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.

Monday, April 8, 2024

The relic

The first thing I learned in my studies of linguistics is that languages aren't static.

It's a good thing, because my field is historical linguistics, and if languages didn't change over time I kind of wouldn't have anything to study.  There's an ongoing battle, of course, as to how much languages should change, and what kinds of changes are acceptable; this is the whole descriptivism vs. prescriptivism debate about which I wrote only last month.  My own view on this is that languages are gonna change whether you want them to or not, so being a prescriptivist is deliberately choosing the losing side -- but if lost causes are your thing, then knock yourself out.

Where it gets interesting is that the rates of language change can vary tremendously.  Some cultures are inherently protective of their language, and resist things like borrow words -- a great example is Icelandic, which has changed so little in a thousand years that modern Icelanders can still read the Old Norse sagas with little more difficulty than we read Shakespeare.

Speaking of Shakespeare, it bears mention that the language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries isn't (as I heard some students call it) "Old English."  Old English is an entirely different language, not mutually intelligible with Modern English, and by Shakespeare's time had been an extinct language for about four hundred years.  Here's a sample of Old English:

Fæder ure şu şe eart on heofonum, si şin nama gehalgod.  To becume şin rice, gewurşe ğin willa, on eorğan swa swa on heofonum.

I wonder how many of you recognized this as the first two lines of the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.

There's been a discussion going on in linguistic circles for years about which dialect of English has changed the least -- not since the time of Old English, but at least since Elizabethan English, the dialect of Shakespeare's time.  We have a tendency, largely because of some of the famous performances of Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard III, to imagine Shakespeare's contemporaries as speaking something like the modern upper-class in southeastern England, but that's pretty clearly not the case.  Analyses of the rhyme and rhythm schemes of Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, suggest that Shakespearean English was rhotic -- the /r/ in words like far and park were pronounced -- while the speech of southern England today is almost all non-rhotic.  Vowels, too, were probably different; today a typical English person pronounces words like path with an open back unrounded vowel /ɑ/ (a bit like the vowel in the word cop); in Shakespeare's time, it was probably closer to the modern American pronunciation, with a front unrounded vowel /æ/ (the vowel sound in cat).

Analysis of spoken English from dozens of different regions has led some linguists to conclude -- although the point is still controversial -- that certain Appalachian dialects, and some of the isolated island dialects of coastal North and South Carolina, are the closest to the speech of Shakespeare's day, at least in terms of pronunciation.  Vocabulary changes according to the demands of the culture -- as I said, there's no such thing as a static language.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Alumnum, Primary Human Languages Improved Version, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The reason all this comes up is that linguists have come upon another example of a dialect that preserves a relic dialect -- this one, from a great deal longer ago than Elizabethan English.  In the region of Trabzon in northern Turkey, there is a group of people who speak Romeyka -- a dialect of Pontic Greek that is thought to have changed little since the region was settled from classical-era Greece over two thousand years ago.

Since that time, Romeyka has been passed down orally, and its status as a cultural marker meant that like Icelandic, it has been maintained with little change.  Modern Greek, however, has changed a great deal in that same time span; in terms of syntax (and probably pronunciation as well), Romeyka is closer to what would have been spoken in Athens in Socrates's time than Modern Greek is.  "Conversion to Islam across Asia Minor was usually accompanied by a linguistic shift to Turkish, but communities in the valleys retained Romeyka," said Ioanna Sitaridou, of the University of Cambridge, who is heading the study.  "And because of Islamization, they retained some archaic features, while the Greek-speaking communities who remained Christian grew closer to Modern Greek, especially because of extensive schooling in Greek in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries...  Romeyka is a sister, rather than a daughter, of Modern Greek.  Essentially this analysis unsettles the claim that Modern Greek is an isolate language."

The problem facing the researchers is that like many minority languages, Romeyka is vanishing rapidly.  Most native speakers of Romeyka are over 65; fewer and fewer young people are learning it as their first language.  It's understandable, of course.  People want their children to succeed in the world, and it's critical that they be able to communicate in the majority language in schools, communities, and jobs.

But the loss of any language, especially one that has persisted virtually unchanged for so long, still strikes me as sad.

It's a consolation, though, that linguists like Ioanna Sitaridou are working to record, study, and preserve these dwindling languages before it's too late.  Especially in the case of a language like Romeyka, where there is no written form; without recordings and scholarly studies, once it's gone, it's gone.  How many other languages have vanished like that, without a trace -- when no more children are being raised to speak it, when the last native speaker dies?  It's the way of things, I suppose, but it's still a tragedy, a loss of the way of communication of an entire culture.

At least with Romeyka, we have people working on its behalf -- trying to find out what we can of a two-thousand-year-old linguistic relic from the time of Alexander the Great.


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