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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more

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Discussion Details

Title: Ask-a-linguist
Submitter: Richard Durkan
Description: The more I study languages the more puzzled I become about their essence and
the nature of their development and I wonder what analytical models there
are for studying both of these aspects. Many major languages can be linked
to the rise and fall of civilisations and can be treated accordingly. One
aspect that strikes me, however, is how so many of them are artificial
constructs eg the way the Soviets contrived to emphasise the differences
between closely related Turkic languages, creating a language like Kyrgyz
which was not clearly distinguished from Kazakh before the Bolshevik
revolution; and creating a language like Uzbek on the basis of an atypical,
highly Iranicized dialect in the south of Uzbekistan. Lingala was a
similarly artificial amalgam of local dialects and languages for trading and
missionary purposes. Other languages seem to have been consciously revived
by nationalist and independence movements eg Greek and Hungarian in the 19th
century and more recently, Hebrew. There is an ongoing tension in the
Urdu/Hindi/Sanskrit nexus, particularly with the tendency to Sanskritise the
more formal varieties of Hindi to the point where they can be almost
incomprehensible even to quite educated Hindi speakers.

Some studies seem to see languages in biological/Darwinian terms eg the
recent spate of books on language death refer to languages such as English
as 'killer languages' in relation to smaller languages. If you adopt a
biological model, I wonder how you deal with the concept of 'purity' in
languages. Surely for a language to prosper it has to 'interbreed' with
other languages to enhance its 'genetic' strength. Otherwise, it would
become stagnant and isolated from modern developments unless isolation is
imposed on it by geographical location (eg Balti). A language's success
seems so bound with military prowess, economic might, political manipulation
and the development of nationalist feelings and nation-building. There seems
a tension between the desire to preserve rarer languages as part of our
human heritage and as another way that humans have mediated reality, on the
one hand and, on the other, the danger that they become museum pieces
(although I suppose if you take the view that languages are artificial
anyway the museum-piece objection is not that strong. If you adopt a
Darwinian approach, I suppose you would take a survival of the fittest view
- the languages that survive are the ones that deserve to survive).

Can you have a model of something as organic as a language, particularly in
this global age with constant cross influences (although I cannot think the
phenomenon is new - there must have been an enormous amount of cross
influences in the past in areas like the Silk Road)?

Richard Durkan
Date Posted: 19-Oct-2004
Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
LL Issue: 15.2967
Posted: 19-Oct-2004

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