SV: Vital Statistics

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at ONLINE.NO
Tue Jan 4 20:46:12 UTC 2000

Koenraad Elst [SMTP:koenraad.elst at PANDORA.BE] skrev 04. januar 2000 18:29:
> As often, the question of Hindi as a "monolith" is intensely political.

For once, I agree with Mr. Elst, at least to some extent. The definition of
what constitutes a language is indeed not only linguistic. If we choose the
criterion "not mutually intelligible", then the only fair thing to do would be
to regard the standard versions of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish as dialects of
the same language - we understand each other very well. On the other hand,
there are dialects in all three countries that are difficult to understand for
speakers of the standard versions. Thus, there would seem to be separate
languages within the three standard languages, which on the other hand would
seem to be dialects of the same Nordic language. But Norwegian, Danish and
Swedish are spoken in three separate states and are national languages. So
maybe we should accept "spoken as a national language" as one of our criteria,
 or perhaps: "specifically related to a regional or cultural group identity".
Furthermore, we might perhaps have a look at what the speakers feel themselves:
Do I identify my own dialect as a form of a given national language (this is a
matter of cultural identity), and do others accept the definition?. Then we
have the criterion "identified by speakers as being the same language".

It would seem to me that the basic criterion is "mutual intelligibility". If
speakers A and B are unable to communicate with each other, the idea that they
are speaking the same language is simply false. On the basis of this criterion,
"Chinese" is the name of a language family rather than a language (compare
Romance), although one particular dialect may be regarded as preeminent.
Calling Chinese a language is then nothing more than a convention. (The written
language, of course, complicates the argument). As for Hindi, we should then
ask the following questions:

1. Are all dialects of "Hindi" mutually intelligible?
2. Do all speakers of "Hindi" dialects regard their language as Hindi, and do
others share their feeling?

In other words: For Hindi to be "Hindi", you need mutual intelligibility and a
broad consensus about which linguistic forms are Hindi and which are not. The
problem of politics arises if the political authorities decide that a certain
group is speaking Hindi whereas the members of that group disagree, or if the
dialect of one group defined or defining itself as Hindi speaking is more or
less incomprehensible to other Hindi-speakers.

Linguists may have a job to do here introducing formal criteria, but this is a
field where cultural identities and politics are difficult to remove from the
argument altogether. And as Elst points out: Languages and dialects do not only
move apart, they also converge, and schools and mass media can do a lot to
change people's speech habits. Thus, dialects that were on the verge of
becoming different languages may instead coalesce, a process that to some
extent can be influenced by shared cultural ideals and political measures
 (although not all attempts at such language engineering succeed: in Norway, we
tried something called "samnorsk", a brand of Norwegian artificially created on
the basis of New Norwegian and Riksmaal (Bokmaal). It was radical politics in
the sixties and seventies, and a colossal flop. Today, only a few diehard
adherents survive).

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse

Dr. art. Lars Martin Fosse
Haugerudvn. 76, Leil. 114,
0674 Oslo
Phone/Fax: +47 22 32 12 19
Email: lmfosse at

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