Category Archives: Indo-Hittite

How I Determined Intelligibility For Turkic Lects

Steve: This is amazing. Well done. But how can you possibly know the degree of mutual intelligibility between two languages you don’t speak or know if something is a language or dialect when you don’t speak it? That seems strange. How is it worked out?

Linguists don’t speak all these languages we study. We just study languages, we don’t necessarily speak them. This is confused with the archaic use of the word linguist to mean polyglot. Honestly, many linguists do in fact speak more than one language, and quite a few of them have a pretty good knowledge of at least some of the languages that they study. But my mentor speaks only Turkish and English though he studies all Turkic languages. I don’t believe he has ever learned to speak any Turkic lect other than Turkish.

In reference to my paper here.

We are not looking for raw numbers. We just want to know if they can understand each other or not.

A lot of it is from talking to native speakers and also there was a lot of reading papers by other linguists. I also talked to other linguists a lot. Linguists typically simply state if two lects are intelligible or not. Also there is a basic idea among linguists of what the boundary is between a language and a dialect, and I used this knowledge a lot.

Can they understand each other? Yes or no. That’s pretty much about it. Also at some degree of structural difference, we can see the difference between a language and a dialect. It’s a judgement call, but linguists are pretty good at this.

There is a subsection of very loud linguists, mostly on the Internet, who like to screech a lot about this question cannot be answered by answered because of this or that red herring or some odd conundrums that work their way in. The thing is if you ask around enough, you will be able to get around all of the conundrums and you should be able to eventually reconcile all of the divergent responses to get some sort of a holistic or “big picture.” You finally “figure it out.” The answer to the question comes to you in a sort of a “seeing the answer as part of a larger picture” sort of thing.

The worst red herring is this notion that speakers from Group A will lie and say they do not understand speakers of Group B simply because they hate them so much. If this was such a concern, you would have think I would have run into it at some point. A much worse problem were ethnic nationalists who lie and say that they can understand neighboring tongues when they can’t.

The toxin called Pan-Turkism or Turkish ultranationalism comes into play here. It is almost normal for Turks to believe that there is only one Turkic languages, and it is called Turkish. All of the rest of the languages simply do not exist and are dialects of Turkish. I had to deal with regular attacks by extremely aggressive Ataturkists who insisted that any Turk could easily understand any other Turkic language. Actually my adviser told me that my piece would not be popular with the Pan-Turkics at all. I don’t really care as I consider them to be pond scum.

Granted, some of it was quite controversial and I got variable reports on intelligibility for some lects like Siberian Tatar vs. Tatar, the Altai languages, Kazakh vs. Kirghiz, Crimean Tatar vs. Turkish.

Where native speakers differ on such questions, often vociferously, you simply ask enough of them, talk to some experts and try to get a feel for that what best answer to the question is.

Some cases like Gagauz vs. Turkish probably need raw intelligibility testing. That’s the only one that is up in the air right now, but it is up in the air because the lects are so close. Intelligibility between Gagauz and Turkish is somewhere between  70-100%. In other words, they have marginal intelligibility at worst. My Gagauz expert who knows this language better than anyone though feels that Turkish intelligibility of Gagauz is less than 90%, which is where I drew the line at language and dialect.

It is also starting to look like Nogay is a simply a dialect of Kazakh instead of a separate language, but that might be a hard sell.

Some of these are seen as separate languages simply because they are spoken by different ethnies who do not want to be seen as part of the same group. Also they have different literary norms. Karapalkak is just a Kazakh dialect, but the speakers want to say they speak a separate language. Same with Bashkir, which is simply a dialect of Tatar. The case of Kazakh and Kirghiz is more controversial, but even here, we seem to be dealing with one language, yet the two dialects are spoken by different ethnies that have actually differentiated into two separate states, each with their own literary norm. Kazakhs wish to say they speak a language c called Kazakh and Kirghiz wish to say they speak a language called Kirghiz although they are probably really just one language.

We see a similar thing with Czech and Slovak. My recent research has proven that Czech and Slovak are actually a single language. But the dialects are spoken by different ethnic groups who claim different cultures and histories and they have actually divided into two different states, and each has its own literary norm.

It is here, where dialects become languages not via science by via politics, culture, history and sociology, that Weinrich’s famous dictum that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” comes into play.

Scientifically, these are all simply dialects of a single tongue but we call them languages for sociological, cultural and political reasons.


Filed under Altaic, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Bashkir, Comparitive, Crimean Tatar, Czech, Dialectology, Gagauz, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Kazakh, Kipchak, Kyrgyz, Language Classification, Linguistics, Nationalism, Political Science, Slavic, Slovak, Sociolinguistics, Tatar, Turkic, Turkish, Ultranationalism

A Few Words on Language Endangerment

Carlos Lam: Congrats! However, isn’t language death a rather standard occurrence among societies?

It is, but we linguists don’t really like it. It is quite a debate going on, but the bottom line seems to be that ethnic groups and speaker groups have the right to ownership of their languages. We worry that a lot of speaker groups are being pressured into blowing up their languages prematurely. We like to study these languages and we are not real happy about seeing them vanish into the horizon. On the other hand, is cultural death a natural thing too? Both cultural death and language death are occurring at rates far beyond the normal background rates. English and some of the other major languages are like weapons of mass destruction in taking out languages. You really want a world with one language and one culture? I don’t.

The best position seems to be that speakers have the right to decide the fate of their languages. If speakers wish to continue speaking their languages, then governments and linguists should help them to preserve and continue to develop their languages. Quite a few groups do not seem to care that their languages are going are extinct or they are even driving or drove their languages extinct, and they have the full right to do so. In these cases, we will simply do salvage linguistics. There are many salvage linguistics projects going on in the world today.

You won’t get very far with linguists arguing that language death is a good thing. Most people don’t think so.

Occurring at the same time as language death is a lot of language revitalization. Even fully dead languages are being resurrected from the grave. Also in addition to language death, we are creating new languages all the time. In this piece, I created a total of net 13 new languages. And new languages are occurring on their own.

To give you an example. A group of Crimean Tatars moved from Crimea to Turkey about 200 years ago in the course of the Crimean War. They have been speaking Crimean Tatar in Turkey ever since, for 200 years now. But in that time, Crimean Tatar in Turkey and Crimean Tatar in Ukraine has diverged so much that Turkish Crimean Tatar is now, in my opinion, a fully separate tongue from the Ukrainian language. This is because in Turkey, a lot of Turkish has gone into Turkish Crimean Tatar which is not well understand in the Ukraine. And in the Ukraine, a lot of Russian has gone in which is not well understood in Turkey. Hence, Crimean Tatar speakers in Turkey and Ukraine can no longer understand each other well.

To give you another example, there are many Kazakh speakers in China. However, Kazakh speakers in China can no longer understand Standard Kazakh broadcasts from Kazakhstan because so many Russian loans have gone into Standard Kazakh that it is no longer intelligible with Chinese Kazakh speakers. I learned this too late for my paper, otherwise I would have split Chinese Kazakh off as a separate language.

There are many cases like this.

Further, many languages are being discovered. Sonqori, Western Khalaj, Todzhin, Duha, Dukha and Siberian Tatar are just a few of the new languages that I created. Khorosani Turkic was split into three different languages. Dayi was subsumed into one of the Khorosani Turkic languages. Altai was split from one into five separate languages, but the truth is that it is six languages, not five. Salar was split into Western Salara and Eastern Salar. Ili Turki was eliminated becuase it does not even exist. It is simply a form of Uighur. Kabardian and Balkar, Tatar and Bashkir, Kazakh and Kirghiz were some languages that were eliminated and subsumed into single tongues such as Tatar-Bashkir, Kazakh-Kirghiz, and Kabardian-Balkar. And on and on.

Languages and of course dialects are dying all the time, but new languages are being created by humans and by linguists as we continue our splitting projects. Many lects referred to as dialects are more properly seen as separate languages. Chinese is at least 450 separate languages, only 14 of which are recognized. German may be up to 130 separate languages, only 20 of which are recognized.

There are quite a few more languages to be created out there, but there is a lot of resistance to splitters like me from more conservative linguists and especially from linguistic nationalists. For while Chinese may well be over 1,000 languages, the Chinese government is anti-scientifically insistent that there is but one Chinese language and maybe 2,000 “dialects,” most of which are probably separate languages. The German government is quite resistant to the idea that there is more than one form of German, though I believe Bavarian and Swiss German have official status in Austria and Switzerland.

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Filed under Asia, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Bashkir, Bavarian, China, Chinese language, Comparitive, Crimean Tatar, Dialectology, Europe, European, German, Germanic, Government, History, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Language Classification, Language Families, Linguistics, Regional, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics, Tatar, Turkey, Turkic, Ukraine

Is There a Language That is (Nearly) Impossible to Learn to Speak Without Growing up with It?

Answer from Quora

I recently talked to a man who is learning Min Nan, which is a Sinitic language often called a dialect of Chinese. He told me that Min Nan speakers say that the tones are so hard that no one who doesn’t grow up speaking Min Nan ever seems to get it very well.

Cantonese is a similar language that is very difficult. It is much harder than Mandarin, and many native Mandarin speakers say they tried to learn Cantonese and gave up on it because it was too hard. Cantonese has nine tones.

Basque is said to be very hard to learn unless you grow up with it. There is a joke that the Devil spent seven years trying to learn Basque, and he only learned how to say Hello and Goodbye.

Navajo would also be hard. Even Navajo children struggle quite a bit learning Navajo and don’t seem to get it well until maybe age 12. When Navajo children arrive at school, they often do not speak Navajo well yet.

Korean is a surprise, but apparently it is very hard to learn well. A native Korean speaker told me that Korean is so hard that no Korean speaker ever speaks it with 100% accuracy, and everyone makes errors.

Czech is also hard. Even most Czech speakers never get Czech all the way. They have TV contests in Czechoslovakia where they try to stump native speakers with hard forms in the language. If you can last 30 minutes without making even one error, you win. I think only two men have been able to do it, but one was a non-native speaker!

Piraha, spoken in the Brazilian Amazon, is also very hard. Over the course of a few centuries, several Portuguese speaking priests had tried to learn Piraha, but they had all given up because it was too hard. And these same priests had been able to master a number of other Indian languages, but Piraha was just too much. Daniel Everett learned the language and wrote important papers on it. He is only of the only non-native speakers who was able to learn the language.

Tsez, spoken in the Caucasus, is also murderously hard. Every verb can have over 100,000’s of possible forms. I understand that even native speakers make regular errors when speaking Tsez.

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Filed under Altaic, Applied, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Basque, Brazil, Cantonese, Caucasus, Chinese language, Czech, Dene-Yenisien, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Isolates, Korean language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Mandarin, Min Nan, Na-Dene, Navajo, Near East, Regional, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Slavic, South America

Sanskrit: A Language of Perfection

I disagree on one thing though. I believe that Sanskrit was learned as a first language for a long time in India. I can’t prove it, but this is what I believe.

In fact there is a village in India to this very day where Sanskrit is spoken as a first language. The entire village consists of Sanskrit native speakers. What’s odd is that it seems to be a low caste village in a rural area. The idea that Sanskrit is some super-language that is too complex to be learned by humans is negated by the fact that these impoverished, possibly malnourished (note effects on brain development) 82 IQ low caste rural learn Sanskrit perfectly well as a first language.

The truth is that there is no natural human language that is too wild, nutty, or complex to be learned by children. If a language was developed naturally by humans,  then it can be learned by human children. Any human children. Anywhere. Period. The child’s brain is like a sponge up until age 7-8 and any human language can be picked up quite effortlessly during this age range. There is indeed a Critical Period for language learning that begins to close at age 8 and continues to close until mid-adolescence when it is closed for good. However, I still believe that you will learn a language better if you start learning it at age 15 than at age 40.

Judith on Sanskrit, magic and the quest for the perfect language.

Judith Mirville: I learned Sanskrit (mostly in the intention to demystify the present-day New Age system of magic that claims of ancient Indian lore and just cannot.

For instance chakras as we claim to know them were just unknown to classical expounders of yoga, when you find the word used only once by Patanjali it only means the body’s axis of rotational momentum as both dancers and judokas learn to know to achieve perfect balance, it has nothing to do with any invisible organ made of subtle matter) : it is not so difficult if you realize first it was never meant to be spoken as a natural language, but learned as a second language as a kind of Esperanto that actually worked.

It is an artificial, contrived language that cannot have anything to do with divinity (actually the word deva can mean any spirit like the Greek daimon), though some part of it can be used for magic, which is something very different (and even as a language for magic, classical Arabic or Greek is superior).

It is not true it is too complicated for humans, it is complicated to use it because human bureaucrats (not divine beings) built it like a perfect computer programming language without allowing any divine intervention : it is perfect for the expression of all forms of political correctness first and foremost.

If you are a good computer programmer mastering several coding languages you can pick up Sanskrit much faster, because its rules are formulated in the same way as in a computer language manual (but that doesn’t fetch into very high mathematics, more into mere accounting, hence my analogy with computer languages). Unfortunately there is no divine imprint on Sanskrit, due to its utter lack of simplicity and also to its lack of cleanliness of design.


Filed under Applied, Asia, India, Indic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Irano-Armenian, Indo-Irano-Armeno-Hellenic, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Regional, Sanskrit, South Asia

More on the Remains of Ancient Australoid “Indo-Pacific” Languages in India

Jm8: Might there have also been more than one language family among the proto-Australoid peoples of India I wonder (including Austroasiatic) (like there are in Australia and Papua today), since India is big and had been inhabited for a very long time (being among the longest inhabited areas outside Africa)?

It would be interesting to investigate the distribution of Austroasiatic influence over the various Dravidian languages to see where in India it is stronger.

This article suggests that Austroasiatic is not indigenous to India (but rather to south east Asia).

I had though that the Veddoid/early Australoid languages of India might be lost forever and only (maybe) partly reconstructible (in as few aspects) from their influences on other languages that replaced them. But if they were Austroasiatic (and represented by those languages surviving in Andra Pradesh), then that is not the case.

“The Vedda/Australoid people are speakers of the Munda branch of Austroasiatic. There is an Austroasiatic layer in both Dravidian and Indic. It is the oldest layer.”

That’s interesting. I thought Austroasiatic was associated with Southern Proto (Paleo?)-Mongoloids (like some of the Northeast Indian tribes — and Vietnamese is Austroasiatic). But maybe it predates the split between Australoid and Proto-Mongoloid peoples (some Paleomongoloid descendants of course still somewhat resemble Australoids, or did not that long ago in prehistory), which would be interesting. It’s it a very old and deep language family? I know there are some tribes in East Central India (Andra Pradesh I think) that speak Austroasiatic, and they look phenotypically a bit like something transitional between South Mongoloid and Australoid.

“I am not aware of theories showing Dravidian close to Australian languages.”

It might be discredited now (I’ll try to look into it, and the Austroasiatic influence on Dravidian, which is interesting). The theory (I think) was only that there might be a substratal influence of something like one of the Australian families on Dravidian (but still that Dravidian came mostly from somewhere the Middle East — or consistent with that idea anyway).

It might make sense that there is a substratal influence from “Indo-Pacific” languages such as those from the Andaman Islands and West Papua in Dravidian, but I have never heard of it. That would be an older layer underneath even the Munda layer in Dravidian.

There was no split between Australoids and Proto-Mongoloids. The former simply transitioned into the latter. Austroasiatic is associated with the Paleomongoloids and Neomongoloids of SE Asia. Austroasiatic is indeed old and deep, and the evidence for Austroasiatic is about as good as the evidence for Afroasiatic and Altaic. This doesn’t make sense because Afroasiatic and Austroasiatic are generally recognized families, but Altaic is not, although there evidence for the two former is no better than the evidence for the latter.

They were not lost forever as Kusunda, Nihali and the Vedda language substrate seem to be the remains of the tongues of the original Australoid speakers. The original tongues were not Austroasiatic – those languages came later. However, at the moment, most of the highly Australoid people in India speak a Munda language like Santhal. Apparently the Munda languages were once widespread over the whole continent, but most of them were replaced by Dravidian and Indic intrusions. In the more settled people, Dravidian and Indic replaced Munda languages, but in the tribals, the earlier Munda tongues lingered perhaps due to their inaccessibility living in the forest and the fact that the scheduled tribes are mostly outside the caste system.

Yes and the split between the Munda languages and the rest of the Austroasiatic is very deep. Austroasiatic can almost be split into Munda and non-Munda as two basic parts of the family. And there is not a lot left connecting the Munda languages to the rest of the family.

Kusunda, Nihali and the substrate of the Vedda language of Sri Lanka are thought to be the remains of the languages of the original Australoid speakers. These languages may be related to the Andaman Islands languages and Papuan languages. I know there is a connection between Kusunda and Andaman Islands languages and West Papuan tongues. There is some theorized relationship with such “Indo=Pacific” tongues and Nihali and the Vedda substrate also.

Yes, the Mundas came into India relatively lately and surely replaced nearly all of those original Andaman/Papuan languages of the Australoid people.

At the moment, Kusunda and Nihali are isolates, and even the Andaman tongues are split into two different families, so right now there are already separate language families among these Australoid people.

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Filed under Afroasiatic, Altaic, Anthropology, Asia, Austro-Asiatic, Cultural, Dravidian, India, Indic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Irano-Armenian, Indo-Irano-Armeno-Hellenic, Isolates, Language Families, Linguistics, Pacific, Physical, Regional, South Asia, Sri Lanka

The Influence of the Tongues of Australoid/Vedda People in India on Dravidian Languages

Jm8: I wonder what influence the languages of the proto-Australoid/Veddoid peoples had on modern Dravidian languages. It seems pretty clear that Dravidian came primarily from a Near Eastern family also ancestral to Elamite (Elamo-Dravidian) in Iran and reached India around the Neolithic. But I wonder if Veddoid peoples’ languages could have a substratal influence on Dravidian (or at least some Dravidian languages—esp those farther south or the tribal ones), even perhaps playing a role in its divergence from its Elamo-Dravidian root; depending on where Dravidian truly diverged (e.g: If it diverged within the Indian subcontinent—like around Pakistan/NW India—, where proto-Australoid peoples lived).

The influence of those peoples might be hard to assess. I recall a while ago reading about an old theory that Dravidian had some grammatical similarities to certain Australian Aboriginal languages (Northern maybe?).

But did these similarities also exist I wonder in the one surviving Dravidian language of the North, Brahui in Pakistan, whose speakers presumably have much less native proto-Australoid ancestry?

One might possibly also check for similarities to Andamanese languages (a bit of a long shot I know).

The Vedda/Australoid people are speakers of the Munda branch of Austroasiatic. There is an Austroasiatic layer in both Dravidian and Indic. It is the oldest layer.

I am not aware of theories showing Dravidian close to Australian languages.

There is a moribund language spoken in Nepal called Kusunda which appears to be related to West Papuan the Andaman Islands languages.

Keep in mind that in mainstream Historical Linguistics (which has deviated far away from anything sane anymore anyway), there is no Papuan language family. Instead, Papua is divided into 37 separate language families and 20 isolates. They also say there is no Australian language family,  although I believe R. W. Dixon made a case for one. Instead we have 20 different language families and four isolates in Australia. And they do not posit that the Andaman languages form a coherent family. There are two separate families even in the Andaman Islands, with Ongan and Greater Andamanese, with no demonstrated relationship between them. I have looked at the Andaman languages, and trust me, some of them are extremely far apart.

The people positing that Papuan, Australian and Andaman are language families or even that all three together form a single family called Indo-Pacific (Joseph Greenberg’s hypothesis) are all long-rangers whose views are not accepted in mainstream linguistics. However, Steven Wurm accepts a much-modified and more conservative view of Greenberg’s theory.  In addition, it appears that Trans New Guinea, West Papuan, Greater Andamanese and some Timorese languages, all included in Greenberg’s Indo-Pacific, show striking similarities which to my mind could only be genetic.

At any rate mainstream Linguistics is very conservative as far as Historical Linguistics goes. The existence of Elamo-Dravidian, which should be obvious to anyone looking, is not even regarded as proven.

I have looked at Dravidian quite a bit, and I did not think it was even close to the putative Nostratic family of Northern Eurasia. Instead it seemed to be closer to Afroasiatic than anything else. If Elamite was spoken in Western Iran, and before that the proto-Dravidians were in the Levant (according to the old theories), then it would make sense that Dravidian would be closer to Afroasiatic than anything else.

Keep in mind that Afroasiatic is a very old family – it may be 13-15,000 years old. And the fact that it is even regarded as proven at all (yes there are some ultra-splitters who are now saying that Afroasiatic is not even real) shows how wrong Historical Linguistics is when they say that any relationships older than 8,000 years cannot be proven because they are beyond the means of the comparative method of Historical Linguistics. If anything over 8,000 YBP is unknowable as far as the comparative method is concerned, then how did we prove Afroasiatic which goes back 15,000 YBP?

But Comparative Linguistics has gotten totally offtrack. Whereas traditionally, we simply observed languages and threw them into families based on obvious similarities and only after that reconstructed, now they have it backwards. No matter how much the languages look alike, we can’t put them into a family unless we have reconstructed all the way back to the proto-languages and found regular sound correspondences. Only then do we prove relatedness.

But Linguistics never worked that way before. Relatedness was posited simply on observation, and only later was the hard reconstruction work with regular sound correspondences done.

According to Lyle Campbell, Joanna Nichols and others unfortunately at the top of Historical Linguistics nowadays, Sir William Jones could not have even posited the existence of an Indo-European family because we had not yet reconstructed Proto-Indo-European and its regular sound correspondences yet. See? They’ve got it backwards.

Anyway even IE is not well understood. How’s that Laryngeal Theory working out for you guys? Coming right along, right? Didn’t think so. Just as I thought.


Filed under Aborigines, Afroasiatic, Anthropology, Asia, Australia, Comparitive, Dravidian, India, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Iran, Isolates, Language Classification, Language Families, Linguistics, Nepal, Pacific, Pakistan, Race/Ethnicity, Regional, South Asia

Galician, Portuguese, and the Possibility of a Third Language Between Them

Dwan Garcez: Portuguese and Galician are the same language.

This person is Portuguese, and what they are saying is Portuguese nationalism or Portuguese linguistic nationalism. Portuguese and Galician were one language until 1550 when they split. But that time period of 450 years is about the same as between Ukrainian and Russian and Belorussian and Russian. Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian are regarded as separate languages. And that is about the same time split as between English and Scots as Scots split off from English right around that time. Scots is regarded as a separate language from English. English has only 42% intelligibility of Scots.

Boy, I do not agree with that for one second. If you want to be sure you are not understood when you go to Lisbon, speak Galician!

If you leave Galicia, you will only be understood for six miles inside the country. After that, forget it. People who live on the border in Galicia say that they can understand their friends across the border in Portugal fairly well but not completely, and they usually both speak in Spanish to avoid communication problems.

Furthermore, Ethnologue has decided that Galician and Portuguese are different languages.

Portuguese people cannot understand well the Galician/Portuguese mix spoken right around the border with Galicia. Some Portuguese can hardly understand Tras Os Montes Portuguese at all. In fact, the Alto-Minho and Tras Os Montes dialects of Portuguese are not well understood in Portugal or in most of Galicia. This is really Galician but it is not well understood to the north in Vigo and Santiago de Compostela. Residents of the Minho, though they really are Galicians, say they do not speak Galician. Their lect is even further from Portuguese. You could make a case that Alto-Minho/Tras Os Montes is a separate language, but it would be a hard sell.

Already at least one Galician dialect has been split off into a separate language. Fala is recognized as a separate language and there are good grounds for making that case.


Filed under Dialectology, Europe, Galician, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Linguistics, Portugal, Portuguese, Regional, Romance, Sociolinguistics, Spain

“The Proof Is in the Pudding”

What is the origin of this saying?

The original phrase is “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” and was generally used to say that one had to taste one’s food in order to know if it was good.

Actually at the time the saying originated, pudding was not the dessert we know now. Instead it was a meat item resembling a sausage. Back in those days, meat items were easily contaminated and the only to way determine such a thing was to take a bite out of it.

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Simplification of Language with Increasing Civilization: A Result of Contact or Civilization Itself

Nice little comment here on an old post, Primitive People Have Primitive Languages and Other Nonsense? 

I would like to dedicate this post to my moronic field of study itself, Linguistics, which believes in many a silly thing as consensus that have never been proved and are either untrue or probably untrue.

One of the idiocies of my field is this belief that in some way or another, most human languages are pretty much the same. They believe that no language is inherently better or worse than any other language, which itself is quite a dubious proposition right there.

They also believe, incredibly, that no language is more complex or simple than any other language. Idiocy!

Another core belief is that each language is perfectly adapted for its speakers. This leads to their rejecting claims that some languages are unsuitable for the modern world due to lack of modern vocabulary. This common belief of many minority languages is obviously true. Drop a Papuan in Manhattan, and see what good his Torricelli tongue does him. He won’t have words for most of the things around him. He won’t even have verbs for most of the actions he sees around him. His language is nearly useless in this environment.

My field also despises notions that some languages are better suited to poetry, literature or say philosophy than others or that some languages are more or less concise or exact than others or that certain concepts or ways of thinking are better expressed in one language as opposed to another. However, this is a common belief among polyglots, and I would not be surprised if it was true.

The question we are dealing with below is based on the notion that many primitive languages are exceeding complex and the common sense observation that as languages acquire more speakers and civilization increases, one tends to see a simplification of language.

My field out and out rejects both statements.

They will tell you that primitive languages are no more complex than more civilized tongues and that there is no truth to the statement that languages simplify with greater numbers of speakers and increased civilization. However, I have shot these two rejected notions to many non-linguists, and they all felt that these statements had truth to them. Once again, my field violates common sense in the name of the abstract and abstruse “we can’t prove anything about anything” scientific nihilism so common in the intellectually degraded social sciences.

Indeed, some of the most wildly complex languages of all can be found among rather primitive peoples such as Aborigines, Papuans, Amerindians and even Africans. Most language isolates like Ket, Burashaski and Basque are pretty wild. The languages of the Caucasus are insanely complex, and that region doesn’t exactly look like Manhattan. Siberian languages are often maddeningly complex.

Even in China, in the remoter parts of China, language becomes highly differentiated and probably more complex. I know an American who was able to learn Cantonese and Mandarin who told me that at age 35, for an American to learn Hokkien was virtually impossible. He tried various schemes, but they all failed. He finally started to get a hold of the language with a strict eight hour a day study schedule. Anything less resulted in failure. Hokkien speakers that he spoke too said you needed to grow up speaking Hokkien to be able to speak the language well at all. By the way, this is another common sense notion that linguists reject. They say there are no languages so difficult that it is very hard to pick them up unless you grew up with them.

The implication here is that Min Nan is even more complex than the difficult Mandarin or even the forbidding Cantonese, which even many Mandarin speakers give up trying to learn because it is too hard.

Min Nan comes out Fujian Province, a land of forbiddingly high mountains where language differentiation is very high, and there is often difficult intelligibility even from village to village. In one area, fifteen years ago an American researcher decided to walk to a nearby village. It took him six very difficult hours over steep mountains. He could have taken the bus, but that was a four-day trip! A number of these areas had no vehicle roads until recently and others were crossed by vast rivers that had no bridges across them. Transportation was via foot. Obviously civilization in these parts of China is at a more primitive level, and it’s hard to develop Hong Kong-style cities in places with such isolating and rugged terrain.

It’s more like, “Oh, those people on the other side of the ridge? We never go there, but we heard that their language is a lot different from ours. It’s too hard to go over that range so we never go to that area.”

In the post, I theorized that as civilization increased, time becomes money, and there is a need to get one’s point across quickly, whereas more primitive peoples often spend no more than 3-4 hours a day working and the rest sitting around, playing  and relaxing. A former Linguistics professor told me that one theory is that primitive people, being highly intelligent humans (all humans are highly intelligent by default), are bored by their primitive lives, so they enjoy their wildly complex languages and like to relax, hang out and play language games with them to test each other on how well they know the structures. They also like to play tricky and maybe humorous language games with their complicated languages. In other words, these languages are a source of intellectual stimulation and entertainment in an intellectually impoverished area.

Of course, my field rejects this theory as laughably ridiculous, but no one has disproven it yet, and I doubt if the hypothesis has even been tested, hence it is an open question. My field even tends to reject the notion of open questions, preferring instead to say that anything not proven (or even tested for that matter) is demonstrably false. That’s completely anti-scientific, but that’s the trend nowadays across the board as scientistic thinking replaces scientific thinking.

Of course this is in line with the terrible conservative or reactionary trend in science where Science is promoted to a fundamentalist religion and scientists decide that various things are simply proven true or proven not true and attempts to change the consensus paradigm are regarded derisively or with out and out fury and rage and such attempts are rejected via endless moving of goalposts with the goal of making it never possible to prove the hypothesis. If you want to see an example of this in Linguistics, look at the debate around  Altaic. They have set it up so that no matter how much existing evidence we are able to gather for the theory, we will probably never be able to prove it as barriers to proof have been set up to make the question nearly unprovable.

It’s rather senseless to set up Great Wall of China-like barriers to proof in science because at some point,  you are hardly proving anything new, apparently because you don’t want to.

Fringe science is one of the most hated branches of science and many scientists refer to it as pseudoscience. Practitioners of fringe science have a very difficult time as the Scientific Establishment often persecutes them, for instance trying to get them fired from professorships. Yet this Establishment is historically illiterate because many of the most stunning findings in history were made by widely ridiculed fringe scientists.

The commenter below rejects my theory that increased civilization itself results in language simplification, as it gets more important to get your point across as quickly  as possible with increasing complexity and development of society. Instead he says civilization leads to increased contact between speakers of different dialects or language, and in such cases,  language must be simplified, often dramatically, in order for any decent communication to occur. Hence increased contact, not civilization in and of itself, is the driver of simplification.

I like this theory, and I think he may be onto something.

To me the simplification of languages of more ‘civilized’ people is mostly a product of language contact rather than of civilization itself. If the need arises to communicate with foreign people all of the time, for example in trade, then the language must become more simple in order to be able to be understood by more people.

Also population size matters a lot. It has been found that the greater the number of speakers, the greater the rate of language change. For example Polynesian languages, although having been isolated centuries or even millennia ago, still have only minor differences from one another.

In the case of many speakers, not all will be able to learn all the rules of a language, so they will tend to use the most common ones. And if the language is split in many dialects, then speakers of each dialect must find a compromise in order to communicate, which might come out as simple. If we add sociolects, specific registers for some occasions, sacred registers, slang etc, something that will arise in a big and stratified civilization, then the linguistic barriers people will need to overcome become greater. So it is just normal that after some centuries, this system to simplify.

We don’t need to look farther than Europe. Most languages of the western half being spoken in countries with strong trade links to one another and with much of the world later in history are quite analytic, but the languages of the more isolated eastern part are still like the older Indo-European languages. Basques, living in a small isolated pocket in the Iberian Peninsula, have kept a very complex language. Icelanders, also due to isolation, have kept a quite conservative Germanic language, whereas most modern Germanic languages are ridiculously simplified. No one can argue in his sane mind that Icelanders are primitives.

On the other hand, Romanian, being spoken in the more isolated Balkans, has retained more of the complex morphology of Latin compared to West Romance languages. And of course advance of civilization won’t automatically simplify the language, as Turkish and Russian, both quite complicated languages compared to the average European tongue, don’t seem to give up their complexity nowadays.

On the other hand, indigenous people were living in a much more isolated setting compared to the modern world, the number of speakers was comparatively low, and there was no need to change. Also, neighboring tribes were often hostile to one another, so each tribal group sought to make itself look special. That is the reason why places with much inter-tribal warfare like New Guinea have so many languages which are so different from one another. When these languages need to communicate, we get ridiculously simple contact languages like Hiri Motu.
So language simplification is more a result of language contact rather than civilization itself.


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An Overview of Walloon, a Macro-French Language of Belgium

Mountleek: Yes, probably every country is different. France is, as we know, quite aggressive towards other languages, for example.

I still think that the strength of regional lects is overrated. How many people in Belgium actually speak Walloon? Some middle aged and older people in the countryside, and on top of that, only in some situations? Maybe they start using Walloon when they enter middle age? But still, people who move into cities will not speak Walloon, there is no occasion to use it.

I believe that in Switzerland, the local German dialects are strong though.

Walloon has 500,000 speakers among five major lects. The central lect or Central Walloon is understood by all, so it is more or less the koine or standard. Intelligibility among the lects is very controversial, but the eastern and southern lects or Eastern and Southern Walloon are hard to understand.

Walloon is doing pretty well. I have had at least a couple of commenters on here who were native speakers. They seemed to be men in their 30’s-40’s.

You have whole cities in some places where everyone speaks Walloon, especially over by the French border. Everyone in Tournai speaks Walloon, even teenagers. I know that from reports on the Net. Tournai actually speaks Picardian Walloon or Western Walloon. There’s Picardian Walloon, and then right across the border in France by Valenciennes there’s Walloonian PicardOne’s Picard, and one’s Walloon. Oh, and they can’t understand each other.

By the way, Picard is very heavily spoken in Valenciennes in France on the border. Of all of the langues d’oil, Picard is maybe in the best shape. The Picardian region is a hardscrabble rural area with a  lot of miners and a very traditional way of life, and they don’t want to give up Picard.  Furthermore, Picard has reasonably good intelligibility with Parisien at 65%. Picard has all sorts of dialects within it.

I think Charleroi is also heavy Walloon speaking. I know that Namur is Walloon-speaking also.

Really, the whole of French Flanders speaks either Walloon or Belgian French, and Belgian French is quite different from Parisien French. The differences are at least like British and American English and maybe even worse. I am sure that all Belgian French speakers can understand Parisien French. The question would be if the Parisien speakers can understand Belgian French, and there are some reports of difficult intelligibility in that direction.

From what I can see there are whole cities where everyone down to teenagers heavily speaks Walloon, so I figure it will be around til the end of the century. I found a French messageboard where everyone was writing in French. It was for regional languages. There were certainly a lot of angry people on there, but they were all French people or French speakers, they all spoke the various minority languages of France and the surrounding areas, and most importantly, most people on the board were teenagers and young adults in their 20’s! The Walloon section was very active, full of Walloon-speaking teenagers from all over the area, and many of them were writing in Walloon, so apparently there is a written standard.

Belgium has not been real evil about regional languages like France. I doubt if it has been real great either. It’s probably somewhere in the middle. These countries do not wish to recognize any minority lect that is related the official languages, which is another matter altogether.

For sure a lot to most middle aged people speak Walloon in a lot of places, and no doubt majorities of the old people speak it also in other places.

The lects are Western Walloon, Northern Walloon, Central Walloon, Eastern Walloon and Southern Walloon. Eastern for sure and Southern probably are separate languages. Central of course is the standard language, so that gives us two or probably three Walloons. Next comes the question of whether it is reasonable to split off Western and Northern Walloon, and I have no answer to that. I think all of the lects are in good shape.

In a small village in Belgium on the French border, Meuse, a dialect of Lorrain, a langue d’oil, was formerly spoken, but it may be extinct by now. Lorrain has many lects within it, and the language as a whole is in very bad shape. There are some middle aged and older speakers in places like Lille and Nancy. Some Lorrain lects which still have a few speakers have seen declines of up to 98% in the number of speakers. Lorrain is surely an endangered language. Some French speakers say they can understand maybe 1% of Lorrain.

The langues d’oil are really separate languages. The French state has even admitted that, but it still won’t give them any rights due to “progressive” Jacobinism which has said for 200 years that Parisien is the only language in France, and there can be no other official languages. For a supposedly progressive ideology, Jacobinism is awfully nationalistic and ugly. Laicite secularism seems to go a bit to far too if you ask me.

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Filed under Belgium, Europe, France, French, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Linguistics, Regional, Romance, Sociolinguistics, Switzerland