What is this blog?

"Words and sounds carry histories with them. Not only their own histories, but those of people who have uttered those words."- Me aka Yash.
I pay attention to people speaking. Their choice of words, their choice of pronunciation. And whenever I do hear something which I do not use, I feel obliged to attribute this different choice of words or sounds to history.

This blog is a linguistic record of my world, the sounds I hear and the letters I read, from all the languages I come across.

PS: I am a high school student, and not a linguist, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Tongue of the Gods

Today, I am going to be speaking about the relation that language and religion share with each other. Religion  has been a defining aspect of most cultures of the world. I have highlighted, time and time again, how language impacts and is impacted by culture. Hence, it is only logical that religion impacts language, and language impacts religion.

One thing that religion does to languages is that it may uplift the status of a certain language. Every religion has a language which it considers its 'holy language'. Usually, this language is the mother tongue of the original followers of the religion.Gradually, as the religion spreads to new people, the language, even though not the mother tongue of its new followers, becomes one of high status and prestige among them.

Consider for example, Islam and Hinduism. Hinduism's prestige language was/is Sanskrit. The Rig Veda was composed in Sanskrit, the Indo-Aryans, the original followers of Hinduism spoke Sanskrit. When the Aryans settled in the Indian subcontinent, they met with a lot of other people including the Dravidians, who spoke the languages from which the modern South Indian languages are derived. Sanskrit spread through the subcontinent, along with Hinduism. The result is that today, even millennia after it ceased to be spoken, Sanskrit is considered by many in India, including in South India to be the most prestigious and most refined language.

Similarly, the first Muslims spoke Arabic. As Islam spread in North Africa, Persia and then into India, so did Arabic. Arabic is the language Muslims recite the Koran/Quran in. Infact, in North Africa, Arabic has even become the lingua franca. Towards the east of Arabia , Persian still remains the lingua franca in Iran, but Arabic still retains its status as the language of Islam.

It is not always necessary that the holy language is the language of the first followers of the religion. For example, the first Christians spoke Hebrew. But the holy language of the largest denomination of Christianity, Roman Catholicism is not Hebrew, but Latin. The Roman is our clue. The religion made its way to Rome, and Rome propagated its brand of Christianity along with its language of that time, Latin. Thus, Latin became the prestige language for most of Western Europe. Even English, which does not have roots in Latin is full of words with Latin etymologies.

If a culture accepts another language as its prestige language, it does not automatically imply that it abandons its own language. Persian and Tamil are two languages which come to my mind, which despite not being the holy languages of the religions their speakers follow, which have a very rich literature.

It is not always true that people modify their languages to suit their religion. Sometimes, religions need to cater to the people and change their languages to suit their followers. The most prominent example of this, that I am aware of is Buddhism and Jainism. Obviously, they are separate religions now, but originally, they rose as sects of Hinduism, with the primary purpose of countering the Brahman domination of mainstream Hinduism. They opposed the Vedas, preached atheism/agnosticism, among other things. What is of importance to us, however, is that they opposed the preaching of religious sermons in Sanskrit, a language, which by that time, common people did not understand. They began preaching in the Prakrits, the common languages of the people. Thus, Buddhism and Jainism are examples of how religions adapt according to languages.

Even in the previous example I used, Christianity, first adapted itself to Rome, by switching to Latin, and then those who converted to Christianity after Rome, adapted themselves to accept Latin as the tongue of their God.

On, that note, I will conclude this post by saying that I believe languages and religion have a two-way relation, where one impacts the other and vice versa. The people revere the tongue of their gods and the gods learn to speak in the tongue of the people. Obviously, the two don't happen simultaneously, but one after the other. 

And now, I have a question for you: do you hold the language associated with religion in your culture in higher regard than your daily speech? For what reasons? Let me know in you comments. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Is it a dialect, is it a language?

There was a time when I heard someone I knew describing all Indian languages to someone of non-Indian origin as 'dialects of Hindi'. Ironically, this person was not even a Hindi speaker. Anyway, I thought his remark was rather ignorant, considering that I've been taught there are multiple languages spoken in India, and that there is no standard Indian language, of which other languages are mere dialects.

But lately, I have been questioning that assumption. That is not to imply that I am saying one language is India's standard language and the others are not worthy of being called languages. But rather, can languages/ dialects so close to each other really be separated out?

The actual question here is how we define dialect, as separate from language. A Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich popularised a saying which goes along the lines of: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. I think what Weinreich wanted to say was that whether something is a language or a dialect is not determined by the language/dialect itself but rather by political conditions. If a dialect has an 'army or navy', i.e. if its speakers have the political power to present it as a language, rather than a dialect, then a language it is. The whole process seems kind of arbitrary.

Consider for example, the various dialects of Hindi. The whole idea of placing a bunch of dialects under the label of Hindi is rather weird. This is especially if you consider that Standard Hindi and Punjabi, which are separate languages resemble each other more than Standard Hindi and eastern dialects of Hindi do. At one point of time, a language called Maithili was classified as a dialect of Hindi, even though linguistically it was much closer to Bengali than to Standard Hindi. Eventually, Maithili was recognized as a separate language, and not as a dialect of Hindi and was added to the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

The whole process seems random at times. If someone demands a language status for their mother tongue, and the conditions are favourable, then perhaps the mother tongue can be classified as a language. Let us try to make a little sense out of this mess.

One important factor which determines the difference between a language and a dialect is politics. The politics of identity, of nationalities, and other such things. For example, consider Serbian and Croatian. Both are almost the same language, or dialects of the same language at the most. Yet, because of the fact that different cultures associate themselves with that/those language(s), and that they want to highlight their difference from each other, Serbian and Croatian are two separate languages. Just a little disclaimer: I am not very informed about Slavic culture or politics, so I sincerely apologize if I have made any ignorant or uninformed comments.

To me, the above example doesn't seem very strange because I have seen something similar close to home: India speaks Hindi, Pakistan speaks Urdu. (India also speaks Urdu in places such as Hyderabad and Kashmir) Aside from their scripts, which is a matter of convention, they are virtually the same language. If they differ, it's in their educated vocabulary- maybe, Hindi and Urdu are dialects of the greater Hindi-Urdu language, or maybe they are the exact same thing. We don't know-but what we do know is that same language has been divided into two by political divisions.

But sometimes, politics works the other way to unite multiple mother tongues into a single language. In China, there is a multitude of languages spoken (the Mandarin dialect being only one of them), but all of them are classified as Chinese dialects, even though there are various dialects which are mutually unintelligible i.e. speakers of one tongue don't understand the other. Yet, everything is counted as Chinese. Why? Because the idea that the whole nation shares a single language promotes the idea of national solidarity.

Politics however is not the only factor in classification. One other factor is the amount of literature the language has. In a previously mentioned example regarding Hindi, the belt of dialects extends to, but does not include Bengali. Why is Bengali not a dialect of Hindi, but languages in its neighbourhood, which resemble it more closely than they resemble Standard Hindi, are? There could be multiple reasons, but one factor is the wealth of literature that Bengali possesses. Its literature calls for its classification as a separate language.

But if literature is a deciding factor, what about the dialects of Hindi- Awadhi or Braj? Much of the initial literature in Hindi was written in these dialects. But, as time passed on, the importance shifted from Braj and Awadhi to Khari Boli, which forms today's Standard dialect. So, why did Awadhi and Braj, despite their vast literature cease to be languages in their own right? I believe the answer lies in the history of these languages. An accurate answer would involve a historical analysis, but the point I was trying to make is that literature is not a make-or-break point in a dialect's quest to become language.

At the end of it, I am still not convinced that the classification of mother tongues as languages or dialects is not arbitrary. So there isn't much hope that I have managed to convince you of the same either. But what I think I have managed to do is to add a little bit of sense to this arbitrary process. There isn't an exact answer, there are a lot of answers, and all I have done is given you some of them. So tell me, what do you think determines if a mother tongue is a language or dialect?


Friday, 1 March 2013

Why languages change over time? Because of YOU!

In my previous posts, you might have noticed that there was a lot of mention of words and sounds of a language changing over time. In this post, my goal is to make you believe, that in this very day, probably at this very moment, you are responsible for changing languages. When you change the words and sounds of a language enough, you create a new language.

For example, take a look back to the previous paragraph. Read it aloud. Are you sure you've read it? Now tell me how did you pronounce 'probably'? If you are like most of the English speakers I've come across, you said prob'ly, omitting one 'b'. Even if you did pronounce both the b's, which is quite possible, you must definitely have heard people say the word with only one 'b'. (Even if I did not convince you with this example, there are more of them to come, so don't quit reading yet.)

So you say, "Okay, fine, some people pronounce probably with one less b. Big deal!." YES, big deal. And I'll tell you why. Think of it like this. There is a pronunciation rule which says that when two labial stops (or simply put: b, p- don't let the word labial frighten you) occur one after the other, the second one is omitted. This change does not happen in all places,only in certain places, determined by more complex rules. But why is it a big deal? Because if this sound changes persists for long enough, it will be responsible for making new words out of existing English ones, thus changing English to another language, which after some time will not be comprehensible for English speakers. Don't believe me? I'll give you proof. This change has already been documented in a language change. From Sanskrit to Hindi. Here goes:

'Pipaasha' is the Sanskrit word for thirst. 'Pipaasha' leads to 'Pipaasa'; 'sh' changing to 's' is not a very uncommon change: a lot of Hindi speakers pronounce 'sh' as 's'. So we get 'Pipaasa'. And now comes our master rule. The one we derived from probably-prob'ly. Elimination of labial stop (p,b) when there are two of those occurring next to each other. Thus, 'Pipaasa' becomes 'Piasa', which ultimately was standardized as 'Pyaas'. Voila! 'Pyaas' is Hindi for thirst. There you go. First evidence that a change you make while speaking can be responsible for a new language coming up.

As I promised, there'll be more evidence. So I am going to show a second example. This example is also about sound changes. But before we go to that let me tell you that there is a group of consonants called the palatals ('ch', and 'j' for example) and coronals ('t' and 'd' for example). Now tell me, have you heard people say, 'Whachoo doing?' when they mean to say, 'What you doing?' (Grammatically: What are you doing?). Here the 't' of 'what' is linked to the 'y' of 'you to give 'ch'. If we generalize this, we can say: coronal + y = palatal.

Once again, we will be applying this sound change in English, which you are responsible for, to the transition of Sanskrit to Hindi. Truth 'Satya' has t + y, which is a coronal + y, which would give us 'ch' in its place. We'll get 'Sacha'- the Hindi for truth.

Obviously, one or two changes do not create new languages. From the birth of human language, thousands of such changes must have occurred which made different languages so diverse. But my purpose was to show you the process on a small scale, and let you imagine it on a larger scale. Thus, at this very moment, we are making changes which have defined new languages in the past, and are very capable of creating new ones in the future.

So, now that we have agreed that you and I are capable of changing languages, think of this process on a larger scale. Through all the millennia of human existence, of the billions and billions of people that have ever lived, each one of them has contributed bit by bit to the process of language change. The result is that there was one time where our ancestors began communicating using simple sounds, and now we have at least 6000 different human languages in existence. I think you can take a little credit for that.