From Netherlandic-German to Multilingual Sardinia

400px-Languages_spoken_in_Italy_Bis.svgDarryl Myers offers a rich and interesting comment on my Lingua Franca post last Thursday, observing that German is a interesting case to look at. It is indeed.

Splitters (those who incline toward maximizing the number of different languages posited) might point out that some of what we treat as varieties of German are separate languages by the familiar test of mutual intelligibility. A German speaker from Bonn or Berlin will not understand Swiss German dialects like the speech of the Zurich area (sometimes known as “Züritüütsch”) without doing a lot of work. Züritüütsch” differs not just lexically and phonologically but syntactically as well: There is a subordinate-clause construction with a dramatically different word order that has been theoretically important (for references see Chapter 16 of my The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). So in principle German could be counted as quite a few distinct languages.

Myers suggests that the reason Züritüütsch and other divergents all get called German is “because people with German ethnic roots want to claim membership in the larger German community (or what previous generations might have called ‘German civilization’).” If one looks at the similarities broadly enough to permit Züritüütsch to be called merely a dialect of a large but unitary German language, he points out, it becomes clear that Dutch would have to be included. Dutch is simply “at one extreme end of a gradient of language features that vary gradually as one moves east to west across the North German Plain.” And Flemish likewise, of course.

One earlier standard reference source on the languages of the world, the Classification and Index of the World’s Languages by Carl and Florence Voegelin (Elsevier, 1977), actually does take the radical minimizing view on this point, listing “Netherlandic-German” as a single language spoken from the borders of Hungary and the Czech Republic all the way westward to the Flemish and Dutch areas on the North Sea coast. The Ethnologue, by contrast, breaks up Dutch into half a dozen languages (Drents, Limburgish, etc.).

Italy offers another lesson in language individuation. Were you ever one of the simple-minded folk who imagined that the people in Italy speak Italian? The Ethnologue lists more than 20 indigenous Romance languages spoken within Italy. Even if you insist on excluding French (spoken in the Aosta Valley) and Corsican (spoken on Maddalena Island) as belonging linguistically to France, and Catalán (spoken on the northwest coast of Sardinia) as belonging among the languages of Spain, only one of the remaining tongues is standard Italian [ita]. (Ethnologue style puts the ISO standard 3-letter designators in lowercase and in square brackets.)

The Ethnologue recognizes (in addition to various Germanic and Romani languages within Italy): Arpitan [frp]; Emilian [egl]; Friulian [fur]; Judeo-Italian [itk]; Ladin [lld]; Ligurian (= Zenéize) [lij]; Lombard [lmo]; Napoletano-Calabrese [nap]; Occitan [oci]; Piemontese [pms]; Romagnol [rgn]; Campidanese Sardinian [sro]; Gallurese Sardinian [sdn]; Logudorese Sardinian [src]; Sassarese Sardinian [sdc]; Sicilian [scn]; and Venetian [vec].

The ISO does provide a designator, [srd], for use by those lumpers who would treat the Sardinian languages as one. But apparently Campidanese, Gallurese, Logudorese, and Sassarese differ in linguistically significant ways.

Notice that this situation is not at all like the Bosnian case, where differentiation is driven by ethnic rivalries: No one (I assume) counts the people of the south, northeast, center, and northwest of Sardinia as different ethnic groups.

Would governmental insistence that all or most of these languages are just variant forms of Italian help to unify the somewhat divided country? Or would it merely convince people that Rome seeks to destroy the cultural heritages of the regions?

Do we want to take seriously the much-quoted witticism that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”? The remark (due to a Bronx high-school teacher who put it to sociolinguist Uriel Weinreich in a postlecture conversation) may be cute, but it’s not a general theory of how people individuate languages: Arab countries have borders and military forces, but they don’t want their separate languages to be called Egyptian or Tunisian or Iraqian or whatever; they want to be seen as speaking a megalanguage called Arabic.

Such are the puzzles and problems of political sociolinguistics and language planning. They are not my primary topic of research, but I have always found them fascinating to read about, and they look to me as complex and difficult as any topic in sociology or human geography.

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