Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 23, 2024

The language of Sark

The title of my master's thesis was The Linguistic and Cultural Effects of the Viking Invasions on England and Scotland.  I don't think many people read it other than me and my committee, but it did win the 1996 International Prize For Research With Absolutely No Practical Applications Whatsoever.  And it allowed me to learn valuable information such as the fact that there were two words in eleventh-century England for window -- one from Old English (eagþyrl, literally "eye-hole") and one from Old Norse (vindauga, literally "wind-eye") -- and for some reason the Old Norse one won and our word window comes from it rather than from Old English.

Which is a handy "fun fact" for me to bring out at cocktail parties, especially if I want everyone to back away slowly and then find other people to talk to for the rest of the evening.

In any case, I spent a good bit of my time in graduate school learning assorted random facts about western European linguistics, which was why I was a bit gobsmacked when I found out that there's a language in western Europe that I had never even heard of.  It's called Sarkese, and is only found on the tiny (1.5 by 3.5 kilometers) island of Sark, east of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

The Channel Islands [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Aotearoa, Wyspy Normandzkie, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Sark is currently home to five hundred people, of whom only three learned Sarkese (known colloquially as patois) as their first language.  It's a Romance language -- the closest relative is French, but it's not mutually intelligible.  It came originally from medieval Norman French via the isle of Jersey; the ancestors of the people of Sark came over from Jersey in 1565 and it's been relatively isolated ever since.

The samples of Sarkese in the article I linked above illustrate how far the two have diverged in the close to a thousand years since it split from mainland French.  "Thank you very much," for example -- merci beaucoup in French -- is mérsî ben dê fê in Sarkese.  French has seventeen different vowel phonemes; Sarkese has over fifty.  Add to that the complication that the island is shaped like an hourglass, with a narrow isthmus (La Coupée) that is all but impassible during storms, and the two pieces (Big Sark and Little Sark) have different dialects.

Fortunately, a Czech linguist, Martin Neudörfl, is trying to document Sarkese, and has worked with the three remaining fluent speakers -- who are all over eighty years old -- and about fifteen semi-fluent individuals to produce a huge library of recordings, and reams of documents describing the morphology and syntax of Sarkese.  "We have hundreds of hours [of recordings] and our audio archive is outstanding," Neudörfl said.  "Even if I were to disappear, someone could revive the language just using the recordings.  We've only achieved this through years of exhaustive research.  It's all thanks to [the speakers] for sharing their knowledge."

It's always sad when a language goes extinct, and so many have done so without anyone ever recording them or writing them down.  In large part it's due to competition with more widely spoken languages; it's eye-opening to know that half of the world's individuals are native speakers of only fifteen different languages.  The other half speak one of the other seven-thousand-odd languages that currently exist in the world.  Sarkese is one of many languages that have fallen prey to the prevalence, convenience, and ubiquity of English.

On the one hand, I get why it happens.  If you want to be understood, you have to speak a language that the people around you can understand, and if you only spoke Sarkese you could communicate with eighteen other people on the island (and one Czech linguist).  But still, each language represents a trove of knowledge about the culture and history of a people, and it's a tragedy when that is lost.

So kudos to Martin Neudörfl, and the Sarkese speakers who are working with him to record this language before it's too late.  Makes me wish I'd tackled a project like this for my master's research.  I could be wrong, but I don't think Old Norse is coming back any time soon.


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