Dialect death

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Reports of the death of languages and the extinction of languages are alarmingly routine, but before a language dies out entirely, when it is endangered, its dialects die off one by one.

"Last native speaker of Scots dialect dies" (10/6/12)

Dialect Death:  The case of Brule Spanish (1997)

The list of publications documenting the dead and dying dialects could go on for many pages:  I lament each and every one of them.

It is in the local and regional varieties of speech that we have living and breathing language.  In the half a century that I have been studying Chinese, I have witnessed the inexorable decrease in the number of people of younger generations who can speak fluent Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, Cantonese, and all the other Sinitic topolects.  Of course, with 80,000,000 speakers and many quite distinct varieties of its own, Cantonese can hardly be classed as a mere "dialect".  This is a subject that we have discussed countless times on Language Log.

What prompted me to write on this topic today is the following NYT article by Emily Feng:

"The Disappearing Dialect at the Heart of China's Capital" (11/23/16)

There are statements in the article that make me cringe, such as this one:

According to the United Nations, nearly 100 Chinese dialects, many of them spoken by China's 55 recognized ethnic minorities, are in danger of dying out.

The two linked articles are squarely and solely about non-Sinitic languages, not "Chinese dialects", whatever may be meant by that.

When it comes to the claims made about Pekingese as a "disappearing", "vanishing" "dialect", Rebecca Starr offers these astute comments in a Facebook post:

As Wenhao Diao notes, this article doesn't mention the social reasons why some traditional Beijing dialect features are dying out, as described by Qing Zhang. Also, I find it interesting that this article claims the loss of Beijing dialect is more important than the loss of other dialects around China. From a sociolinguistic perspective, Beijing dialect is changing, it isn't dying, and the standard Putonghua it is shifting towards is minimally distinct from Beijinghua relative to other 'dialects' in China. But these receding features are so central to Beijing identity that it is interpreted as a major cultural loss.

I love Pekingese, and over the years have gathered scores of books and articles for studying it.  But I also love Shanghainese and am even more troubled by its rapidly declining presence in the great city whence it draws its name.

Perhaps, though, we should not give way to despair just yet.  While currently existing dialects and topolects may be dying out, are there not new forms of language being born — on the internet, on Twitter and Weibo, in STMs, and in constantly shifting social groups?  So long as there are multiple speakers out there talking away, there will be language variation to keep us happy and busy.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]



21 Comments

  1. leoboiko said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    If you have some broken branches, a trunk, and a few dried leaves, it's possible to estimate an approximation of what the tree looked like. But if all you have is ashes, you can't recover its shape.

    Language change and differentiation won't stop. But anyone with an interest in the history of languages will lament every dialect and language we lose, because the loss is irreversible; all the priceless data that's preserved in their very grammar, lexicon, phonology, present only in the minds of the last speakers, evaporates into thin air, forever.

  2. markonsea said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    The CNN article in your first link includes the following:

    "It is the first unique dialect to be lost in Scotland, according to Robert Millar, a reader in linguistics at the School of Language and Literature at Aberdeen University.

    " 'Usually minority dialects end up blending in with standard English to form a hybrid. However, this is a completely distinct dialect which has become extinct,' he said.

    "Cromarty fisherfolk appears to be the only descendant from the Germanic linguistic world in which no 'wh' pronunciation existed, Millar said."

    And I'm at a loss to figure out what he *actually* said (he is "quoted" without quotes, as above), seeing that Swerdish, German, Dutch and my own variety of English are unquestionably "direct descendants from the Germanic linguistic world" and equally indisputably bereft of any aspirated "wh" (or equivalent).

  3. Milan No said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    @markonsea

    The article goes on the give an example: "'What' would become 'at' and 'where' would just be 'ere'." Apparently, this dialect has deleted Old English /hw/ (maybe only word initially?). Old English /hw/ corresponds to Proto-Germanic /kʷ/. So, I guess what the article is saying is that the Comarty dialect was the only descendent of Proto-Germanic where /kʷ/ was (through intermediate steps) lost and not replaced by another element, such as /w/, as in most contemporary forms of English, or /v/, like in German.

  4. Y said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 2:49 pm

    Cockney, Brooklyn English, and San Francisco English are all on the decline as well.

  5. AntC said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    [Brule's] relative isolation from other dialects of Spanish for over two hundred years serves as a sort of linguistic "time capsule" …

    Is it true that language isolates are set in aspic? Why should language isolates not change just as much as the main language from which they've branched? Just change in different ways.

    Put that q the other way round: what is it about the larger community of speakers in mainland Spain (where there are plenty of dialects and whole other languages) that is generating language change?

  6. anders horn said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 8:46 pm

    Larger communities of speakers might change the language more rapidly than smaller communities of speakers for the same reason larger communities of creatures evolve more rapidly than smaller communities. Some ways of saying things are cooler, or more romantic, or funnier or smarter than other ways, and more people mean more new ways of saying things. In other words, different ways of saying things have different probabilities of spread, but they are limited by the size of the community of speakers.

  7. Cervantes said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 6:33 am

    Language change and differentiation won't stop. But anyone with an interest in the history of languages will lament every dialect and language we lose, because the loss is irreversible; all the priceless data that's preserved in their very grammar, lexicon, phonology, present only in the minds of the last speakers, evaporates into thin air, forever.

    On the bright side, Leonardo, it is only after everything real has evaporated into thin air, forever, that we can truly make ideal claims about it. Look at the Harappan case, for example.

  8. Rose Eneri said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    Anybody care to create a Wikipedia article about Brule Spanish?

  9. Cervantes said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 11:14 am

    I noticed that the NYT article by Emily Feng did not discuss (at least, not directly) what's happening to languages and dialects in Tibet.

  10. D.O. said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    AntC Put that q the other way round. What do you mean? p, b, or d?

  11. olguin said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

    Y is that for real – san francisco english?

  12. Y said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 4:23 pm

    olguin: lots of links here:
    http://ask.metafilter.com/232164/Its-an-honor-to-be-born-in-Sampencisco
    It's an East-Coast-sounding accent, which was supposedly common in some parts of SF in the middle of the last century. You occasionally still run into it.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

    I asked Jiajia Wang, a native of Beijing, if she represented the last generation who will speak Pekingese. Here's her reply:

    =====

    I'm definitely not the last generation of Pekingese speakers. Whether a person bears Beijing accent or not really depends on the family and the neighborhood he or she grows up. Of course, media and school teachers also play an important role in forming the new generation's accent. If a kid grows up in a Pekingese speaking family and goes to the school in the old center city neighborhoods, that kid will have a strong Beijing accent. The more non-Beijing influence (such as one of the parents doesn't speak Beijingese, or both, or the school teachers or the classmates, that's quite normal as more non-Beijingese moved to Beijing) they have, the less Beijing accent elements will be in there.

    There are some effort of Beijingese trying to preserve the accent. There are some popular video or posts about Beijing accent, making fun with the accent or showing how to speak the accent "accurately."

    However, it's hard to preserve when things and the environment are changing. Some people want to preserve a culture, while some people advocate for cross-cultural learning. Historians may have a more holistic view about the preservation of one culture and intercultural mingles in history, as we (we are more or less historians, right?) have seen/read about many peoples who showed up and then disappeared on the world history stage.

    =====

  14. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

    From Heidi Krohne:

    What startles me most about all commentary regarding loss of dialects is the total absence of references to television. I have said – for decades by now – that the advent of dialect and local inflection loss "crept in" with the onset of TV. In the beginning it was more or less socio-economical but not necessarily intellectually. But the latter followed when other electronics became part of our lives.

    I became aware of the "flattening" of dialects/inflections in about the seventies with the younger generations. By the time the older ones began fading away English had gotten a strong foothold (in Germany) while elsewhere one began hearing less and less "local" language. I think that is also when fast speaking evolved. (The youngsters of today talk so fast, I feel I can't hear that quickly!) Sadly, that is also when foul language appears to have become "popular". By the eighties I noted that even the French began "tolerating" spoken English.

    My first trip to China was in l997, when no one but taxis and some Government bosses were driving, yet 18 months later three freeways had been built in Beijing! Traffic followed rapidly as did everything else.

    Why then should it come as such a surprise that even in the hinterlands of China their languages undergo changes over time since the introduction of electronics?

    It saddens me having to admit that I have somehow forgotten the many dialects I used to be able to speak. But I have also discovered how we can acquire manners of speech by mere association and I suppose that does include TV nowadays.

    While I was working at the Dept. of Justice in Munich I did not, of course, inquire the origin of the staff there. Then I arrived in the US and beginning that first day in New York I encountered frustrating experiences. People seemed either surprised when I asked how this or that works or were very irritated with me. Trying to explain that I had just gotten off the boat, I was consistently laughed at and told by practically everyone that I couldn't fool them "because they KNEW that I was from North Carolina". Now imagine my predicament – I knew no one I could timidly ask where North Carolina was.

    I was clueless. But then, after a year in San Francisco this problem seemed to have resolved of its own accord till one day when I received a call from Washington, DC, someone from the old Munich staff. In the course of the conversation I made mention of "how come you are drawling"? The dear lady explained that she was from North Carolina, as was almost everyone else, by chance, who had been at Justice in Munich during my time.

    I did have a time while working for US forces in Germany who constantly referred to me as the British girl. So apparently in my quest to sound less British and perhaps more American, I must have just "slipped in" with my surrounding speakers. Today I can't remember if I tried how to identify speech from North Carolina.

  15. The Other Mark P said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 11:21 pm

    Perhaps, though, we should not give way to despair just yet.

    "We"?

    Most of the world consider increased ease of communication a blessing, which is why most people actively change their dialect or language, and often pay good money to make sure their children are educated to speak the most common dialect or language in their area as well as possible.

    Far from despairing, the bulk of humanity want the change. We like the ability to not have to negotiate hundreds of languages to go about our daily business.

    I know that is sad for language enthusiasts. But we don't pull down the internet because it spoils the Radio Ham people's hobby, and we don't refuse to have digital recordings because some people have a fondness for vinyl records.

  16. Kate Bunting said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 4:32 am

    I understood the title of your first link as "Last native speaker of [the] Scots dialect dies" and thought "Surely not?" It was only when I followed the link that I realised it referred to "a" Scottish dialect.

  17. Wang Yujiang said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    Language is a tool of people for communication. In contrast to language, dialect is non-mainstream language. Generally, a dialect is a language spoken in a small area.
    Dialect is associated with inconvenient and closed communication environment. With social development and traffic becoming convenience, dialect is bound to disappear because the dialect speakers are getting old and at last die, and their descendants are becoming to speak common language, which is a slow process, step-by-step process.
    Therefore, the disappearance of dialects is irreversible unless communication is restricted again.

  18. E.T. said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

    The Beijing dialect is at least well documented. I don't know if it has gotten much attention (I don't think I've seen you mention it, Prof. Mair?), but Prof. Harbsmeier called the digitalization of this audio dictionary (thousands of hours of work) perhaps his greatest contribution to Chinese cultural history and linguistics:

    "MAID was recorded during the years 1965-69 in Prague by the leading Western phonologist of Chinese, Professor Oldřich Švarný (1920-2012) of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. The informant is Madame Tang Yunling, who grew up in a purely Manchu-dominated milieu in Peking. Madame Tang is in her eighties today. She is an accomplished practitioner of the traditional Chinese art of story-telling, and in this audio-dictionary she uses her extraordinary narrative skills on the task of explaining ca. 70 000 words from the standard Chinese wordlist Xiandai Hanyu Pinyin Cihui (1963).

    University of Oslo

    Link: http://www.tekstlab.uio.no/maid/

    I can listen to this woman speak forever.

  19. Eidolon said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

    "Language is a tool of people for communication. In contrast to language, dialect is non-mainstream language. Generally, a dialect is a language spoken in a small area.
    Dialect is associated with inconvenient and closed communication environment. With social development and traffic becoming convenience, dialect is bound to disappear because the dialect speakers are getting old and at last die, and their descendants are becoming to speak common language, which is a slow process, step-by-step process.
    Therefore, the disappearance of dialects is irreversible unless communication is restricted again."

    With respect to the extinction of tongues, there is no such sharp distinction between language and dialect. Languages can be lost just as readily as dialects. What matters is the population of speakers & their socio-linguistic environment. Languages with few speakers are preserved in conditions of relative socio-linguistic isolation and/or high prestige. As soon as their speakers are integrated within larger socio-linguistic bodies, in which their own language is not so prestigious, the incentive to speak the minority language/dialect fades and the mainstream language is adopted within a few generations. Electronic communication & television, as cited above, has served simply to ensure ever larger socio-linguistic communities. Attempts at language preservation operate under the logic of increasing the prestige of the endangered language; but there's only so much you can do. Practicality triumphs over sentimentality in most cases.

    But I also question what language preservation actually entails. It's certainly not an academic linguistic preservation that we are talking about, since languages are not static formations, but living entities that change over time. Almost any language spoken today is derived an earlier language, from which it has changed quite drastically, so as to become not mutually intelligible when you go back a thousand years. That is to say, they have become two different languages, and one could accurately say that a language like Old English or Old Chinese has already become extinct, except in textbooks, even as their descendants are still alive and well. Thus language preservation is ultimately a futile exercise if we are fixated upon preserving the particularities of a specific living language today, since inevitably time will vanquish our efforts. But it could be more usefully applied academically, to capture the linguistic moment in time, as might a historian, or a photographer. Hence the task of preserving a language is ultimately the responsibility of the linguist who documents it.

    I don't know whether this should make you feel better, or worse. But it's how I see it. You can never freeze a living language in time. It is a fact that old languages die, and new languages are born. You can't force a group of speakers & their descendants to carry on with the same language forever, because as a form of communication, language must necessarily change over time. But you can preserve what they are speaking now, so that future generations can look back and see what had once existed. That, to me, is the actual task of language preservation.

  20. JJ said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

    How about idiolect death, should we be sad every time someone with a unique way of speaking dies?

  21. Chas Belov said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 3:46 am

    @Heidi Krohne: I am an accent sponge.

    I once had a neighbor from the south and by the time I was 15 minutes into a conversation with him I'd be drawling away. I made a business trip to Harrison, Arkansas once and within a couple days I was afraid they would think I was making fun of them.

    I used to see a lot of French films, so decided to take a French course. I was totally intimidated by the language, particularly the spelling, and dropped out after the first class. But during that class, the instructor complimented me on my pronunciation.

    That said, after 30 years in San Francisco, I don't believe I've picked up any accent, and people have placed me as being from New York. (I'm a Yinzer but lived for a spell in Connecticut, so perhaps New York is the average of the two.)

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