What is a language?

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What is a language?


Some people say ‘a language is a dialect with an army and a navy’. And this is almost true. But linguists cannot say exactly how many languages there are, because they can’t agree what a language is. Some even say that there are no languages at all – just many thousands of dialects. A few became more important than the others, by chance or design, and they became the standard. And linguists say that every language that exists today came from the same language that people started speaking 150,000 years ago.

But if all languages are equal in theory, in practice some are more equal than others. People think that dialects, creoles and patois (see below for explanation) are not so important. Countries usually believe that they need a national language to be different from their neighbour countries, but sometimes these national languages are simply different dialects of one language. For example, we could say that Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, are one single Scandinavian language; Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian are dialects of Serbo-Croat; Hindi and Urdu are almost the same language, and so are Macedonian and Bulgarian or Moldovan and Romanian.

A dialect is a different version of what people think is the ‘standard’ language. It is not too different so people who speak the standard and other dialects can all understand it. 1,000 years ago, French, Italian and Spanish were dialects of Latin. They slowly became separate languages so the groups could not understand each other.

A patois is also a non-standard variety of a language. But it is usually has a negative meaning. It comes from the Old French word ‘patois’ – this used to mean ‘rough, clumsy or uneducated speech’.

A pidgin is a simple, basic way of communicating. ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ communicates the message, but does not worry about grammar. Lots of pidgins (or ‘lingua francas’) were created because of trade, exploration and fighting to control other countries. They do not often last very long, but they can develop into creoles.

A creole is created when a pidgin has a systematic grammar and vocabulary. Then it can become a first language for the next generations, who develop it more. There are many creoles in the Caribbean, from the slave trade. And there are about 60 in the world, eg. Singlish in Singapore; Seselwa in the Seychelles; and Chavacano in the Philippines.

And sign language? There are at least 121 different sign languages and the smaller ones are endangered like other spoken minority languages. Sometimes in the past, people have made them illegal eg. they banned British sign language in the 1880s, and forced deaf people to lip-read instead. Many countries do not officially recognize or protect their sign language(s). Sign language users develop their own dialects and varieties; young deaf people invent sign-language slang and new words just like young people who can hear.

Websites for more information:

The Foundation for Endangered Languages: http://ogmios.org/

Creative Spirits: http://firstvoices.com/en/home

Minority Rights Group: http://www.minorityrights.org/

Indigenous Australia: http://www.indigenousaustralia.info/

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL (and a lot more about endangered languages): http://newint.org/features/2014/06/01/keynote-minority-languages/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).