Saturday, August 18, 2007

an untitled first post

I'll admit it, if I hadn't done so before: I'm obsessed with languages. I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep before I've thoroughly analysed, say, what little I know of Tuvaluan grammar. I love meeting Kurdish people to then see whether they speak Kurmanji or Sorani (or Zazaki, for that matter). And before my honeybunny's grandmother was dispatched off to a retirement home, we'd regularly chat up in Dutch and Frisian. That's just me and I can't help it.

People often ask me of the number of languages I speak. There's two difficult bits in this question. First, when do you really speak a language? Do you speak a language when you're able to order a coffee and comment on someone's physical appearance or do you only speak it when you're able to maintain a blog in it? Some people tend to use the number of words someone masters as a criterion, but that's not of much use, either: my father, for example, masters more than 3,000 words in German, Russian and Italian - all of them related to civil engineering and hence completely useless for ordering coffee.

The other subtle issue here is when a language differs from a dialect. Max Weinreich (a linguist I appreciate) said that "אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט", or if you want that translated, "a language is a dialect with an army and navy", which sums up a part of the distinction. Duden, the standard German reference dictionary, classifies Yiddish as "German spoken by (mostly Eastern European) Jews". While Yiddish may have evolved out of German (and German speakers would understand a transliterated version of Weinreich's quote), it is a distinct language in its own right. More on the army/navy argument: the Turkish government claimed, for a pretty long time in the past century, that Kurdish was a dialect of Turkish, despite the fact that the two belong to linguistically diametrically opposed families - Kurdish is Indo-European, while Turkish is Altaic. John MacWhorter has, in his book titled The Power of Babel done the best he could have in the attempt to explain what sets languages apart from dialects, and it's a good, long read if you're interested.

To be frank, I don't see a point in differentiating languages and dialects. Whereas I master ("Standard High") German well enough to dream, think and spontaneously curse in it, I also do the same in Viennese, which is a variety of German (more accurately: "East Central" Bavarian). And I sometimes switch between the two in the very same situation, according to need and context. But whether I'm using two languages, or two dialects, or a language and a dialect ("thereof"?) is an issue not necessarily easily answered. The two are not always necessarily mutually intelligible (look at faces of bedazzled tourists from Germany buying wine in Austrian villages and you're likely to get the picture).

So, how many languages do I speak? The way I can write my blog in English, curse in German or flirt in Bosnian, I could to the same in 22 more languages (that I, not being a linguist, count as languages) and several other varieties. While I don't/can't necessarily think in them, I can also communicate (in speech and writing) in 14 other languages (or dialects or geographically distinct varieties of human speech), and that's about it. Journalists have, at times when I used to do interviews about languages and language learning, summed it up to write that "I speak" 38 languages, not counting my mother tongue triplet titled "Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian".

"Wow," people have said, "I didn't even know that there were that many languages in the world". In fact, there are. Many, many more. There are, says the Ethnologue, 6,912 living languages. And we may lose a good third of them before the century's over.

That's what this blog will be about - linguistic diversity. I won't necessarily always be versed in the languages I'll be writing about, but I'll write about them. There's no such thing as a boring language or a language not worth knowing. And chances are, you may even find it useful.


meima said...

I'm very very happy that u are starting to write language blog, and share your truly priceless knowledge with us.. :):)

I'll enjoy!


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