Category Archives: Balto-Slavic-Germanic

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.

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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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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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“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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Western Europe: What Native Languages Are Spoken in France?

Montleek: Robert, is it possible that in Western Europe, the regional lects have been preserved better, while in eastern Europe are preserved worse? There was communism/socialism in Eastern Europe, therefore more tendency not to continue speaking with regional lect.

In France, the regional lects are the langues d’ oil (still spoken, believe it or not!), Occitan, Breton, Alsatian, Franconian, Arpitan, and Flemish.

With Arpitan, Alsatian, Occitan and the langues d’oil, you can definitely get to the point of having a different lect in every major city if not every town in some cases.

There are a number of languages split through these regional lects. There are probably at least 10 full languages in the langues d’oil, ~20 in Occitan and Arpitan, five in Breton and more than one in Alsatian. The Flemish spoken in France is a separate language from that spoken in Belgium, hardly intelligible to a Belgian.

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Western Europe: What Native Languages Are Spoken in Germany?

Montleek:  Robert, is it possible that in Western Europe, the regional lects have been preserved better, while in eastern Europe are preserved worse? There was communism/socialism in Eastern Europe, therefore more tendency not to continue speaking with regional lect.

Germany is a very chaotic situation with a dialect in every town or village.

Dutch is actually spoken up near the Dutch border, but the form is not intelligible at all with Dutch across the border. You get into the different dialect in every town here.

Danish spoken a bit up by the Danish border.

Sorbian is spoken in the central east.

Frisian is spoken in the northwest and in the far north.

There are up to 138 separate languages within German by my calculation and splitting down to dialects, there must be many more, surely hundreds and maybe over a thousand. There are 3-4 languages within the Macro-Dutch spoken on the border and a dialect in every town. The Danish spoken in the north is not very dialectally diverse. Frisian is spoken as North Frisian and Saterland Frisian, but there may be up to five languages inside North Frisian. Sorbian is spoken in two forms, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian, and both are separate languages.

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Western Europe: What Native Languages Are Spoken in the Netherlands?

Montleek: Robert, is it possible that in Western Europe, the regional lects have been preserved better, while in eastern Europe are preserved worse? There was communism/socialism in Eastern Europe, therefore more tendency not to continue speaking with regional lect.

In the Netherlands, regional lects of Dutch Low Saxon, Limburgs, Dutch, Frisian, Low Dietsch and Southeast Limburgs are spoken.

Dutch is spoken in a bewildering variety of lects. There is nearly a separate lect in every village or city.

Limburgs is spoken a bit in the far south and there is a different lect in every town here too.

Dutch Low Saxon is spoken in the north and center of the country, once again as a different lect in every town. Whether this is really Macro-German or Macro-Dutch is not certain, but I would call it more Dutch than German.

Frisian is less dialectally diverse.

There are also very strange languages like Low Dietsch and Southeast Limburgs spoken in the far south. These are classification nightmares. After a lot of study, I concluded that these are neither German nor Dutch but actually something completely in between. With Southeast Limburgs and Low Dietsch, you also run into a the dialect in every town situation.

There area number of separate languages within Dutch in the Netherlands, probably over a dozen. There are three Dutch Low Saxon languages, but the situation is very confused and is almost a classification nightmare. There are probably 3-4 languages inside Frisian, though the vast majority speak the standard lect. There are probably two lects inside Limburgs. Southeast Limburgs and Low Dietsch are separate languages, though each seems to have a few languages inside of it.

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Western Europe: What Native Languages Are Spoken in Belgium?

Montleek: Robert, is it possible that in Western Europe, the regional lects have been preserved better, while in eastern Europe are preserved worse? There was communism/socialism in Eastern Europe, therefore more tendency not to continue speaking with regional lect.

In Belgium, there are regional lects of Flemish, Dutch, French, Limburgs and German.

Flemish is diverse, though I am not sure if you get to a situation of a different lect in every town.

Dutch is spoken in Belgium, sometimes in forms like Brabants not intelligible to a Dutchman.

Limburgs is actually a separate language spoken in the east. German is spoken in the far south.

The German spoken is a separate language called Ripaurian.

French is spoken as Walloon, actually a separate language

There are probably several languages in Belgian Flemish. There may be two in Limburgs. and there are at least two languages in Walloon. There are probably a few languages inside Belgian Ripaurian. There are at least two languages in Walloon.

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Is Flemish a Dialect of Dutch?

SHI: “Flemish” is Dutch. Flemish is just a name for a regional variation of the Dutch language in Flanders.

I do not agree. That’s Dutch politics and especially Dutch nationalism talking, not linguistic science. I believe that most linguists agree that Dutch and Flemish are two separate languages. And Ethnologue says that Flemish and Dutch are two different languages. Also I believe that mutual intelligibility is not good between Flemish and Dutch regional forms. Yes, Official Flemish is intelligible with Official Dutch, but those are artificial languages. The real true Flemish of regional lects has poor intelligibility with any form of Dutch. And Flemish speakers cannot understand many regional forms of Dutch.

Hell, Dutch is not even intelligible within itself, as the different Dutch lects often cannot understand each other well. It’s the same with Flemish. A number of the regional Flemish lects cannot understand each other well.

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