being there people from different cities, we suddenly started to debate how some words weren’t used for the same thing on our localities. In fact, I can tell about a funny story related to this. Some years ago, one friend of mine had some holidays in other city here, in Galicia, about 150 km south from where we resides (Same language here and there). So, this friend of mine went to a restaurant and he decided to have “xoubas” for lunch, he thought we was asking for squids. He wasn’t served a squids but some fish that we commonly refer to as “parrocha”. He was shocked so he asked and, for his surprise, he discovered he was served properly. In same that conversation it was told about two very closed small villages with two relevant phonological differences. It was argued that those differences might have developed because of one village having always depended upon fishing while the other had done so upon agriculture. It’s even common for big difference to exist inside the same city; take as an example cockney. But variability is not only limited to geographic variation. People may spoke in a different way depending on social background.

Then, it’s usually forgotten that languages have evolved through time. Indeed this is the main reason why though not speaking the same language we might understand other languages’ words or phrases. Italians understand quite easily Spanish and even Germans could understand some English. This is because those languages have a common origin. Latin evolved very fast once the Roman Empire fall and produced all romance languages, as it’s the case of Spanish and Italian. And if languages have evolved in the past it’s going to be the same in the future. Languages change because people made them change. Today’s English will have nothing to do with tomorrows English. I even dare to state that the moment one language stops changing it’s about to get extinct.

Finally, people communicate differently as they grow. Just as a baby has yet to acquire speech abilities, adults might improve vocabulary, use it grammar differently or even innovate. Young generations don’t use the language as older generations and in fact this is what makes languages change over time, evolve.

If you’ve been reading carefully you might notice that not necessarily languages are a defined entity. Sometimes is very difficult to stablish a limit between two languages. Languages are no more than a property of a speech community, a network odf speakers, which not necessarily is a closed community. I’ll write more about this in the future. For the moment, lets simply state that the Victorian way of conceiving language must die, and a Darwinian vision applied.

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Categories: i18n, Random Toughts

The imperium of languages

July, 27 2009 Leave a comment

The less we know about something, the more we see it as simple. Or, alternatively, we tend to simplify things in order to be able to conceptualise them. I say this because people don’t usually think of other countries or regions as diverse but something culturally monolithic. This is specially true when we talk about languages.

Most of people have never realised how diverse this world is in terms of cultures and languages. For instance, unless you live there, you may understand China as a place where ethnic Chinese people live speaking one single language, Chinese. Nothing closest to the reality: China is home to at least 55 ethnic groups that speak about 58 different languages, some of them mutually intelligible.

But, what is even worst is that people don’t usually know about how diverse their own states are. Take as an example Spain. Beside Spanish, there’s this many languages (not dialects!): Galician, A fala, Asturian, Leonese, Extremaduran, Basque, Aragones, Aranese, Calo and Catalan. But if you ask any spanish how many languages exist in the country you’ll receive this answer -“4: Spanish, Galician, Basque and Catalan “-, at the most!.

A visit to ethnologue is a healthy thing. There you can find some statistics regarding languages in the world:

Area Living languages Number of speakers
Count Percent Count Percent Mean Median
Africa 2,110 30.5 726,453,403 12.2 344,291 25,200
Americas 993 14.4 50,496,321 0.8 50,852 2,300
Asia 2,322 33.6 3,622,771,264 60.8 1,560,194 11,100
Europe 234 3.4 1,553,360,941 26.1 6,638,295 201,500
Pacific 1,250 18.1 6,429,788 0.1 5,144 980

Totals
6,909 100.0 5,959,511,717 100.0 862,572 7,560

With 6909 languages known, each country is home to an average of 35 languages. We all have a lot to learn … about our own neighbours.

Categories: i18n, Random Toughts