Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Literacy and language stability

From E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s Cultural Literacy.

If you drive in the French Riviera and stop at the town of Menton, you can find small children speaking rapidly in excellent French. Their easy mastery of French grammar and pronunciation will seem charming and enviable. If you then drive east from Menton for just a few minutes and pass over a line painted across the road, you will come to the town of Ventimiglia. There you can find small children speaking charming, enviable Italian. To the children on both sides of the painted line, and perhaps to you, it all seems quite normal: the easy mastery of French or Italian, the arbitrariness of the border, and the fact that the painted line determines which language the children speak. We have come to accept such arrangements as being natural, but from a linguistic point of view they are not. French and Italian, as well as English and all the other national languages, were just as consciously and politically constructed as the national borders that separate them. These standardized national languages were fixed in essentially their present forms by seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and (in some countries) nineteenth-century language normalizers who made their decisions, more often than not, at the direction of a central national government. National languages and national borders are codependent artifices. Taken together they have generated one of the most important features of the modern world - the huge, linguistically homogeneous populations of the industrial nations.

That small children should speak Hungarian inside the borders of Hungary (or Polish inside the borders of Poland), and that the language spoken in one place in Hungary should be the same as that spoken in another, is a situation that can exist with such precision only because it is carefully sustained by the Hungarian system of education. Inside a national border, education helps to keep the national languages stable by holding it to standards that are set forth in national dictionaries, spelling books, pronunciation guides, and grammars. In the modern world we therefore find linguistic diversity among the nations but, with a few exceptions, linguistic uniformity inside the nations. This pattern did not arise by chance; it is a self-conscious political and educational arrangement.

Consider the languages of Europe in their natural earlier state, before they were standardized into national literary languages. In the Middle Ages it often happened that only closely neighboring dialects were dependably intelligible to one another. If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying. A dialect map for the fourteenth century would show isoglosses marking off domains of mutual unintelligibility between speakers. No linguistic lines were painted across the road; the shifting linguistic borders could be drawn differently, depending on which dialect was used as a base. What's more, these languages changed radically over time. A fourteenth-century Rip Van Winkle waking form a sleep of a hundred - rather than twenty - years might find it hard to understand the speech of his children's grandchildren. The natural law of oral languages is constant change, but that law has been amended by the development of national written languages sustained by national systems of education.

A little more than a hundred years ago, in the 1870's, Henry Sweet, the distinguished linguist who was the model for Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, predicted that in a hundred years the English, Australians, and Americans would be speaking mutually incomprehensible languages because of their great distance and isolation from each other. Sweet was one of the most knowledgeable linguists of his day, and his prediction was one that other scholars of the time would have agreed with. Up to Sweet's time, languages had followed the universal law of constant change. Whenever people who spoke the same oral dialect divided from each other geographically, their languages also came to diverge. That is why, judging by previous linguistic history, Sweet's prediction seemed sound. Before the spread of literacy in the nineteenth century, speakers had neither an external standard nor an internal gyroscope to keep their languages stable. Thus, in the eighteenth century Alexander Pope wrote:

Our sons their fathers' failing language see,

And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.

But Pope and Sweet were wrong. We not only understand the British and Australians today and they us, but we are able to read Pope and Dryden, and most American schoolchildren can read Gulliver's Travels by Pope's contemporary Jonathan Swift. The modern English language has turned out to be far more stable than anyone in those days could have predicted. The same has been true of other European languages.

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