New languages like new cloaks

Presented without comment:

Recent genetic analyses have revealed that, over centuries and millennia, it is generally languages and not peoples that are replaced. That is, new languages are readily absorbed by relatively stable populations. In this way, for example, the pre-Celts of the British Isles and Ireland adopted the Celts’ minority languages when these Indo-Europeans intruded. Their descendants, many centuries later, similarly adopted the minority language of the invading West Germans (‘Anglo-Saxons’), while the islanders’ genetic profile remained relatively unchanged. This is a phenomenon that has occurred innumerable times around the globe. Throughout history, human societies have donned new languages like new cloaks. The linguistic metamorphosis always went unnoticed – until there was writing.

From A History of Language by Steven Roger Fischer, Director of the Institute of Polynesian Languages and Literatures in Auckland, New Zealand. Later in the book, Mr Fischer has written a line I offer as a mantra to linguistic purists:

All linguistic contact is enrichment.


14 Responses to New languages like new cloaks

  1. Aidan says:

    Well, that statement might be correct taken over the whole of human history but in colonial times whole populations were wiped out and with them their languages. In the modern world I guess that the historical trend of minority languages being replaced by more economically advantageous ones is in line with what he is talking about it.
    I don’t think that it is simple as putting on a new cloak though. The way it happens is often through intermarriage or children being schooled in the stronger language and abandoning native languages. What happened with Irish is quite unique because there was a combination of the loss of native speakers to death and emnigration during the Great Famine and the collective decision of swathes of Irish people (inspired by Daniel O’Connell amongst others) to abandon their native language.
    Although that effect happens all over the world few nations have ever managed to swap languages quite so quickly. It’s something I resent my forefathers for daily ;-) My great great grandparents on both sides were Irish speakers as far as my father could find out.

  2. language hat says:

    Excellent quotes, both of them!

  3. Interesting stuff Stan. I know it was some years back that a y chromosome analysis of the British Isles showed that the original “celtic” population had links to the Basques (Atlantic Modal Haplotype). THis bears out the view but the Anglo Saxon invasion seems to have been rather more tangible with them providing a fair bit of genetic input

  4. Tim says:

    “All linguistic contact is enrichment.” I can’t help but agree! I love language, I love writing, and I love experiencing other cultures.

    It is not surprising in the least that throughout history, exposure to other languages and cultures through travel, exploration and domination involved a two-way exchange.

    Now, if only we could have languages downloaded directly to our cerebral cortex, wherein understanding could be absorbed into the language and speech areas of our brains. :p

  5. Jo says:

    I have mixed feelings about that statement. On one hand, I do agree that linguistic contact is enriching. It opens a door to a new culture, which helps to dispel misconceptions and break down barriers (hopefully). On the other hand, I’m not sure that linguistic minorities are always enriched by contact with the prevailing, majority language. They often have a grim struggle to try and keep their language from being ‘absorbed’ and to raise their children with at least a knowledge of their mother tongue – even if the children live their lives outside of the home in the majority language. Language is so intricately tied to culture. If your language is gradually swamped and disappears, how do you preserve your culture?

  6. Stan says:

    Aidan: The main weakness of the ‘new cloak’ simile may be that it evokes a swift and deliberate act on the part of the user. Obviously this is not how people generally adopt new languages; rather, they do so haltingly and sometimes under duress or pressure to integrate. Looking at it on a very large time scale, as Fischer did — a history of language in 220 pages — requires that he compress a great deal. It’s not to deny that cultures adopt new languages without compunction or pain: in another section of his book he deals with this matter sensibly and sensitively.

    LH: Glad you like them!

    Jams: Yes, there have been a few of these studies in my lifetime that overturned or complicated previous ideas about the origin(s) of the Celts. Ireland has witnessed many waves of different settlers; there’s little to be gained from any idea of a “pure” Gaelic people.

    Tim: It’s a good line all right, though I’d be inclined to mentally add “potentially”. Just as in good teaching, where instructors learn even as they guide, the best cultural encounters work both ways.

    Jo: I share your reservations. Our ideas about who we are and where we’ve come from depend strongly on our cultural heritage, and there’s a keen sense of loss when this heritage — linguistic and otherwise — fades or is suppressed, denied or forgotten. Cultures are porous, and they’re vulnerable to geopolitical acts and movements such as emigration, invasion, colonialism, and social integration. The compromises can be troubling and traumatic. The rumble towards fewer and fewer languages may be an inevitable result of globalisation, “a symptom of people coming together” as John McWhorter put it. Minority language becomes bilingualism becomes majority monolingualism. Every language, dialect and even idiolect has unique nuances, but ultimately we use them to connect with one another more than to separate.

  7. Claudia says:

    Canada is a bilingual country. Except in Quebec, English is predominant. French is spoken by little groups in all provinces but it became a very mixed up language, often baptised FranGlais. In Quebec, we have kept French, truly French, adding charming “patois” expressions, characterising our different (from France) lifestyle. Actually, Quebec became so afraid of losing our language that a bill was passed into law requesting all working inhabitants and immigrants to speak French, and banning all English names on roads and commercial windows’ advertising. It created a big outcry (still does). Quebec didn’t succeed to separate from the country (as it wished) but it’s saving its language from damaging encroachments. Sometimes it’s exaggerated, like demanding French language proficiency even from English Hospital’s staff, and not always treating English-speaking tourists with courteous attention. But there had been years of abuse and neglect where, in my youth, in some sections of Montreal, you couldn’t go shopping, dining (or be sick) unless you spoke English.

    I love Canada and I’m not for separation. But I totally agree with keeping our beautiful Quebec language alive. I think it’s an asset for my country.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    Coincidentally, my quote of the week on another website is:

    ‎”Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.”

    ~~Oscar Wilde

    I think of the many words for snow in the Inuit languages and mourn what has been lost along the way.


  9. Stan says:

    Claudia: Thanks for your insights into the situation in Quebec. A country’s language(s) can be very politically charged, especially when under threat, or potentially so. Languages are tied so tightly to our identities. But all are, as you put it, assets to their country (and region, state, planet).

    WWW: Wise and appropriate words from Mr Wilde!

  10. John Cowan says:

    Claudia: I don’t think that Acadiens and Brayons ought to be described as little groups of francophones; they speak separate and independent kinds of Canadian French not dependent on Quebec French in any way. (Although Brayon French has been called Quebec French with an Acadien accent.)

    I should also point out for the benefit of non-North Americans, including our host, that a fair and free vote on Quebec independence failed, though by a very small margin; you make it sound as if some outside body had prohibited it.

    Wisewebwoman: The “many words for snow” story is false, and has been debunked over and over. The Wikipedia article has a pretty good discussion, with links to many others.

  11. Claudia says:

    @John Cowan –

    Thank you. You’re perfectly right. I felt a bit restricted in giving all the political details of the Quebec situation on a Language Blog. I was very actively opposed to the separation which took the name of Sovereignty Association in 1995, and was voted down by the province with a very narrow margin (For:49.42/Against:50.58). Having worked my butt out (from Ontario) to obtain that result, consider me the outside body who prohibited the independance.

    As for the French being spoken outside of Quebec, I can assure you that I deeply admire all French-speaking people who have maintained their native language in predominantly English provinces. They have succeeded in obtaining French schooling for their children in many places. Living in Ontario, in my adult years, I’m fighting the same battle that they do to keep my language intact. On a personnal note, my British son has married a French-speaking Manitoban who is teaching the language in a French immersion school, in Winnipeg. To my delight, this ensures that my grandchildren are fluently (if not perfectly) bilingual.

    Sadly, New Brunswick (where most Acadians reside) is the only other province where French is recognised as an official language. It makes it harder everywhere else to maintain la francophonie. The reason why I fought so much against Quebec separation (in all the referendums) is not only that I love and admire my country, but I was very angry that Quebec totally neglected and ignored all the French-speaking Canadians outside Quebec, and didn’t recognise the tenacity and the courage they had shown in keeping the culture and the language alive.

    Pardonne-moi ma verbosité sur ce sujet si cher à mon coeur. Merci de me comprendre, cher ami. Santé!

  12. Stan says:

    Claudia, mon amie, il n’y a pas besoin de demander pardon. Tu ne fais pas un discours; tu raconte une histoire, et les détails sont intéressants et importants.

  13. Stan says:

    John, thanks very much for letting me know about Nick’s blog, and for collecting his posts about Montreal. I found them entertaining and very interesting.

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