Thursday, June 29, 2006


Swedish Radio has a really interesting program on Gutamål (Gotlandish)—the language (or dialect, see below) spoken on the island of Gotland.
The format seems to be two hosts (Bosse Carlgren and Lars Jakobsson), one a native speaker of Gotlandish and the other an interested speaker of Swedish. The two read letters from listeners and discuss them. The letters are usually made up of observations about the dialect or comparisons with Swedish.
It’s interesting for me on two levels. One, it’s about a relatively obscure language, but includes the native speakers. And two it’s presented by what I assume are linguistic amateurs (I don’t mean this in any disparaging way). It would really be cool to be able to do this with an English dialect.
In the episode I listened to, they had the usual discussion about the difference between a dialect and a language. And they came up with a distinction that I think is worth contrasting with American usage. Swedish has basically two words for ‘language’. There is språk which is related to German sprache or Dutch spreken. And then there is mål which is similar to Danish maal or Islandic mál. Both are recorded by the Swedish Academy Dictionary as far back as the early 1500s.
The thing is, Bosse and Lars have decided that språk should be used to describe official languages, like Swedish, Norwegian, or English. While mål should be used for languages like Gotlandish, older languages that still exist in Sweden, despite the efforts of the Swedish government to promote riksvenska, that are not official in any sense.
There is often debate about whether these unofficial languages are “languages” or dialects. And here the discussion seems to hinge on historical facts. That is, whether these languages are the sons and daughters of standard Swedish—descended from it historically—or whether they are the brothers and sisters of standard Swedish—each descended from the same common ancestor. If these languages are brothers and sisters to Swedish then people feel comfortable calling them languages. But if they are sons and daughters they don’t.
In American English we don’t really have this discussion. For us, all dialects are thought of as sons and daughters of English, so none of them seem like real languages.
But this distinction leads to the third point Bosse and Lars make. That distinction is with the word dialekt. Although the dictionaries of Swedish geneally record the meaning of dialekt as meaning pretty much what we mean by ‘dialect’—that is a variant of the standard, Bosse and Lars feel that dialekt should be used for cases where people are trying to speak standard Swedish but somehow miss the mark. So if a Gotlandish speaker speaks standard Swedish with an accent, they would call that the “Gotlandish dialect”. For this concept, I would use the word accent (which I did in the last sentence).
But since we Americans treat all dialects of English as sons and daughters of English, we tend to view them as degradations of English. We think that all dialect speakers are trying to speak English, but because they are either uneducated or stupid or have other character flaws, they can’t quite master it. This idea is one that linguists have been trying to fight for decades, and yet it continues to have a hold on people.
Another thing is that because these unofficial languages have a history in Sweden, some of them going back pretty far, people seem more comfortable calling them languages. There is a kind of reverence for them, maybe because they represent a pure form of the language or a connection with the mythic past (this is how vikings spoke!). We have nothing like this in American English. All of our dialects are presumed to be recent innovations and that heightens the sense that they are degradations.
It’s worth thinking about these attitudes when listening to something like this Talk of The Nation bit with linguist Geoff Pullum. And be sure to check out Pullum’s debrief on Language Log.


boredoom said...

I think there's some weaselry going on here with stipulative definitions. Mål is a word that hasn't really been used to mean "language" in the last hundred years other than as an archaiscism. It has rather a wide meaning that also includes "speech." To have "mål i mun" is to be verbal, or unafraid to speak up.

I think most Swedes would disagree when asked if Gutamal is a separate language, but since the word Gutamal includes mål, they'll be willing to accept that it's a mål, which can mean pretty much anything.

liberal elite said...

Yeah, they are redefining the words. That' not that uncommon. But I think it's interesting the three concepts they focus on. I'm curious about why you are skeptical towards claims that Gutamal or Scanian are languages.

jay lassiter said...

i spent my junior year of highschool in malmo and i learned Dixie Swedish. in fact, i still speak it with a bit of a copenhagen twang.

pretty soon they'll all be speaking english anyway.

boredoom said...

I'm not necessarily skeptical of them being separate languages, I'm just saying most Swedes do not think of them as separate languages. At any rate, not Scanian.

Most Swedish dialects are probaly not descended from standard Swedish, i.e. the language as spoken in Stockholm. They do share a common root with standard Swedish and have been influenced by it over time. That doesn't mean Swedes think of them as separate languages, or that they're accorded equal status with the standard dialect.

liberal elite said...

Ah I see.

I think the family tree model is a bit misleading in some ways. Also the whole distinction between "language" and "dialect" is not always useful. So these two guys seem to be running up against that and can't really see another way around it.

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