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The Reason Some Hyperlocal Languages Survive (theatlantic.com)
34 points by curtis 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments





From the article: "Languages are often considered to supply the very framework on which our thoughts coalesce—a framework that is completely distinct in each language and gives rise to distinctive modes of thinking and expression" (emphasis mine).

It never ceases to amaze me how addicted the media is to the so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis." Follow the link, and you discover that there is actually fairly narrow evidence for this claim (at least the strong version of it). Look into actual experiments on linguistic relativity, and it becomes even weaker.

That phrase "often considered" makes it sound like it's a majority view among linguists, when it's actually a quite fraught contention. It would be like saying, "panpsychism is often considered an explanation of the relationship between mind and matter." Some hold that view, but "often considered" makes it sound more like a widely held position, or even a consensus position. Which it certainly is not.


Is it really that surprising that writers would want it to be true?

It is unsurprising only if you fail to consider the implications of it being true (in the strong sense).

Some languages have extremely complex ways of indicating tense (making a grammatical distinction between, for example, past events that occurred and then ceased, versus past events that are still ongoing). Some have retained complex grammars for expressing wishes (the optative mood, for example). Other languages have far fewer grammatical ways of expressing tense and mood. Tenses in Mandarin Chinese are often "optional" in a sentence, for example, and in general the mood system of English is a lot simpler than it is in, say, ancient Greek. Ancient Hebrew, strictly speaking, does not have past, present, and future tenses at all (but instead combines context with perfective and imperfective aspects).

Now here's the possibly dangerous leap. "The Chinese think differently about time" (or are less concerned about it). "The ancient Hebrews were very focused on the present and rather feckless about the future." "German and Greek are the only languages worthy of philosophy" (a direct quote from Heidegger). "There are certain emotions in Hopi that cannot be expressed in English." "People speaking a creole are less capable of nuanced rational thought." You can probably see where this is going . . .


One of the more interesting grammatical features is evidentiallity, which requires you to indicate how you know what you say, e.g. if you saw it, deduced it, or if it's something you were told.

Another is grammatical honorifics, which use suffixes to indicate your relationship with the speaker and sometimes also with who, or even what you are talking about.


Same reason writers insist that reading literary fiction gives you a true and deep understanding of the human condition unachievable by any other means.

A huge problem in fiction is that it usually greatly overestimates people's ability to understand each other. Characters never make mistakes reading each other (unless it's a part of the plot) When they see something one on another, it's assumed to be true, even though in reality this is extremely unreliable.

Habitual readers of fiction tend to be a chore to deal with, as they overestimate their ability to read and understand the thinking of others, inadequatelly communicate as they assume you should be able to read them, and blame any of the inevitable errors on intentional deception from your side.


A strong formulation of the idea/theory is unsupported. But, a weaker version is hard to deny, at least entirely.

Recently I learned that there are several Sami languages spoken in northern Finland, all of which are classified as endangered, at most a few thousand speakers each. Yet also, due to modern technology like health care and food security, there are more Sami speakers living right now than ever before...

Which leads me to suspect that such languages must have been evolving, breaking apart and dying all the time.


Yes, that's true of all languages.

Those Sami languages are endangered not so much because of their absolute number of speakers as because you can't get anywhere by speaking them. Languages like that tend to die out in favor of more useful ones.

If all the Finns were wiped out and nobody could go into Finland, the Sami would thrive and so would their languages.


That seems like a naive understanding of language and population dynamics.

Nobody prevents the Sami from reproducing in bigger numbers and living all over Finland (and they consider themselves Finnish citizen, mostly). Also, the usefulness argument contradicts with these languages surviving and Latin having dyed out despite being widely understood (to this day).


Died out? Latin is the national language in Italy, Spain, France, Romania, Portugal, and all of central and south America. (You know... "Latin America".) And other places.

The Sami languages haven't "survived" to any greater degree than Latin has. Quite the contrary.


None of those places speak Latin, they all speak Romance languages. None of those languages are anything like Latin.

> None of those languages are anything like Latin.

Are you sure you know what Romance languages are? This is not a statement that anyone sane would be willing to support. Why do you think the Romance languages are so similar to each other?

It is conceptually incoherent to say that the modern languages of Sami tribes have survived while Latin hasn't. The Latin of 2300 years ago is not mutually intelligible with the Latin spoken anywhere today. The Sami of 2300 years ago is also not mutually intelligible with any Sami language spoken today. It was even more different, because Latin has a robust written tradition and writing slows language change.

If one has survived, so has the other, and Latin is massively more successful.

On the other hand, if you want to take the position that Latin died out, then the concept of an "endangered language" is meaningless, as we know that all languages will inevitably die in the same way.


Latin is a distinct language from the extant romance languages.

Sami languages are also distinct from each other.

My point was that the specific extant sami languages aren't that old and that there must have been creations and deaths of languages at a higher frequency than I thought.


What, not even Italian? English is also strongly influenced by Latin. Leaving the word "Latin" aside, your post uses the words "place", "none", and "language" which derive from Latin.

The claim that none of these languages are anything like Latin is overblown.


The point is that these languages are related, but distinct.

One factor is mutual intelligibility, but mutually intelligible "languages" can still be classified as distinct. This is complicated by continual spectra, where A and B, B and C are MI but A and C are not.


The point is that people never stopped speaking Latin (although in some places like North Africa nad the Balkans they did) There is a clear continuity between Latin and various Romance languages. Some time during the early middle ages, people started complaining they couldn't understand such and such person's Latin and the different dialects eventually became to be called different langauges and had their own writing systems created.

Langauges slowly change over time. It's kind of like the Canterbury tales' English is different from Shakespeare's English and even Lovecraft's English is clearly more oldfashioned compared to modern English.


Shakespearian English and modern English are mutually intelligible and their separation is mostly temporal, not geographical.

Middle-English is referred to as a distinct language which you can study.


"Distinct" is pushing it a little. Compare the Canterbury Tales with original wording but modern spelling here ( http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/webcore/murphy/canterbury/ )

    But first I make a protestation
    That I am drunk; I know it by my sound
    And therefore, if that I misspeak or say,
    Wit it the ale of Southwark, I you pray
    For I will tell a legend and a life
    Both of a carpenter and of his wife
The spelling isn't even that different (though the pronunciation is more so); compare the fifteenth-century spelling from www.chaucermss.org (multitext edition):

    But first I make a protestacioun
    That I am dronke / I knowe it by my sown
    And therfore / if þ I mysspeke / or seye
    Wite it / the ale of Southwerk I preye
    For I wol telle a legende and a lyf
    Bothe of a Carpenter / and of his wyf
(The slashes appear in the fifteenth-century text; I'm not sure what they indicate.)

Modern English and Middle English aren't quite mutually intelligible, but if you were somehow dropped into England in 1420, you'd probably be conversational inside of a month.


Mutual intelligibility is rarely the only reason for calling a different langauge different. E.g the scandinavian langauges are relatively easily mutually intelligible, so is Czech and Slovak, yet they are called different languages mainly for political reasons. On the other hand, many of the Chinese "dialects" are not even alike, yet they are still considered one language for political reasons. Even perhaps more familiar "Black English" is usually considered to be nothing more than English with bad grammar, even though it's very clearly a distinct language of its own, that is not readily mutually intelligible with standard american English.

You just have a quirky understanding what a language actually is. Language names are given and defined in language themselves, and it does make a world of a difference if you say you speak Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian, even though they are quite MI among each other, and even somewhat MI with German.

Linguists do refer to different languages in China, which are referred to by the government as dialects. So there is much more to it than politics. In your definition probably the whole Indo-Germanic family from Norwegian to Farsi or Hindi would be one language.


Romance languages are hardly mutually intelligible with latin...

So yes, latin pretty much died out as a language in the strict sense.


Endangered languages are considered to be dying out in a meaningful way, by losing their speakers.

All languages are equally "endangered", if you mean dying in the sense that Latin did, where it was and still is one of the most successful languages of all time.


Latin is not spoken natively anymore except for really rare special circumstances (much like Esperanto and Klingon have occasionally been taught/picked up by young children).

That is a useless definition, since all languages are constantly getting extinct that way.

"None" does not derive from Latin; it is a native word as far back as we can trace it.

Romance languages are literally defined as the languages derived from vulgar Latin. Basically, the places spoke vulgar Latin back in the day and then languages evolved, as languages naturally do if there is no inter-communication. And of course they are still very similar to Latin.

Grouping similar languages together like that would mean the Sami and the Finns speak the same language anyway. Problem solved, right?



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