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LINGUIST List 16.2461

Tue Aug 23 2005

Sum: Most Conservative Language

Editor for this issue: Jessica Boynton <jessicalinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Pete Unseth, Most Conservative Language

Message 1: Most Conservative Language
Date: 22-Aug-2005
From: Pete Unseth <Pete_Unsethgial.edu>
Subject: Most Conservative Language

Regarding query: http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-2215.html#2

The single most common answer given to my query, posted in July, was
"Icelandic". But many made additional insightful comments, given further below.

I received helpful input from the following:

Mikael Parkvall , Tonya Kim Dewey, John Phillips, Miren Lourdes O'├▒ederra,
Aidan Coveney, Sean Jensen, Grover Hudson, Brian O'Curn'ain, Antje Lahne,
Matthias Heinz, Adam Baker, John Phillips, Joan Smith/Kocamahhul, Roger Blench

Other languages mentioned as very conservative were:

Lithuanian, Sardinian (particularly the Logudorese dialect), Georgian, Welsh,
Basque, Faroese, Greek, Romance "isolated local varieties in southern Italy or
in the Alpine region", and "some Australian languages"

Though the query asked about the ability to communicate verbally, several based
their answers on the ability of speakers to read old texts of the earlier form
of their language. There was a variety of opinions on the matter of whether the
ability to read old texts is a valid measurement, since the modern
pronunciation will be different.

"When reading, there is plenty of time to deal with unfamiliar words and
grammar, but speech has to be interpreted as you hear it so is more difficult."
Original pronunciation is more difficult again: Peter Trudgill says, in
something which I was reading recently, which I could probably find if I looked
for it, that "the chances of Shakespeare being auditorily intelligible to a
modern\line English speaker are virtually nil" (or something like that). A
century before that and the language would not even be recognisable as a form of

Surely the question is unanswerable? You can't know for oral languages and we
are in huge doubt about the pronunciation of written languages. Did anyone
really speak Old Chinese or Sanskrit as written? I doubt. An interesting
question is what modern language looks most like a reconstructed language with
considerable time-depth? I bet some Australian langs are good candidates

I once asked an Icelander about this and she said she could read the old sagas,
but that pronunciation had changed so much that verbal conversation with a
mediaeval speaker would be impossible.

Anttila (1972:381) notes that both Turkic and Austronesian languages in general
have changed more slowly than Indo-European.

Regarding the conservatism of Basque I guess (but it is only a guess) that a
mostly syllabic rhythm, together with a non-destructive accent along centuries
(but we do not know enough about that either) must have helped

In his chapter 'Linguistic and social typology' (in the Blackwell Handbook of
Language Variation & Change), Peter Trudgill says that Icelandic and Faroese are
clearly more conservative (closer to Old Norse) than the continental
Scandinavian languages. And in 'The Romance Languages' (CUP), Rebecca Posner
suggests (p.327) that 'isolated local varieties in southern Italy or in the
Alpine region' are possibly the most conservative in Romance.

But who knows how many of today's languages might be more or less the same as
their unwritten ancestors: the languages of some of our most ancient communities
(Nama,Inuit, &c &c... ) Most likely single factor, I would think, Pete, is
isolation. It is a reasonable hypothesis that the greatest force for change is
contact. So change might have been very slow in the first thousands of years of
language, until population growth began to make contact inevitable

Many thanks to all who replied with such thought provoking answers.

Pete Unseth

Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics

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