Monday, March 27, 2006

A Linguistic Manifesto

Update: I've incorporated some of Johan's comments and corrections, but some things simply need explanation. Please see his very informative comments, below.

[In my ongoing attempt to learn Swedish (and every other Germanic language), I’m offering this imperfect translation for the Carnival of Blog Translation. This is a translation from Swedish of Johann Jönsson’s blogpost Ett ideologiskt manifest, from his blog Månskensdans. He makes some interesting points about prescriptivism, the degree to which linguistics is a science, what exactly a language is, and incorporating the inevitability of change into our own approach to language. It’s a perspective that would be useful for English speakers to hear, since we don’t have the experience of encountering speech that’s technically a foreign language, but that’s largely comprehensible to us. I'll add my own thoughts in a subsequent post; for now I’m just getting this translation in under the wire for the Carnival. I’m sure Johan will have corrections, so look out for updates. :-)]


The individual language

The only language that’s relatively static is a dead one. The Swedish language, fortunately, doesn't belongs to this group, and won’t yet for a good while, whatever some may say about the anglicization and abandonment of our mother tongue. The idea that language is an absolute unity stems from the myth that there should be one way to express a language, the idea that there’s Swedish, Norwegian, English, etc., all with razor-sharp borders, and that everything within a given language should be the same and uniform. It’s an opinion that blissfully ignores the fact that what makes a language what it is stands on the most arbitrary grounds, more often on political than linguistic grounds. For example, few will dispute the assertion that Swedish and Norwegian are two different languages. Yet the majority of Swedes have a significantly easier time understanding the Norwegian spoken in Oslo than the Swedish of Älvdalen [wiki.]. We have been characterized by the nationalist ideal: one country, one people, one language. Everyone who spoke one language was thought to belong to the same cultural zone and therefore to be grouped together under the same flag -- which by extension meant that those grouped under the same flag ought to speak the same language. Certainly this is how we think: If someone is Swedish, they must speak Swedish. If they’re German, the German language must apply; if they’re from Holland, they must speak Dutch. An exception is made only in the case where a person speaks a language that can be clearly identified as something different from the expected: but whatever does end up on “our” side of the imaginary language border is simply heaped into the bigger language, and all of a sudden a person can be accused of being wrong, and expressing himself incorrectly because he was adopted by a language that wants to constrain him by rules for how his speaking and writing ought to be done.

The point is that language, even within its own dialects, is not something absolute like mathematics, nor does it need the precision of nuclear physics, put into practice lest something should go wrong. Also, in some border areas, some of what serves to determine where one language begins and another ends also works for distinguishing one dialect from the next one; so actually usage is something that distinguishes not only between countries and languages, like Japanese or Catalan, but from person to person as well. Language is something personal, and it is up to each person to decide how to make use of it. I think, personally, that separated compounds [e.g. lastbils chaufför, truck driver, instead of lastbilschaufför, truckdriver] are enormously ugly, but there is nothing to say they’re wrong any more than to say that wearing a screamingly loud yellow jacket is wrong: It simply goes against the majority’s sense of aesthetics. One can admire purists in the same way one can admire King Leonidas of Sparta -– they lead a doomed struggle against superior odds, but deep down they must be aware that all they have to offer is a tiny postponement of what ultimately can’t be stopped. Unlike Leonidas, however, in this case there won't be any greater army to turn the tide of change -- and when you get down to it, language purism in its own way isn’t really much healthier than the ideal Spartan lifestyle. Both aim at lofty goals and an elitism that are in fact of no interest to most people.

“Swedish” must be seen as a generic name for several million individual ways of approaching language that more or less resemble one another. To see it any other way is to deceive oneself. There's naturally a certain standardization, but it’s nothing more than a loose agreement between people to be able to make use of speech and writing in an effective way. These compromises happen through communicative exchange more often than by decree from above: Kalle, a 43-year-old illiterate truck driver, can’t be more right nor wrong than anyone else in this case since there are no definite rules to follow, other than those of self-appointed prophets. But the language isn’t waiting for any messiah; we have it for only one purpose: to be able to understand each other. Will we be understood? This is what lies behind our striving after a norm; this is also why the language doesn't need any absolute rules, since those who deviate too long from that which is normal only punish themselves when they fail in their goal (to be understood). It lies in the nature of communication to make oneself readily understandable. It is this which lies behind a thousand years of change, leading to the language we have today. The [Swedish] language has been controversial before -– our present spelling (where hv, f, and v through reform have all simply become v) and grammar (today we don’t writan -- we write [idag skriva vi icke –- vi skriver; see comments]) were not accepted without protest; nevertheless they're simplifications that most people today are glad happened. When Sten [see comments] a thousand years ago erected a namesake with runes over his fallen brother, there were surely a handful of passersby that shook their heads at the youth’s overly creative take on the grammatical cases (even if ancient Swedish hadn’t yet been enriched with such a concept at the time). Still, many go around with the completely absurd idea that the language reached its highpoint some time in the middle of the twentieth century –- in other words, when they went to school -– and that, with the dubious concession that new occurences should have new words, it should be conserved in that state forever.

People want what they’re used to, and often rebel against change. Language is no different, but it is something that everyone uses and depends on, something so central to our lives that few things engender stronger opinions and feelings. Still, that a language should not develop and become more simple than it already has must be regarded as an image negative enough to challenge the most joyless philosophers, since it would mean that whatever happens, the language can only get worse, never better. Yet all historical development suggests the opposite, and probably many ideas that are prevalent today will be considered with great skepticism in a century or two.

I believe in development. I believe in renewal, and that our will to be understood will create an ever more easily accessible language. For when people begin to mutter about the twilight of culture and the impoverishment of language, there’s one thing that is easy to forget: Language wants to be understood.


Johan said...

I'm rather impressed -- this is no easy text to translate so that non-Swedish-speaking readers will understand it. A few corrections (and other thoughts):

"Everyone who speaks one language is thought to belong to the same cultural zone and therefore should be grouped together under the same flag -- which by extension means that those grouped under the same flag ought to speak the same language."

This does, in the Swedish text, refer mainly to the nationalist ideal that shaped the borders of Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, not necessarily to the present situation, and should not be written in the present tense.

"(today we don’t writan -- we write [idag skriva vi icke –- vi skriver])"

Much of my point is unfortunately lost in the translation. Swedish lost its plural verb forms much later than English did and there are still Swedes who remember when "vi skriva", rather than "vi skriver", was the norm. The fact that this happened not too long ago is an important part of my argumentation, but I can't think of a good way of translating it.

"When Sten a thousand years ago erected a memorial with runes over his fallen brother, there was surely a handful of passersby that shook their heads at the youth’s overly creative perspective on the situation"

I suppose the Latin root ("casus") is the cause of the problem here. "Kasus" is not synonym to "situation" in Swedish. "Kasus" means "case" (or, in this case, "cases"), as a term of grammar.

(For readers who can't read Swedish.)
Another virtually untranslatable thing: "När Sten för tusen år sedan reste en namne med runor " means "When Stone a thousand years ago erected a namesake with runes". Sten, meaning stone, is an old Norse name which is still common in Sweden today. Both spellning and pronunciation have changed, though.

"the language can only stay the same, never be better."

Become worse, not stay the same.

"Language will be understood."

There is a difference between "will" in English and "vill" in Swedish. If I say "language will be understood", then I mean that it will surely or without doubt be understood in the future, but if I say "språket vill bli förstått", I mean that it wants to be understood.

Of course, languages have no will of their own and one should always be careful to talk of them as living beings. My point (and this is really not as easy as I try to make it here as there are things such as language as identity marker, but I wrote this as a manifest, not a sociolinguistic paper) is that we when we speak and write, we do it because we want to be understood and will strive to accomplish that.


Johan said...

"I think, personally, that separated compounds [e.g. lastbils chaufför, truck driver, instead of lastbilschaufför, truckdriver] are enormously ugly"

By the way -- this is a huge question in Sweden. You never separate compounds in a Swedish noun if you want to be grammatically correct, unless it is a recent (English) loan word (e.g."science fiction"). However, many Swedes -- I have no numbers, but I would hazard a guess at somewhere between 10% and 30% of the population -- make more or less frequent mistakes here.

You can find "särskrivningar" pretty much everywhere. It can change the meaning ("hackad kycklinglever" = "chopped chicken liver", but "hackad kyckling lever" = "chopped chicken lives"), but usually doesn't, and you can almost always understand what it was meant to express even when it does.

There was a Swedish site,, which more or less became the centre of a nationwide movement against this phenomenon. However, the creators decided to put it down (or at least stop updating it) in 2003 as they felt that it was used ("" was a common comment on the internet whenever someone did this mistake) to nag people who couldn't write very well rather than public authorities and big companies.


King Alfred said...

You know, I knew that about the verb vilja. Most Germanic languages have this verb, and only English uses itg grammatically for the future tense. :-P I've been studying them so long, I actually thought "wants" when I wrote "will".

Anyway, your comments are very helpful. This was indeed very challenging to translate. I had to research a few things just so I knew what you meant: särskrivningar for one, Leonidas, to jog my memory, and I was curious about Älvdalen.

I'm trying to think of an example of something like skriva-skriver in English, but I don't know that any change in English that's both recent enough to parallel your point, and widespread enough that everyone agrees that's now how we do it. E.g.: recent changes from "official" channels (which really don't exist per se in English) include allowing split infinitives and sentences ending with prepositions, but tons of people still have minor coronaries at the sight of them.

It's funny how English speakers have this stereotype of Germanic languages (well, mostly German) as having insanely long words, but I tend to agree with your aesthetic judgement about compounds. And it's not like English doesn't put a bunch of nouns together in long compounds--we just happen to put spaces between them: English "Danube River steamboat captain" is almost as long as German Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän. Anyway, the general tendency in English for compounds is the following: two words -> hyphenated word -> one word. We just don't tend to put that many words together, like German and Swedish do.

Johan said...

I think the fact that Swedish (at least written Swedish) has undergone greater changes during the last centuries than the English language has makes it impossible to find a good equivalent. As you wrote -- some things simply need explanation.

"Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän" (on languages and conservatism: I'll never get used to the German spelling reform! No matter how much sense it makes) is perhaps not the most beautiful word in the German language, but I do like being able to play with nouns, and no matter what parts I use, it always comes out as one word.

"Danube River steamboat captain" is easier to read, though.