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Summary Details

Query:   Most Conservative Language
Author:  Pete Unseth
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Historical Linguistics

Summary:   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 English."

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

LL Issue: 16.2461
Date Posted: 23-Aug-2005
Original Query: Read original query


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