Dictators with dialects, finger spelling, and universal Inuit

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.

Listen here or below via iTunes.


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5 responses to “Dictators with dialects, finger spelling, and universal Inuit

  1. Adrianna

    I am an Intercultural Communication Student at Northern Virginia Community College. I really enjoyed the discussion regarding the different dictators and the dialects that they grew up speaking/spoke at home. The idea that these frightening and powerful people didn’t speak the language as well or in the same way as the people they were controlling seems almost bizarre. Since language is such a powerful thing, the idea that a dictator doesn’t speak “properly” would appear to be more of a hinderance-making these figures a mockery-rather than not being an issue at all. That’s not to say that different dialects are abnormal or strange-they are, after all, completely common and everyone speaks in multiple dialects in any given day. However, from the way this is described, these dictators spoke in completely different ways and when they spoke the language of the majority, they couldn’t speak properly. Maybe I interpreted that wrong.
    Another discussion I found interesting was the idea of their not being a word for “looting” in the Japanese language. I agree that it tends to be a great misconception that some languages just don’t have words to describe certain things for one reason or another. Just because one word doesn’t exactly equate to another, does not mean there aren’t many words to describe almost the exact same thing. I speak a very fractured version of Spanish at home (bi-lingual household) and people will often ask me how to say one thing or another and when I don’t know, I have to resist the urge to say “Yeah, I don’t think there’s a word for that.”

  2. Natalya Nesbitt

    My name is Natalya Nesbitt, I am attending the class of CST 229 at NOVA. This podcast holds a pretty original perspective on dialects and dictatorship. Dialects are undergoing negative analysis apparently because of its association with past dictators. A focus is being placed on standardizing these dialects. Regulating dialects would cause depletion of excitement for the diversity that is flourishing. In my opinion I don’t agree with the acknowledgment of dialects being obstructive and ugly. Yes, it is a coincidence that dictatorships have negatively progressed in association with dialects. Circumstances and other environmental influences shape mentalities. Instilled and influenced values and morals should be focused on, when trying to understand culpabilities of dictators, not a tool of communication such as dialect, but this is just my subjective input.

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