I started this series of posts with the breaking news of Euronews Media Conglomerate (Europe’s answer to CNN) cancelling its Ukrainian-language channel. From there we started to discuss the issue of language in general. Eventually we need to get to the issue of whether or not Ukrainian is an actual language. But before we even get there, we need to lay some groundwork with basic facts. Not opinions, of which there are legion, but facts. I am basically armoring myself in advance and girding my loins against the expected barrage of retorts from the various “kvass patriots” and Ottos of this world. “Otto” being my pet name for my internet opponent. In homage to the Kevin Kline character in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, who is notable not just for being a boorish lout, but also a pseudo-intellectual who is always wrong about everything. Hence, my perceived need, in this debate, to show my credentials, appeal to authority (i.e., professional linguists such as John McWhorter), and to provide some history and background to this thorny issue.
I did not start this war. It began, as such wars often do, with an innocent remark about Alphabets.
So, Otto, the Russian emigré kvass patriot, took it into what passes for his “head”, that I was dissing the Cyrillic alphabet. Because some Central Asian country, I forget which, had decided to phrase out Cyrillic writing in favor of the Latin alphabet. Not knowing a single word or sound of this particular Turkic language, I have no opinion whether Cyrillic was a good or a bad choice in the first place, when it was picked as this language’s alphabet. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. In Soviet times, Cyrillic was often the alphabet of choice for languages which had few speakers and just needed to get themselves written down. For obvious practical reasons: All these ethnic groups lived together in a common entity, Russia was the lead nation, the Russian language was written in Cyrillic, the leaders of the smaller nations all knew Russian, there were lots of Cyrillic printing presses… Again, Cyrillic (with significant modifications for each language) was the obvious choice, even political motives aside. And no reason necessarily to assume that “Great Russian chauvinism” as Lenin dubbed it, was at work here, in the selection of an alphabet.
From the purely dispassionate point of view of Scientific Linguistics, the Cyrillic alphabet is just one more tool in the toolbox. As is the Latin alphabet. Curators of each individual human language should select the best tool which gets the job done. The job being: Write your language down. Get people reading. Make the alphabet so easy that kids can learn to read quickly. Like, in months, not years. In other words, what best serves the cause of education and mass literacy?
When I called the Cyrillic alphabet “just a tool”, this sent Otto flying into mad-dog rage. See, to people like Otto, the Cyrillic alphabet is a holy thing, probably created by God himself. (Never mind that the original alphabet inventors, holy but mortal men Cyrill and Methodius actually came up with two alphabets, Glagolitic and Cyrillic, and that both alphabets changed their forms several times over the centuries.) Anyhow, Otto’s basic opinion is that anybody who disputes the suitability of the Cyrillic alphabet for any of the world’s languages; anybody who calls this alphabet a mere “tool” — is a Russia-hating Jew, a Trotskyite cosmopolitan. And that anybody who disagrees with Otto on any point, is a “maggot” deserving to be the recipient of acts of sexual violence, such as buggery and forced fellatio!
Otto is particularly upset at the blasphemous notion that the Latin alphabet would be used to write down a Slavic language. I countered with the examples of Polish and Czech. These Western Slavic languages most likely picked Latin script for geopolitical reasons (hint: Catholic), and yet proved in so doing, that Latin letters are able to encode Slavic sounds quite efficiently. An even better example is the Serbo-Croatian language. See, Serbs and Croats speak one and the same language. But the (Orthodox) Serbs write their language down in Cyrillic letters; and the (Catholic) Croats use Latin letters. Both alphabets (with the additional of diacritic marks) are equally perfect for the job of encoding this particular language.
Even further enraged by these examples, Otto then proceeded to develop his own creative theories of “Racist Phonology”. According to which, only Asian peoples utter such sounds as the [IPA phoneme] /ʒ/ or the phoneme /ts/. No European language, Otto asserted, contains such sounds, since only the Asiatic mouth is able to contort itself around such palatal sounds. To this assertion I laconically responded with a couple of counter-examples from two European languages, namely the French word “je” and the German word “Zeit“. Otto became quite rabid at this point, almost spitting green venom like some kind of sea monster. See, Otto is confused, as many laypersons are, by the distinction between spoken sounds and the way they are spelled. Which, by the way, is the litmus test of an effective alphabet: If there is a good correspondence between letter and sound; if a child can spell out words in just a couple of lessons — then this is an indication that the alphabet is good. But according to Otto, my “Trotskyist” theories are just more of that politically-correct pap so abhorred by ALT-Righties. Namely, my “assertion” that all alphabets are equally valid. Which I never asserted. I asserted that all human languages are equally valid. Alphabets? Different story altogether. There are some good, some bad, some great, and some terrible alphabets in the world. Examples of bad alphabets: Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Sanskrit alphabet (I’ll get to that later, when we discuss the history of linguistics); written Chinese; the way English is written down. Examples of good alphabets: Cyrillic, obviously. Examples of great alphabets: Classical Greek, for starters.
And please note that this is not just my personal opinion. Sitting in judgement of alphabets is based on a single metric: How efficiently does the alphabet encode the phonemes of a particular language. Which is where we work our way back to products like “Dragon Speak”, how these products succeed in capturing spoken speech and converting it to written text.
After which we will embark on a brief survey of the history of Scientific Linguistics. One of those European disciplines which began, ironically, in Ancient India, as early as 1200 BC!
I will end today’s installment with just one more personal/biographical anecdote. This just to illustrate the rank ignorance which surrounds this most basic act of being a human being, namely speaking!
A couple of years ago I entered into a similar debate, this time not with an enemy, but with a friend. I’ll call him “Bob” (not his real name). We were chatting. I forget how we got on the topic of the American Southern dialect and regional accent. Bob asserted that he “had read somewhere” that Southerners pronounce those broad vowels, because it is a way of keeping their mouths cooler in the hot climate, ’cause, see, you have to open your mouth wider in order to drawl, and that brings more cooling breeze into your mouth.
I curtly informed Bob that his theory was ridiculous. Regional dialects evolve historically, there were Scottish and Irish influences on American English, blah blah blah. Bob would have none of it. He was convinced that his theory of American dialects was the correct one. And Bob was no dummy otherwise. He actually had a college degree. In Economics, if I recall correctly. But he had never studied formal Linguistics, either in Middle School or college. He didn’t see the point. Every human being speaks a language, therefore every human being is a natural Linguist, no?
It goes without saying that Bob and I passed from being friends to enemies. All on account of this one dispute. Our friendship could have been saved, if only I weren’t so opinionated Bob had taken a course in Linguistics!
Next: A Brief History Of Scientific Linguistics
[to be continued]