Spectrums and Sorites

One of my old favourites:

Spaniards easily understand the Asturias vernacular, but official recognition may further fracture Spain linguistically

In the tiny village of Martimporra (population 16), nestling among the lush green hills and valleys typical of Asturias, Orfelina Suárez, 58, runs a household goods shop.

“If I was only allowed to speak Spanish I’d struggle with some vocabulary because I’m used to speaking Asturian,” she says.

“Without Asturian, life around here would be impossible. It’s not about geography, it’s more of an emotional terrain. You can’t underestimate the importance of a language that you speak and live and feel.”

Martimporra is in Bimenes, a district where the Asturian language has officially enjoyed equal status with Spanish since 1998. Now the regional government proposes to extend this language parity throughout Asturias.

What, exactly, is a language? Sure, linguists have their definitions but they all boil down to, in the end, they know one when they see one.

For, from here in this very south west corner of Europe, you could go off walking, at donkey sorta pace, and not wholly note that the language had changed until you got to Slovenia. Or the Rhine.

Yes, OK, with modern nation states and national educational systems, printing and all, that’s not really true any more. But it’s still sorta and vaguely so. You could do about the same starting at Bratislava and going either north and or east. These “languages” change word and a construction a time, village by village – even family by family. Portuguese to Galician to Asturian to Catalan (Castillian is that exception, state power imposed that) to Balearic to Sardinian to certain of the southern Italians – Pozzuoli comes to mind. The seas and islands are less of a defining boundary than you might think, ports making them more permeable to language than mountain ranges and gorges in many cases.

It’s even true that there’s still not, really, an Italian language in the sense that it’s something spoken at home by all who live in Italy. There’s Florentine which is that national and public language and the reason so many Italians speak it so badly is that it’s a second language to them too.

When is a language a language? The end points are clear, but that’s just a Sorites, isn’t it?

33 thoughts on “Spectrums and Sorites”

  1. “What, exactly, is a language?”

    The old joke is that it’s a dialect with an army and a navy. I.e. sufficient clout to insist it’s a language. So how important is Asturias to the Spanish economy?

  2. Like I said before…. try speaking ‘Knowle West’ Bristolian to a farmer in Burtle on the Somerset levels and see how you get on. They both nominally speak and understand English but it is recognisably different.

    And a Scouser asking directions to Glastonbury would be completely nonplussed I suspect.

  3. My missus ( whose Italian accent was Milanese) used to say

    “You lot make fun of Mussolini, but he achieved something really important. He forced Italians to learn to speak Italian.”

  4. Meant to say in Europe of around 800, one could travel from Porto or Trondheim either side of the Alps to the Pannonian Plain and be understood everywhere.

  5. I’d always understood that that was one of the original purposes of the BBC. Put out popular junk for the plebs to listen to so they’d all understand, and perhaps could even speak, the Queen’s english.

  6. “it’s a dialect with an army and a navy”: I remember reading a German linguist decades ago who said that the sharpest landward distinction between the dialects spoken by the farmworkers in Germanic-speaking Europe was at the Scottish-English border. So not Dutch/Friesian nor Friesian/Low German, nor Low German/Danish, …

    All those other distinctions tended to be gradual affairs, whereas our border had a sharp change. But that was in Olden Times (perhaps up to the 17th century?). Though there was a Scottish judge who spoke Scots in his Edinburgh court, rather than Scottish English, in the 19th century. Was he making a point or just speaking in the tongue that came most naturally to him? Dunno.

    Presumably it was relevant that the Scottish-English border was the oldest in Western Europe. Or all Europe?

  7. @Ottokring – February 7, 2022 at 10:24 am

    “You lot make fun of Mussolini, but he achieved something really important. He forced Italians to learn to speak Italian.”

    You could say the same about Franco and Spanish (well Castellano anyway)… But not to any of my Catalan friends!

  8. “Though there was a Scottish judge who spoke Scots in his Edinburgh court, rather than Scottish English, in the 19th century.”

    Again, it depends on what you mean by “rather than English”. “Scots” is Scottish English, in that it’s a dialect of English that developed among the Anglo-Saxons of the lowlands (Edinburgh Castle was first built to defend against the Scots back in the 11th Century). You’re probably thinking of Lord Braxfield (18th Century, actually), famous for saying to one of the accused brought before him, “Ye’re a clever chiel, but ye’d be nane the war o’ a guid hanging”. It’s notable that when he berated a defendant for not having “a guid Scots tongue”, the man was speaking Gaelic, not “standard” English. And by all accounts, it was his bloodthirstiness that set him apart; his language was perfectly normal at the time, although it largely died out with his generation, perhaps because subsequent judges wanted to distance themselves from him.

    But you probably fully understand what he said. Because another problem comes from the other direction: what is “Scots”? One of the criteria often cited for what makes a language is mutual unintelligibility; 90% of what passes for “Scots” nowadays, especially when explicitly so-called, is utterly unintelligible to me, an alleged speaker of the thing. Being unintelligible to Englishmen is one thing, but I get the distinct impression of people who desperately want their own language trying too hard.

    Personally, I’d say vocabulary and pronunciation (or spelling, by far the least important) aren’t enough: those denote a dialect. There has to be substantial and consistent difference in grammar. The Glasgow dialect, for example, has some gramattical oddities, but they’re inconsistent in usage across both the language – they’re “irregular” and can’t easily be codified – and the population; most people speak standard English; at least, no less standard than those of Newcastle, Liverpool, or New York.

    I believe lingists think that dialects tend not to become languages of their own accord; a new language occurs when people start mixing the vocabulary and grammar of two or more established ones: English, Dutch, and Portuguese in Afrikaans, for example. “Scots language” advocates try to claim that this has happened with English and Gaelic in Scotland, but the number of Gaelic loan-words can be counted on your fingers, and although some Gaelic grammar may well have made its way into Scottish English, I’m unaware of it.

    (Yikes. That went on a bit long. I hear a buzzing sound in my bonnet. 🙂 )

  9. “The Glasgow dialect, for example, has some gramattical oddities”

    Indeed – such as putting “but” at the end of a sentence, a usage which I still don’t get quite right despite decades of trying, but.

    It amuses me no end, though, to tell my SNP friends that Burns wrote in a dialect of English!

  10. The thing I notice about Scottish language usage is quite a few are Scandinavian in origin – ‘bairns’ is the obvious one, but ‘braw’, ‘greetin’, ‘flit’ etc. We used ‘to flit’ meaning ‘move house’ in Lancashire too when I were a lad. I don’t think I’ve used that for decades though.

  11. Sam Duncan: “There has to be substantial and consistent difference in grammar.”

    There again, it’s still a sorites problem. I mean, does anyone in Europe speak a language where a clause consists of anything but a subject and verb?

    (Happy to be corrected, on definition of both grammar and sorites.)

  12. Well, Paul, I did say “substantial and consistent”, not “total”. But yes, it’s still not a hard, easily definable, line.

  13. There’s Wenglish which is the Welsh version of English with some borrow words and grammatical construction, highlighted in Gavin and Stacey especially when one of the Welsh characters asks where someone is by saying ‘where to she at’

  14. “Presumably it was relevant that the Scottish-English border was the oldest in Western Europe. Or all Europe?”

    Not only old in the sense that it has looked for the last few hundred years remarkably similar to how it looked two thousand years before, but also remarkable for having reformed in pretty much, though not quite, the same place after several hundred years of being very mobile indeed during a period important for language formation. Plenty of kingdoms spanned both sides while English/Scots were emerging, and indeed before England and Scotland emerged as anything resembling unified countries or people. Would have been a much sharper distinction at that border if it had been a Germanic tongue to the south and Celtic to the north, though not one eligible for the German-German border prize. If that claim is true, which I am inexpert to judge. In fact since the border was not sharply defined when the languages/dialects were forming, it’d be a bit of a surprise to me if that claim were true.

    Interestingly Scottish Gaelic is not especially close to Welsh, whereas the Old North of England (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yr_Hen_Ogledd) spoke Cumbric/Old Welsh which was, basically, Welsh. I don’t know whether the language frontier actually matched the border, previous or current – I think Cumbric extended across the Lowlands. But then the Roman frontier was further north than the modern one.

  15. Paul in Somerset

    Fuck you !

    That’s in the imperative ( and in our slimmed down Germanic grammar takes the accusative) and really has a verb and an object.

    My favourite in that sort of manner is “The fucking fucker’s fucked.” Which has an adjective, a subject and a present continuous verb.

  16. @BniC That’s a mere oddity.
    Literal translation with the grammar of the language the brain actually works in.

    Happens to non-native speakers a lot if they’re not paying attention to the proper translation/grammar bit.
    Even to people, like me , who’ve been using english consistently in their daily lives for decades and can “think” in english.
    You find out there’s a caveat there when you’re mentally tired, because you will drop back to (in my case) germanic grammar and express things in “Dunglish” if you’re not careful. Which is surprisingly similar to that “wenglish” example you posted.

    Mind.. When you realise this is what happens, it makes translating singrish, chinrish, and all the other abominations you encounter in technical manuals/flyers at lot easier to translate into proper english. So it’s a curse with practical ( and sometimes pecuniary ) applications.. 😉

  17. ‘“Scots” is Scottish English, in that it’s a dialect of English that developed among the Anglo-Saxons of the lowlands’

    That doesn’t really work: there wasn’t an English, singular, that then developed into different dialects in different parts of the island. Old English is a misnomer – it ought probably to be called Insular West Germanic Dialects or something like that, being a collection of different Germanic dialects, the speakers of which could find it hard to understand each other, as was noted from time to time.

    From one of those dialects, the Northumbrian one, developed Scots during the centuries when the Northumbrians held south-east Scotland stretching as far west perhaps as Nithsdale. (Have you ever seen the Ruthwell Cross? What a beauty!) They held it for a several centuries until they were themselves conquered by Gaels/Picts in the east, and in the west by resurgent Britons pushing south from Clydesdale.

    So there was a long spell when “Scots” had an army and a navy while “Northumbrian” did not. On the usual semi-jocular criterion, during that period the Northumbrian dialect would logically be classified as a dialect of Scots, being closer to Scots than to the dialects of Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia, Kent and where have you. (Admittedly Scots-speakers had to share their army with Gaelic-speakers and speakers of Cumbric, old Norse, and whatever it was that the Picts spoke.)

    The Kingdom of Strathclyde and its forerunner spoke Cumbric and held the Cumbric-speaking area from Dumbarton south, including eventually present day Cumbria and parts of the northern Pennines. The English border was pushed forward to its present line north of Carlisle by the Norman king William Rufus decades after the Scots/Picts pushed the eastern border down to first the Tweed and then the Cheviots. And there the border has remained, making it unusually old for Europe.

    The problem for the Scots language is that the Royal Court buggered off south in the 17th century, removing social forces tending to hold together the different dialects of Scots that had emerged. So presumably they drifted ever further apart. I lived in Aberdeenshire for a couple of months – by God it was hard work to understand anyone who didn’t swap his “register” into Scots English. The Southern Scots I’d spoken in the playground as a boy was less help than was ideal.

    The intrusion of Norse/Danish into Scots and into English – in the modern sense of the descendant of the dialect of the Mercians – is something I know next to nothing about. But I do remember once receiving a postcard from Sweden; the printed message was clear as a bell in a way that it presumably might not have been for someone from, say, Bath.

    Oh, and once my wife and I watched a quiz show on the telly while on a ferry from Zeebrugge. I could follow the Flemish (or Dutch as they now like to call it) reasonably well. It wasn’t too dissimilar from my playground language. The English passengers seemed rather puzzled that I could shout out answers (in English) to questions asked in Flemish. (It was a quiz show: I dare say the Flemish was rather basic.)

    I have a test I like. Ask anyone in Britain how they pronounced 1, 2, 3, 4 when they were in the playground aged 5. For me it was yin, twy, thry, fower. Southern Scots, you see. At home and at school it was one, two, three, four. Scots English, you see, and recognisably so because both letter “r”s were trilled.

    I have another test involving only English. I assume that anyone in England would recognise my “four”: I’ve never encountered anyone who had any difficulty with it. But plenty of Scots have trouble picking up that foe-ah is a pronunciation of “four”; I mean, they will recognise it but only after a momentary hesitation. I still have trouble picking it up on the phone or on the telly, and I’ve lived in England for aeons. It’s easier face-to-face. (So not at all easy during the Great Mask Fiasco.)

  18. “Fuck you” (or “bugger you” or “sod you”, come to that) is odd. Isn’t it really just a contraction of “may you be fucked” (or buggered or sodomized, as the case may be)?

    But yes. If you ignore that explanation, then on the face of it “fuck you” is the answer to that problem which exercised Nietzsche in Twilight Of The Idols – that where there is a verb, there has to be a subject, and hence our difficulty in abandoning a belief in God (because of our grammar we can’t conceive of anything happening without a subject performing it – in this case a Creator).

  19. (because of our grammar we can’t conceive of anything happening without a subject performing it – in this case a Creator)

    Interesting concept – belief in a god as a by-product of grammar.
    So In the Beginning was the Word… and because it was a word it had to be spoken or written and therefore someone had to write or speak it. Ergo god.

  20. But asiaseen, this’d mean that demons, devils, and climate change would also be real. Perhaps I might even be able to see Tarzan and the Skeleton Men of Jupiter.

  21. @Boganboy
    Perhaps I might even be able to see Tarzan and the Skeleton Men of Jupiter
    You never know your luck…

    Of course, they never say what the Word was – or what the next ones were. I suspect it was “Fuck! I made a mistake.”

  22. I suspect it was “Fuck! I made a mistake.”

    Clearly, after a brief pause, it was

    “Fuck, the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked!”

  23. Clearly, after a brief pause, it was

    “Fuck, the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked!”

    And after a briefer pause “FUCK IT” and so the universe began.

  24. Back to the piece prompted this wide ranging discusion.
    “Spaniards easily understand the Asturias vernacular,..”
    I somehow doubt that. I was up in the north & asked a Spaniard how far it was to Burgos. “Burgos?”he said “I don’t know of Burgos” Somewhat confusing, because we were in the province Burgos provides the name of & he was a local. But pronunciation. I’d used the Brit pronunciation you’ve probably read it as. Bur as in fur. In Spanish the U is further forward in the mouth & comes out more like oo as in hood. A trivial difference, but enough for a Spaniard to make the pronunciation incomprehensible. A lot of Spanish is like that. One does have to use ñ (bit like ng in sing) rather than n & a proper hota (j). Not an h & never ever a j as in joke.
    It’s an interesting comparison with English, where the speaker can mangle any pronunciation & still be understood. Something to do with the range of the dialects in the English language? Or we’ve just become used to hearing English as a second language?
    So I’d doubt Tim’s contention that “you could go off walking, at donkey sorta pace, and not wholly note that the language had changed until you got to Slovenia”. I don’t think you’d have to follow that donkey very far before pronunciation shifts would have made mutual incomprehension. Languages have standardised because easy travel has meant the various versions have blended. Back then, a dozen miles would have been further than most people travelled in their entire lives. There’s people here, now, in the inland villages & towns, have rarely been that far from where they were born.

  25. I had something similar in Prague. I was going to drive back to Austria and turn south at Jihlava. Knowing that I couldn’t pronounce ( or spell it ) properly I asked a friend how to get to the Brno motorway, pronouncing it as in “Frank”.

    After about six attempts my friend finally twigged where I wanted to go and she said:
    “Oh, you mean Bbbbrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnooooo !” With 17 syllables in a four letter word.

    Fuck you darling !

    ( There’s a subject in that sentence).

  26. In my time in Usti nad Labem I never really did have the courage to call the place Aussig. Even though there are still road signs – new ones, motorway – saying that on the German side….

  27. Dearime: I don’t disagree with much of that, but the fact remains that “Scots” followed almost all of the grammatical shifts – the loss of inflection, for example – southern English did on its travels from Old to Modern. As I said, apart from a few unusual words, Braxfield’s comments would be intelligible to a Standard English speaker. But yes, the whole point here is that this is a slippery subject.

    I remember my father talking of a Norwegian bloke he met on holiday in the ’50s who scoffed at the concept of a Norwegian language. “Oh, they have this thing they call ‘Norwegian’, “but we all speak Danish”. It’s notable that as recently as 1929, a Parliamentary vote to call the national language “Dansk-Norsk” was lost by a single vote. Or rather, one of the national languages. Norway demonstrates just how slippery this can be: one of the recognised forms is indeed virtually identical to standard Danish; the other rather less so, and there are regional variations in how widely each is spoken in everyday life.

    “Oh, you mean Bbbbrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnooooo !”

    I remember Stephen Fry saying that there’s only one place in the English-speaking world where “r” is a vowel: Brnleh.

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