Category Archives: language

How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.


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Filed under Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, education, language, nationalism, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Danish Language Loss Overseas

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 737-67:

Two centuries ago, Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain. Now, the language is contained in scarcely more than a single country that’s just over half the size of Scotland. Read on for a chronicle of ruin.

The decline began in 1814 when Denmark, a loser in the Napoleonic Wars, was forced to cede part of its territory. All of Norway – many times larger than Denmark proper – suddenly gained independence, albeit initially under the rule of the Swedish king. Danish, having been the official language for centuries, had exerted a strong influence on Norwegian, particularly the kind spoken by the urban elite. Norwegian nationalists now had two objectives: out with the Swedish king, and out with the Danish language. It took a while, but eventually they managed both.

The Danish language was also losing ground further afield. In 1839, school students in the Danish West Indies (yes, they existed) were no longer taught in Danish, but in English instead. In 1845, the Danes sold their Indian trading posts to the United Kingdom, and followed suit in 1850 with their West African colonies. And in 1917 the Danish West Indies were sold off as well, this time to the United States. With that, Denmark was no longer a tropical country. Granted, few people actually spoke Danish in these colonies. But in 1864 the motherland itself also took a hit: in the spoils of war, the region of Slesvig was given to Prussia and renamed Schleswig. To this day, the German province of Schleswig-Holstein is home to a Danish-speaking minority numbering tens of thousands.

Then, in 1918, Danish morale took another blow: after more than five centuries under Danish rule, Iceland gained independence. Admittedly, Danish had never been more than an administrative language, but even this status was now lost. Some time later, Iceland also demoted Danish from its position as the most important foreign language. From then on, young Icelanders would focus on English at school instead.

The Faroe Islands, to the north of Scotland, acquired autonomy within the Danish kingdom in 1948 and promptly declared their native Faroese to be the national language. To help soften the blow, Danish retained its administrative status, but in practice it was used only for official contact with the motherland.

And so all that remained of Denmark’s colonies was the largest and most sparsely populated of them all: Greenland. Until 1979, that is, when the island was granted limited autonomy and permission to govern in its own language, Kalaallisut, otherwise known as Greenlandic. This decision came as no great surprise. Although Danish was a mandatory school subject, many Greenlanders struggled to speak the language, which was poles apart from their own. In autonomous Greenland, Danish initially retained more official functions than in the autonomous Faroe Islands. But that has since changed as well: in 2009, Kalaallisut became the one and only official administrative language. With this move, Greenland achieved a unique position: the only country of the Americas (yes, Greenland is part of the Americas), from Canada all the way down to Chile, where the indigenous language doesn’t play second fiddle to that of its colonial master. The poor Danes. Rejected by the Norwegians, betrayed in the warm-water colonies, defeated in Slesvig, then dumped by the cold-water colonies as well. But the Danes do have one consolation: their ancestors were among those who occupied England in the fifth century and thus laid the foundations for English – a language that has conquered the world like no other.

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Filed under Britain, Caribbean, Ghana, language, nationalism, North America, Scandinavia, South Asia, U.S.

Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

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Filed under Afghanistan, economics, India, Iran, language, military, Pakistan, war

Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

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Filed under Europe, Iran, language, literature, migration, North America, philosophy, publishing, religion, scholarship

Who Were the Macedonians?

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 662-70:

Who were the Macedonians? Some have speculated that they were not really Greeks, but more closely related to the Thracians. Or perhaps they descended from some other Balkan people influenced by the arrival of Indo-European Greeks. They had come under heavy Greek influence by the time of Philip and Alexander—but even at that late stage the Macedonians made a strong distinction between themselves and the Greek hangers-on who accompanied Alexander’s eastern adventure. In the fifth century BC, Macedonians were normally, like other non-Greeks, excluded from the Olympic games. But the Persians seem to have referred to them as “Greeks with hats” (they were known for their wide-brimmed hats), and Herodotus too seems to have accepted them as of Greek origin. Like the Medes and Persians in the time of Cyrus, as well as many other militant peoples from mountainous or marginal areas, the Macedonians had a strong sense of their collective superiority—but they also sustained many private feuds among themselves. They were notoriously difficult to manage.

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Filed under Balkans, Greece, Iran, language, migration, military, nationalism

Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 574-94:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain, or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds in the same locations. Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

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Filed under Iran, language, publishing, scholarship

‘TheBus’ in Translation

The public bus system in Honolulu is not the only one in the U.S. whose official name is TheBus. (There’s also Rutland County, VT, Prince George’s County, MD, and Hernando County, FL. It’s not even the only one that also calls itself DaBus (as Honolulu’s DaBus mobile app does). But I daresay it’s the only bus system that posts its obligatory Title VI notices in English, Tagalog, Ilokano, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Marshallese, Chuukese, and Vietnamese. How is the company name “TheBus” handled in each of these languages?

The English version of the notice begins “TheBus shall not discriminate …”  (from the 1964 Civil Rights Act).

Sentences in Philippine languages like Tagalog and Ilokano often begin with verbs, and nouns are always marked with a preceding article. So when each language starts its sentence with TheBus as topic, each requires its own article in front of the English noun, even though the English noun contains its own definite article. Thus, Tagalog Ang TheBus … and Ilokano Ti TheBus …. In each language, TheBus takes the article that marks singular common nouns, not the article used for singular personal names (Tagalog si, Ilokano ni).

Japanese nouns require no articles, and the Japanese version of the notice renders TheBus in katakana, as a foreign name, then follows it with the topic marker wa. Thus, the Japanese begins ザ・バスは … Za Basu wa …. (The raised dot is used to separate words in katakana.)

Neither Chinese nor Korean has the equivalent of katakana, so both languages begin their notices with the English name TheBus followed by their own term for ‘company’ (Chinese 公司 gongsi, Korean 회사 hoesa [= 會社]) to help clarify that TheBus is the name of a corporate entity. Thus, the Chinese begins TheBus 公司 … while the Korean begins TheBus 회사는 …. The Korean topic noun phrase ends in the topic marker 는 neun, equivalent to Japanese は wa.

Vietnamese nouns are not marked with articles or topic markers, so the Vietnamese notice simply begins with the English word TheBus, then continues with sẽ không … ‘shall not …’.

Marshallese nouns also lack articles or inflections, and so the Marshallese notice also begins with a direct borrowing of the English name and spelling of TheBus.

Chuukese is the only other language besides Japanese to parse TheBus into two words, translating English The- into Chuukese Ewe- ‘that, the’, a distal demonstrative that can be used to mark known referents (as I learned in a linguistic field methods course four decades ago), then combining it with borrowed Bus to yield EweBus.

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Filed under China, Japan, Korea, language, Micronesia, Philippines, U.S., Vietnam