If you’ve heard that your minority language has a variety of dialects, which one should you learn? How should you respond if you hear that there are lots of dialects and that “some native speakers can’t even understand each other”? What does the “standardisation” of a language even mean? In this, the fourth post in the series on learning minority languages, let’s investigate!
What is linguistic standardisation?
A language, they say, is a dialect with an army and a navy. In other words, at some point in history, the guy with the biggest stick has often imposed and promoted his dialect and everybody within a territory accepts that as the “standard” form of the language.
The standardisation process often takes place in stages over several centuries.
The dialect of a particular area may become regarded as the most desirable in a relatively informal way, as, from the fifteenth, with the English spoken in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle. In the seventeenth century the Académie Française started publishing its famous French dictionary which contributed so much to the standardisation of French. Luther’s German bible helped to cement a standard literary form. Pushkin’s language is often said to have done something similar for Russian.
In many states, the process really got going big time among the wider population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the advent of universal compulsory education which aggressively promoted a standard form of the “national language” to whole populations. Mass literacy enabled the development of a popular mass print media and people got used to understanding the standard form to discuss a wide range of fields. In the twentieth century broadcasting intensified the spread of standard forms.
These changes were often intertwined with linguistic modernisation, for example introducing new terms to cover areas such as science and technology. There were sometimes thoroughgoing official drives to “purify” the language of foreign influences (as seen for example Czech or Turkish where German or Arabic words were replaced with new “native” coinages).
Standardisation is never complete. In Germany or Italy, for example, local dialects such as Swabian or Saxon, Neapolitan or Venetian have often remained strong. In China as well there is still huge dialectical diversity within Mandarin (plus completely different Chinese languages, often – confusingly – referred to as “dialects”).
Even if local varieties decline, new varieties can emerge, such forms of English that have developed among ethnic minority communities. Many modern societies have youth subcultures with their own slang or non-standard forms.
Still, regardless of such diversity, as a potential German, Italian, Mandarin or English learner, you have a clear steer as to what, exactly, you’re trying to learn. With Portuguese for example, the only question you’ll face will be whether to focus on Brazilian or European “standard” versions of Portuguese (or both).
With majority languages, learner materials will usually be in the standard form, even if they try to reflect different registers.
You can expect knowledge of the form to be widespread and its use expected.
If you’re learning a less standardised “lesser used” minority or indigenous language, though, things could be a bit more complicated.
Different degrees of standardisation
In the case of lesser used or endangered languages, this standardisation may have happened only partially or not at all. After all, by definition, the language has not managed to become established as the dominant official language of a state, with all the advantages for its use that this implies.
Let’s look at a few examples of what you might find along what we could call the spectrum of standardisation.
Welsh has been a written literary language. Standard form captured in the 1588 translation of the Bible and explosion in Welsh publishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Wales had (in Welsh) the highest levels of popular literacy anywhere in the world at that time, thanks to the work of the non-conformist Christian sects. Secular use of the standard literary language widened in the nineteenth century and twentieth century with a mass print media. In the twentieth century (especially in the second half) some use of the language in radio and television also helped as did some use of the language in the education system, especially the growth of Welsh-medium schooling.
In Brittany, in contrast, there were never such standardising forces and the language remained more an expression of local, village identity. Standardisation was a more marginal project of intellectuals and the French state was (and remains) pretty hostile.
In contrast to Welsh or, still more, Breton, other European standardisation attempts had spectacular success because the political stars aligned for a push to introduce mass education in the language before linguistic shift in favour the previously dominant language. Czech became the dominant language in the Czech lands despite German’s previously more privileged position. In Finland, Finnish triumphed over Swedish, Icelandic managed the same over Danish, Slovaks did it despite Hungarian and German and standard forms of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian triumphed in the Baltic states despite Russian’s previous superior status.
In Ireland, Wales, Brittany, most speakers have have already mastered the official lingua franca before the “native” languages made much headway in the education system and English or French which opens wider doors and were hugely prestigious and powerful, conferring social status, economic advantage and, later, access to new mass entertainment, including very attractive youth subcultures.
Irish standardisation was promoted by the Irish Free State beginning in the 1920s but, again, only after English was firmly established as the main spoken language of the mass of the population.
Standardisation has also come late to Basque. There are five historic dialects but in the “Euskara Batua” (Unified Basque) was developed in the 1970s. Basque was still strong on the ground in some areas but a wide knowledge of Spanish or French was already firmly established.
In the Basque Autonomous Region, the standardised form has been much more energetically promoted than Welsh in Wales or Irish in the Republic of Ireland (in Northern Ireland, the Irish language is still dramatically discriminated against and current attempt to change that are vigorously resisted by some Unionist knuckle-draggers).
In comparison with Welsh or Irish, standard Basque is much more used in administration, education (at all levels) within the Basque Autonomous Region and the language is also more used in the press and broadcasting (both accessible throughout the Basque Country). There’s wide popular acceptance of the new standard for but it has not displaced local spoken in daily use (outside official contexts)
Some languages may not have a standard form at all but clearly demarcated dialects, for example Dakota.
As you inform yourself, it may turn out that your new language is actually several. Sámi (Lapp), for example, spoken in an arc across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia is often referred to as one language but is actually (depending on classification) at least ten related languages. Apache is another example of a blanket name for several separate (though closely related languages). In New Zealand, Maori has dialects but the differences are not great and they are easily mutually-intelligible.
It’s best find out the story of the standardisation of your language early, before you start acquiring materials or even learning a version that for your needs, turns out to be the wrong one!
Inform yourself about variety within your language
How do you find out? Read up about the situation regarding your target language.
Talk to teachers and other learners as much as you can.
In any case, you’re going to want to get talking to native speakers as much as you can but remember that native speakers aren’t always reliable witnesses. The extent of the differences between dialects can become exaggerated in their imaginations because they are not used to using the language with people from other parts of the country. Their subjective beliefs are themselves an important element of the picture, of course, but they could probably often make themselves understood from context or by paraphrasing if they really had to. The point is, though, that English (or French or whatever the dominant lingo is) is an available, more prestigious and more appropriate for use with strangers even from their own linguistic group.
Be aware too that those out to denigrate minority languages often take great delight in stressing (or exaggerating) dialectical differences within the minority community, in order to promote the majority language. They may even be unaware that their own dominant language has gone through a standardisation process itself and just assume that it is inherently superior.
Availability and choice of materials and different versions of your minority language
The materials available may influence your choice of what form to learn.
You certainly need to be aware of the range that there may be out there before you choose a textbook.
In my experience of Welsh, it’s only older textbooks (1950s or before) that teach “high” standard literary Welsh. Modern courses (print, online, classes) teach a more colloquial register. There was even an attempt to promote a simplified new standard for learners more closely modelled on the spoken language, though this is now
Teaching materials also try to teach the differences between regions of Wales.
The Welsh Joint Education Committee produces a “South Wales” and a “North Wales” version of its standard textbook series (Cwrs Mynediad, Cwrs Sylfaen and Cwrs Canolradd), for example. This north/south division is somewhat arbitrary (as it ignores varieties within “the North” and “the South”. In the Welsh case, to repeat, the differences aren’t that great in any case.
In Basque, the Bakarka textbook series that I use is available with Spanish or French as the language of instruction and there are orthographic and vocabulary differences to reflect some usage differences between the northern Basque Country (the provinces in the French state) and the south (the provinces within the Spanish state). The grammar is Batua, though. The Assimil Basque course teaches Batua but has some detail of common alternatives found in the French provinces.
Alan King’s The Basque Language and Alan King and Begotxu Olaizola Elordi’s Colloquial Basque both introduce some of the dialectical varieties of the language).
When I attended a Basque residential course at the Maizpide school in Lazkao, Batua was taught but they did include the second person singular forms ( known as “hika”). These exist in standard Batua but are not commonly used in the standard language and in many dialects. They are however used in the language as it’s spoken by the large native-speaker population in the area where the school is situated.
Why are you learning? Who do you want to speak with?
As yourself why you are learning a minority, lessor-used or indigenous language.
In particular, if you already know people you want to use the language with, it makes a lot of sense to learn their version of the language. In areas where Basque is strong, learners often learn the official standard form but try get used the more colloquial spoken version (often called the “street” version) used in their locality in less official contexts, as well.
Enjoy the diversity….enriching not frustrating!
If your materials, classes are only available in a different form from the one you want to learn, don’t panic. Talk to your teacher and other learners.
Dialectical differences notwithstanding, there will still probably be a very great deal of overlap.
Ask native speakers whether they’d say something as presented in your textbook.
Rather than regarding varieties of the language as a frustrating complication, you can ask them to point out the differences and use such interactions as a talking point, a way to get active with the language and start noticing its richness and variety.
In short: learn about the differences and be aware of what forms are presented in potential materials be aware of what form of languages materials. Think about what you are learning the language for.
If you want to speak, make sure you are learning as much as possible what’s spoken by the people you actually want to speak.
It doesn’t mean you can learn other registers as well…and you’ll probably find the minority language dialects and other differences aren’t as insurmountable as you might be led to believe.