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What's the history of 'standard forms' of languages?
May 14, 2006 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Linguists: What's the history of 'standard forms' of languages?

Despite the various dialects inherent to every language, there is invariably one kind that is known as the 'standard' or 'default.' I know it usually has something to do with a particular area being the cultural and political epicenter of a society (I believe that's what happened with Japan, no? Edo being the capital at one point? I should knows this, sheesh), but what are some specific cases?

Another example is, say, French. I seem to remember that France at one point in time was extremely divided and had many 'warring' dialects vying to be the standard, or something. I guess a related topic could be "language reforms--" how, why, successes and failures?

I'm hoping to hear some interesting anecdotes here, and hopefully hit on at least a few of the "major" languages.
posted by Lockeownzj00 to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Germany, not being united as a country until the 19th Century, derived its standard dialect from Martin Luther's bible. At least that's the story, and it's a bit different from the standard (which is, as you mentioned, that standard dialects develop from the seat of political power).
posted by dagnyscott at 7:19 AM on May 14, 2006


You've pretty much got it, I think. In some cases, when scholars are on the march, there's also an aspect of which historical era or dead language is in fashion for the people advocating the standard. Two opposing examples: "standard" Hindi privileges Sanskrit bases over loanwords, while "standard" English generally fetishizes Latin loanwords over native Germanic roots.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:22 AM on May 14, 2006


You can research the modern history of "chinese", in which the central government has tried with some but not at all total success to standardize on a single national language, choosing, naturally, the language spoken by people in Beijing.

In that link, be sure to click through to the impressive chinese language tree.
posted by jellicle at 7:31 AM on May 14, 2006


Just as one example agreeing with your thesis there, my first Arabic teacher told me that the spread of Egyptian Arabic was largely due to recorded music - made in Egypt, spread to the rest of the Middle East. (He might have said something about newspapers too, but this was almost 10 years ago now.)
posted by cobaltnine at 7:32 AM on May 14, 2006


I seem to remember that France at one point in time was extremely divided and had many 'warring' dialects vying to be the standard, or something.

Well, the name 'Languedoc' refers very precisely to such things, since the dialects of southern France used oc for 'yes', while those of the north used oïl. The Parisian form of the latter eventually became the basis of standard French: that's a consequence of political centralisation.

Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, which goes back to the literary influence of renaissance Florence. There was a movement to 'Tuscanise' Italian during the process of unification, spurred on by the Florentine Accademia della Crusca, but the resulting standard is slightly more hybrid, reflecting the process by which regions were incorporated into the united country. (The biggest hold-outs are the islands: the Sicilian dialect is very distinctive, and Sardo is a distinct language.)

Oh, and the standardisation of English around the London dialect came about (in a loose sense) because an entirely different language -- Norman French -- became the language of state with the conquest in 1066.
posted by holgate at 8:14 AM on May 14, 2006


When you say "standard" and "default," do you mean the way ought to talk, or they way they talk talk? If that makes any sense at all. If it's the former case, you might want to check out information on RP.
posted by bjork24 at 9:14 AM on May 14, 2006


Oh, and the standardisation of English around the London dialect came about (in a loose sense) because an entirely different language -- Norman French -- became the language of state with the conquest in 1066.

My (admittedly incomplete) understanding is that what we call "Standard English" comes from a triangular area bounded by London, Cambridge and Oxford, due to the influence and power of people who lived in and traveled between those cities.
posted by maxreax at 9:31 AM on May 14, 2006


Many countries have government committees that dictate the official standard of language. Grammatical rules, evolved spelling, and new jargon are examples of issues that they govern. There are many benefits to this, but sometimes conflicts arise which border on the inane. E.g. the protracted effort in Quebec to come up with the word "couriel", equivalent to "email".
posted by randomstriker at 10:55 AM on May 14, 2006


there is invariably one kind that is known as the 'standard'

No there isn't. This is true only when the language is the vehicle of a national culture and there is a governmental push towards standardization (the Jacobins in France are the classic example). There was no standard form of Ancient Greek, for example, and there is no standard form of Irish today (there is an official grammar, but the people who actually speak Irish use one of the dialects, none of which is predominant over the others). Kurdish not only has no standard, it has mutually incomprehensible forms. If there's ever an independent Kurdistan, it will presumably pick a dialect as a basis of Standard Kurdish and life will be a lot easier for people who want to learn the language.

the spread of Egyptian Arabic was largely due to recorded music

And now movies and TV, but it's really irrelevant to this discussion, because in no sense is Egyptian Arabic a standard for the Arabic-speaking world. The only standard is Classical Arabic, the kind used in the Koran (with modifications to deal with the modern world).

Many countries have government committees that dictate the official standard of language.

They can lead, but they can't make people follow. The "official standard" is a dead letter when it contradicts how the users of the language actually use it. An extreme example of this is Greece, where conservative governments tried more and more hysterically to impose the archaic "katharevousa" form of Greek, based on the ancient language, during the Cold War going so far as equating support for "dhimotiki" (the colloquial language everyone spoke) with support for Communism. Nothing worked; when they got rid of the Colonels they got rid of the language laws, and people began writing pretty much as they spoke. The legacy is a layer of formal words and phrases that are frozen into certain contexts; an ordinary white house is an aspro spiti, for example, but the White House is the Lefkos Ikos (two classical words).
posted by languagehat at 12:05 PM on May 14, 2006


While you make interesting points, languagehat, nothing you say contradicts my question. What you are talking about in the first paragraph (national culture, government pushing) is exactly what I was talking about. I realise there are always dialects. How could I not? I study 4 languages. I know. I was simply asking how, for example, Mandarin came to be the standard and not Cantonese.

When you say "standard" and "default," do you mean the way ought to talk, or they way they talk talk?

I'm not a missionary. I don't think people 'ought' to talk in the mainstream language at all. By default, I mean what is spoken on TV, what is taught to foreigners, etc. For example--despite Japan's hundreds of dialects, TV is mostly in Kanto-ben, and that is what you learn primarily as a foreigner.

Anyway, thanks for the answers so far.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 12:27 PM on May 14, 2006


Two other examples: New Zealand Standard Maori is an artificial composite derived from a consensus of (mostly non-Maori) scholars and the missionaries who preceded them. Standard Yiddish is likewise a compromise worked out by intellectuals in the early 20th century. Neither is the same as any dialect actually spoken by native speakers, and the only power and influence involved is the intellectual prestige and administrative clout of fairly small set of academics.

Possibily significantly, neither of these languages has a political centre anywhere where it is the dominant tongue.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:29 PM on May 14, 2006


nothing you say contradicts my question

I wasn't trying to contradict your question; sorry if it came across that way. I was just trying to provide some helpful information.
posted by languagehat at 3:01 PM on May 14, 2006


Not exactly sure what you're looking for, but here's another example -- Korean has quite significant regional variation as well, even in such a small country. Seoul-mal (the suffix -mal here means 'dialect' but is also used for 'language') is, naturally the standard, and the Big University Big Business Big Media version of the language.

Variations exist throughout the country in vocabulary and pronunciation, small as it is, roughly on a province-by-province basis. North Korean has diverged in no small part from the ROK-Seoul standard thanks to a lockdown by the government there since partition on 'foreign' words (ironic, since upwards of 60% (depending on what commentators you read) of standard Korean nouns are Chinese loan words, anyway) and a preservation of older forms.

Jeju-mal, from the large southern island of Jeju-do, can be almost incomprehensible to mainland Korean-speakers.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:03 PM on May 14, 2006


My (admittedly incomplete) understanding is that what we call "Standard English" comes from a triangular area bounded by London, Cambridge and Oxford, due to the influence and power of people who lived in and traveled between those cities.

You'd think so, but it's not evident, probably because the universities taught in Latin and were primarily religious institutions, separate from trade and the court bureaucracy. If any 'regional' dialect had comparable impact, it was that of the East Midlands, because towns such as Leicester and Nottingham were centrally located and hosted large markets, meaning that traders needed to understand it. Migration from the East Midlands to London, combined with the growth of the guilds, meant that when Parliament and the court switched to English for all but ceremonial and legal matters, it was that hybrid dialect, together with Anglo-Norman imports, which took pre-eminence.

That said, even Chaucer's Kentish dialect was non-'standard' (‘Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse euery man by cause of dyuersite and chaunge of langage’) and it took the arrival of the printing press to cement the primacy of London English.
posted by holgate at 6:40 PM on May 14, 2006


The only standard is Classical Arabic, the kind used in the Koran (with modifications to deal with the modern world).

Does anyone really speak that, though? That is to say, would it be used, say, on whatever the Arabic equivalent of the BBC (as was), or VOA? (I've heard the Egyptian as "standard" argument made as well, but truly have no idea.)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:26 AM on May 15, 2006


International broadcasters with Arabic services, including the BBC al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, use MSA, which is a modernised form of Classical Arabic. Many national broadcasters use MSA as well. That said, MSA is primarily a written, rather than spoken form. There's also an ongoing argument as to whether there's a difference between MSA and Classical Arabic, although those who claim not tend to rely upon ideological arguments rather than linguistic ones.
posted by holgate at 5:30 AM on May 16, 2006


Thank you Holgate. Pretty much what I was looking for.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:34 AM on May 16, 2006


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