Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Soi Cowboy will have to wait (and so will last Saturday's write up)

Brainiac's on holiday so Soi Cowboy and the lost weekend are on ice.
Instead the Brain-e-hack research organisation brings you some answers to the burning questions which proved so divisive last Saturday.
First up, the test of what constitutes a language and a dialect, assuming that one doesn't subscribe to the army (and navy) posession theory which was actually posited by linguist Max Weinrich in respect of Yiddish, is generally judged by mutual (un)intelligability. (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09296170701794278#.UcmuB9JASS8 if you have $37 to spare or Wikipedia if you don't!) By that standard the number of currently extant languages is variously estimated as something between 6,700 and 7,000. But this includes such oddities as Flemish which most non-political linguists would say was Dutch by another name and Slovak and Czech which both fail and pass the intelligability test depending one where it is run.
But there is not much dispute that the country with the greatest concentration of languages which are mutually unintelligable is Papua New Guinea where the figure is well over 800 distinct languages (http://www.ethnologue.com/country/PG/default/***EDITION***) most of which are spoken by populations of no more than a few thousand who have become separated from each other in the central highlands. So the figure of 900 bandied about on Saturday is to all intents and purposes correct.
However, the estimate of 700 aboriginal languages in Australia is a wild over-statement, at least these days, although it is estimated that at the time of the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770 there may have been as many as 400 distinct languages. Today however, the figure is about 30, with another 175 or so still understood by a few people but in the process of dying out (http://www.ethnologue.com/country/AU/default/***EDITION***).
The other figure touted on Saturday, that a quarter of the world's languages are spoken in either Australia or New Guinea is also highly debatable at best, flat wrong at worst. The estimate seems to come from a lumping together of Austronesian and Papuan languages which many liguists would argue with, and anyway, the term Austronesian has got nothing to do with Australia, and the aboriginal languages are not generally thought to be related to the Austronesian language family, of which the largest member is Malay. References for that one on request but too numerous to publish here.
So, back to beer, depravity and lust....

1 comment:

  1. I think I mentioned the mutual intelligibility test to [NAME REDACTED] but it's really more of a popular definition ('A language is a collection of dialects') than a proper linguistic one. There are just too many exceptions.

    The most obvious examples are the languages that are essentially identical. Dutch/Flemish and Czech/Slovak, as you mention, but also Croatian/Serbian, Romanian/Moldovan, Hindi/Urdu and Bahasa Melayu/Bahasa Indonesia.

    Then there are mutually intelligible languages, including Bulgarian/Macedonian, Kazakh/Kyrgyz, and, close to home, Thai/Lao. After a few years study of Central Thai I found I could get along fine in Laos, yet after decades more of it I still can be completely baffled by the 'dialect' of Southern Thai.

    Meanwhile are any number of mutually unintelligible dialects, perhaps most notably the varieties of Frisian (which in turn was once mutually intelligible with English). You would have difficulty convincing a Texan, say, and a rural Scotsman that they shared a common language. Arabic is apparently just as varied, and of course the many so-called dialects of Chinese even more so. I can vouch for the fact that a native speaker of the Western Cambodian 'dialect' used in the Thai provinces of Surin and Buriram is utterly incapable of communication with a speaker of standard Phnom Penh Cambodian (and no, not just because I pissed her off).

    While a complete purview of mutual intelligibility and the classification of languages is beyond the scope of this comment, let me end (and you do want me to end?) with the instructive example of Spain. Its Galician 'dialect' is, for all purposes, Portuguese. And yet I am confident that not a single living Catalan would consider his language to be a 'dialect' of Castilian (and this despite Catalonia's lack of an army).

    No doubt there are some nice clear cut cases where one can or should distinguish languages from dialects on the basis of mutual intelligibility, but I believe most linguists at this point would admit that the exact features of the languages themselves are generally less important than the political, social, and culture contexts in which they are used.

    But back to another encounter with GOD this afternoon . . . .