Dialects are beautiful, ugly, inevitable, unhelpful, and of course, languages without armies.
Dialects are widespread– they exist in most languages. Millions, perhaps billions of people speak them. Some, like many Chinese, speak a regional dialect at home, and a standard form of the language in public settings. And then there all those dictators who grew up speaking dialects. As a boy, Napoleon spoke Italian and Corsu — the home language/Italian dialect of the island of Corsica. The future Emperor of the French didn’t learn French until later. Hitler spoke an Austrian-inflected German. For his part, Gaddafi speaks a version of Arabic that isn’t widely understood, even within Libya. He comes from a Bedouin minority, which is reflected in his language. This may amplify his otherworldlyness. More on all of that here.
Many languages began life as a series of dialects, which over time– and with the encouragement of a nation state– morphed in something with standardized vocabulary and grammar (Robert Lane Greene writes about this in his new book, You Are What You Speak).
In Arctic Canada, there’s an effort underway to standardize Inuit languages (or dialects if you prefer). It’s being organized by the Inuit language authority in Nunavut, the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit. Unlike the United States, Canada is chock-full of the institutions that make up a national language policy: a bilingual federal government, provincial and territorial language commissioners and any number of panels that try to push the country’s languages in certain set directions.
In this case, the hope is to unite the Inuit people, spread out over thousands of miles, through a standardized language. Inuits have had writing systems imposed on their languages, mainly by missionaries. According to this article, which cites Statistics Canada, the more popular writing system today is a syllabic one. A lesser-used alternative is the roman system. Many hours, days and years of debate will now ensue, as to which writing system to favor.
Carol and I discuss these questions of dialect and language in the podcast. We also take a stab at the following questions (with much help from the linked sources): Does Japanese have a word for looting? Is finger spelling a language, or perhaps a dialect of sorts of British sign language? Is the language of cartoons necessarily harsh? The cartoon discussion was brought on by an exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum. It’s about depictions of marriage over the years, to coincide with Britain’s royal wedding. There’s a nice slideshow here.
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