Sunday, May 23, 2010

Youse got a problem wit this?

Today I'm thinking about dialects. I'm thinking about them because dialects - the successful ones - formed every national language spoken and written today. They won the language lottery. Not because they are better, or cooler, or more expressive, but because some king and his court and his army spoke that way. (It has been said that the dialect that wins is the one with an army and a navy.)

Standard English, for instance, is spoken the way it is because that's the way it was spoken beside the Thames in a place called London where the power resided. Standard French is the dialect spoken around Paris - never mind that other French dialects abounded.

Dialects, rather than being some substandard type of speaking, are just as legitimate as any other. In fact, in their own way, they are sort of a linguistic thumbing of the nose, a rumbling toward the future, although none of their speakers think that way. Dialects are halfway between the mother language and a brand new language, just waiting to be born. They are, in short, the way new languages come about ... or don't.

We all know that Latin died, giving birth to the Romance languages. But what actually happened is that Latin, which spread over the huge Roman Empire, quickly began changing - differently in the regions that became France, Spain, Italy, etc. Dialects appeared, simply because languages always change. Those dialects weren't new languages, not yet. But they kept changing. We now call them French, Spanish, Italian, etc.

Think of it this way: In Britain, Standard English might say that "He's not going to tell you anything." In northern Britain, it might be "He's noan going to tell you nowt." Farther north, the Scots might say "He wina tell you onything." And in the U.S., in Brooklyn, somebody might say, "He ain't gonna tell you nothin'." Brooklynese is dying out, but imagine if it had been spoken in Washington, D.C., way back when. We might all be saying "youse."

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