Dialects and borders


Language is one of the most basic characteristics which we share as human beings. Whether we are hunter-gatherers or Internet surfers, we rely on language for communication, culture, classification and contemplation. It is the fabric that binds society together, as it has done throughout recorded history – indeed, without language, recorded history would not exist. Yet this very fabric is under threat - over 50% of the world’s 6,000 different languages are endangered, according to UNESCO.


Why is this priceless part of our human heritage under threat? One of the main threats comes from an unexpected source: the nation state. When a country chooses its official language or languages, this immediately puts all other languages spoken in that country at a disadvantage. At the same time, languages are often chosen to justify the existence of countries and their borders.


A country isn't a country unless it has borders. Those people who die defending these borders are usually remembered as heroes. Yet the reality is that the borders of virtually every country on earth are artificial. Sometimes they are based on mathematical constructions such as lines of latitude or longitude; in other cases they are based on bizarre historical anomalies.


However, borders become more definite if the people on one side of the border speak one language, and those on the other side of the border a different language. Both groups of people will then consider each other "foreign", with a different language and therefore a different culture.


If this is not already the case, the state can intervene by making sure that the schools on their side of the border force children to use an officially approved national language, even if this is not their mother tongue. And if their mother tongue is not the official language of any country, the result is to endanger the future existence of that language.


In some cases, “speaking differently at school” is justified by saying that the home language is “just a dialect”. Dialects are often dismissed as inferior versions of a standard language. Yet they too are an endangered part of our cultural heritage.


The linguistic definition of what is a dialect is not clear-cut. Indeed, it is often said, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Where a language has many dialects, it is often the dialect of those in power which is considered the standard version of the language.


Nationalism also affects dialects, since many dialects contain words from other languages, including the language across the local border. In some cases they break down linguistic borders. For example, the local dialects on both sides of much of the German-Dutch border are mutually intelligible, even though Standard Dutch (A.B.N.) and Standard German (Hochdeutsch) aren’t.


Another example of state interference in language is official spelling revisions. English speakers found it strange when the German government decided to revise German spelling; in fact, many languages have official spelling systems which are revised from time to time, sometimes substantially. While having a standard spelling system does aid communication (which is what language is for, after all), it is far less clear why governments should decide on this.


Ultimately, it is up to all of us to use our language in the way we want.


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