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languages vs dialects

Poster: Christoph Hintze <chhintze@bmd.clis.com>

Linguistically speaking, dialects are mutually intelligible, and languages
aren't.  This means that speakers of different dialects can understand each
other, while speakers of different languages can't.

For instance, at one time Spanish was a dialect of Latin.  Over time, it
became so distince that speakers of one couldn't understand speakers of
another and today they are separate languages.

But then you have weird cases - for instance, speakers of Portugese can
understand speakers of Spanish, but speakers of Spanish can't understand the
Portugese speakers.  And  Chinese - they have several "dialects", and they
all use the same written symbols.  But ask a speaker of Mandarin Chinese to
talk to a speaker of Cantonese Chinese, and they won't be able to communicate.

Throw into that pidgens and creoles.  A pidgen is basically a shorthand
communication used by (multiple) speakers of different languages for trade,
etc - pidgen English used by traders in the Pacific Islands.  It's not
really a language, because it doesn't have a full vocabulary, grammar*, etc.
No one speaks it as a first language.  But let the two groups go on
interacting and having kids, and the pidgen turns into a creole, which
actually is a languange with a full set of grammar, etc.  

(*Grammar, in this case, refers to descriptive grammar, or what people
actually do, rather than prescriptive grammar, which says what people "ought
to" do.  For instance, in descriptive grammar, you might be able to say, "I
gone to the store" and have it be acceptable to speakers of your dialect.)

My recollection is that Black English is a creole developed out of a pidgen
used by slaves to communicate, since there were so many different African
languages thrown together and expected to learn to understand English in a
hurry.  I don't remember if it's now considerred (linguistically speaking) a
dialect or a separate language from standard English - my guess is, it
depends on which linguist you talk to.

Personally, I feel that as communication becomes quicker and quicker and
more and more important, we're going to find a lot fewer languages/dialects,
which will change more and more rapidly.  Anyone who can't communicate in
the standard dialect will find him/herself on the outside looking in.  What
that means for Black English and what that will do to it, I don't know.  I
bet that in part it will depend on whether social conditions allow
low-income blacks to participate in that high-tech communication thing.  I
bet a lot of science-fiction authors could give you some interesting
predictions . . . .

I realize this is a digression, but it does sorta deal with historically
pertinant topics.  Someone hand me another mug of beer.

Lady Katriona of NorthWoods
Seneschal, Shire of Cathanar and 
B.A. in Linguistics

P.S.  With regard to teaching our schoolkids the grammar our grandparents
learned:  even the rules for prescriptive grammar do change over time.  I
bet your grandfather's English teacher would tell you one shouldn't use
contractions in business English.  I bet your English teacher today
wouldn't.  I bet your grandmother and your English teacher would have
different opinions on the use of "one shouldn't" vs. "you shouldn't".

Hmm.  You can already see new words forming out of acronyms on the Internet
- BTW, IMHO, YIS, and so on.  Won't it be interesting to watch the
development of "Electronic English"?

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