Friday, February 06, 2004

On Language (part 1)

A famous (though difficult to identify) linguist once said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. My particular heritage bears this out. As a junior member of the Sicilian speaking people of the world, I can appreciate how arbitrary the difference between a language and a dialect can be.

Some background: Two or three hundred years ago, when Italy was coalescing into a modern culture, it was arbitrarily decided that the language spoken in Tuscan would be the one everyone should learn. This is usually attributed to the fact that three famous Italian authors happened to be Tuscan. Of course, the choice had to be made. It simply wouldn’t do for a country to have several mutually indecipherable languages and Tuscan is as good a choice as any.

To clarify, most Americans (and English speaking people for that matter) fail to appreciate how vast the gulf between a “dialect” and it’s “language” can be. Sicily has been the scene of conquests which spans from the Greeks to the Moors to the Spaniards to the Napoleonic French. All left their mark on Sicilian. At this point you can’t just say it’s Italian spoken with a funny accent. It’s different. From the way they conjugate “to be”, to the word for “work”, to the shape of the vowels. Don’t think of it like you think of the American “Southern” dialect. Think about it like Gaelic English.

Now, there really shouldn’t be any problem with this situation except that, as progressively stronger governments spread official “Italian” around, the other dialects suddenly became, well… “Uncultured”. Mind you, it wasn’t just that the people who spoke only Sicilian were uncultured (to avoid the mandatory Italian language schooling you probably would have to be), but that the language was uncultured. It was crude, unsophisticated and really, probably not a language at all.

All this culminates in my having cousins who were born in Sicily, grew up in Sicily, heard Sicilian spoken all their lives, but refuse to speak it because they consider it nothing more than lazy slang speech. Is this characterization fair? Or is this just a normal process in language? More Importantly: What is the difference between a language and a dialect? I could go on, but I’ve written too much already. I’ll save my answers to these questions for later in the week.

Update: Chaged Gaelic for Welsh. Thanks Anon.


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