29 November 2010

Linguistic Engineering

Sometimes languages change not through "natural" evolution or linguistic borrowing, but through intentional change.

For example, yesterday, the Royal Spanish Academy decided, in collaboration with twenty-one other comparable bodies in other countries (including one in the United States) and following earlier reforms adopted less broadly in 1994 and 1999, to reform Spanish spelling most notably this has been described as removing two of the twenty-nine letters of the alphabet ("ch" and "ll") (a change that most affects how Spanish language documents are placed in alphabetical order, not the letters actually in the word), although this is probably due to inaccurate reporting of an event that took place in 1994, and by simplifying accent marks (more detail is available here with commentary in this blog).

The impulse to consciously reform languages is not new. One episode of this in the 19th century in Europe that I came across recently in an academic journal article was unfamiliar to me.

Both Slovene and Romanian, being heavily influenced by neighbouring languages, underwent a process of linguistic revival starting from the early 19th century, in which the original traits that had been lost during long periods of contact were artificially reintroduced into the languages by the speakers in order to bring them back to a stage of earlier ‘purity'. Before the 19th century, Slovene comprised several dialects spoken in the Alpine provinces of the Austrian Empire, which were dominated by German and Italian. Romanian, on the other hand, was heavily influenced by neighbouring Slavic and Greek varieties, with which it formed the so-called Balkan Sprachbund. Along with the nationalist movements in Europe starting from the end of the 18th century, both languages were successively ‘purified’ by replacing the loanwords of non-Slavic or non-Romance origin with ‘native’ words from Slavic or Romance languages, respectively.


Maju said...

Well Spanish language has one of the oldest official academies in the World and it's long established that it dictates the norms (according to their best erudite understanding and pragmatism) that are to be used in proper written Spanish (and even pronunciation to some extent, though less so nowadays). This surely has helped prevent a disconnection between written and spoken language.

It's not really important: just a reference to consider: when in doubt you consider what's the stand of the Academy. You do not have to agree with everything but some things like alphabetical order or usage of accents are handy.

Totally unrelated, I suspect you may enjoy this "reconstruction" of "real" USA geography based on money flows: http://blogs.plos.org/everyone/2010/11/29/worth-a-thousand-words-32/

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Cute map. The biggest surprises to me are the strengths of the divides between Oklahoma and Texas, and between New England and New York City. Most of the rest of the lines are about what you would expect if your familiar with the areas.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Incidentally, the probably closest thing to the academies in the U.S. are newspaper style guides (particularly the Associate Press), and academic style guides (the University of Chicago, the Modern Language Association and the "Blue Book" for lawyers are the most prominent).

Maju said...

I'm not really that familiar but I imagined it could interest you. I'm maybe a bit familiar with parts of Virginia (for example I recall being mentioned that border counties by the South were more North Carolina than Virginia in practical terms and I can imagine easily a Lynchburg-centered area over there, as well as the Norfolk one.

As for academies, they seem a Latin/Jacobin concept, like military police corps, the inquisitorial justice system, overtly centralized states and such. The French at least also have their academy and, with such influences, we Basques do too - not always for good.