Dying Minority Languages and Standardization: Some Problems

I have been studying some of the minority languages of Europe lately. One thing that they have in common is that in a number of cases, there have been proposals made for centralization and standardization of the language. Dying languages very much need standardization. This is because in many cases, these languages are split up in a number of dialects. These dialects are typically quite different, and in many cases, they are flat out separate languages with poor intelligibility with other dialects.

If everyone just goes on speaking their dialects, they won’t be able to talk to other speakers much, and the language will soon die, because most dialect speakers are 35-60+. It’s not a useful solution. Sure, the dialects are very interesting and it might be nice to preserve them, but it seems to be a lost cause. Further, most dialects are not being passed on to children anymore. For the languages to survive, the dialects must all die.

For instance, Occitan has a multitude of dialects, 23 of which are actually separate languages. A unitary Occitan has been created based on Languedocien, one of the largest Occitan macrolanguages. The problem is that this new neo-Occitan is nothing like the Occitan spoken by  Auvergnat, Croissant, Limousin and Gascon speakers.

Further, the unitary spelling and writing style does not represent the way that these languages speak. For instance, a particular word may be written in a unitary way in neo-Occitan, but the graph for that word would look nothing like the way the word is pronounced in the speaker’s language. The word “bricklayer” might be written something like “frondyard.” Ridiculous or what?

Children are being taught neo-Occitan in special language schools. The neo-Occitan is regarded as an abomination by speakers of traditional dialects, and neo-Occitan speakers can’t understand traditional dialect speakers.

A similar thing is going on with the Breton language in Brittany in northwest France. This is actually a Celtic tongue similar to Welsh that is strangely enough spoken in France. Breton is actually made up 4 major dialects that are frankly all separate languages. Intelligibility is poor between the four Breton lects, but the lects are not being passed on to children and most speakers are over 50 anyway.

In schools called Diwans the children are being taught a neo-Breton, an invented “language that no one speaks.” The neo-Breton speakers come out of the schools, and they can’t understand speakers of the traditional Breton lects. And speakers of traditional dialectal Breton can’t understand neo-Breton. Kids and their elders are speaking the same language, but they can’t understand each other. Sad situation.

In the Basque country, a similar situation is going on. The schools are teaching a neo-Basque, a fake language made up of the amalgamation of all of the major Basque dialects plus a lot of made-up neologisms. Speakers of traditional dialects have a hard time with neo-Basque, and neo-Basque speakers have a hard time with traditional speakers.

Nevertheless, there is no way around standardization. Teaching every group of children the separate small dialect of their region is useless. It will create new generations of speakers that can’t even communicate with most of the speakers of the language. If they are taught the unified language, at least they will be able to communicate with all other speakers of the language, at least when the older dialect speakers die off.

Languages must be standardized. It’s essential. Not only so everyone can talk to everyone, but so that everyone can read everyone. Can you imagine what chaos it would be if every writer of English wrote English phonetically in exactly the way that they speak it. You might have millions of different Englishes out there. Yet this is the way that nonstandardized languages are typically written, phonetically.

Further, spelling must be standardized. There must be a correct way and an incorrect way to spell most any given word of English. This makes reading faster and communication transparent. If you don’t like English spelling rules, then don’t write in English!

It’s easy to understand why typical dialect speakers regard the neo-languages are some sort of abomination. Let us use an example from English.

Suppose there was an attempt to unify all of the Englishes on Earth into some sort of World English.

This language would include speech and writing based on the phonetics of various types of British English, Scottish English, African English, Indian English, Singlish, Australian English, Canadian English and New Zealand English.

As if that were not bad enough, the speech and writing would also be based partly on various US Englishes: Southern English, Ebonics, New York English, Boston English and Appalachian English.

If you turned on the TV, the announcers would be speaking in some insane English based on all of the English dialects listed above. Any English writing would also be phonetically based on a mixture of all of the above dialects. The new language would also have a ton of new terms derived from slangs of the various Englishes.

Could you imagine how furious we speakers of US English would be? This is the way traditional dialect speakers feel about the unified neo-languages slated to replace their dialects.

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6 thoughts on “Dying Minority Languages and Standardization: Some Problems”

  1. Dear Robert
    In the matter of languages, you are definitely a splitter rather a lumper. You also favor the preservation of all languages. However, in this text, you say that some dialects, which really are separate languages, should die. If it is OK that some dialects die, why isn’t it OK that all of them die? Isn’t you position inconsistent?

    Regards. James

  2. What Paul says. The New York accent is dying. Few white New Yorkers under 30 sound like they come from New York, and forget about asians and latinos. They don’t sound at all like your classical New Yorker.

    1. Daniel, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a bad thing though, lol. People are so unaccustomed to hearing a NY accent in parts of the country that they simply can’t understand you. I went to Arizona for a week a year ago and people asked me if I was from England. Very strange.

  3. every language has come through this process. im middle english every village had its different lect so what some people called eyre other people called egge. but standardization was a slow process because most people were illiterate and they keep on talking the old dialects. the slow progress of literacy was the slow dying of lects.

    having said that i disagree about yor claim that neo-languages and dialects are not mutually intelligible. i happen to be a 40 y.o. native speaker of a language whose standardization was brought to the masses omly 25 years ago. the standard language sounded artificial and contrived but except for some few words was intelligible. now the standard language has been accepted by the masses as the right way to speak the language although we still use our dialect for non-formal situations

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