The difficulties of defining a language

18 04 2014

  a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot  

Above is the classical quotation in Yiddish  summarizing the problems of defining a language  popularized by Max Weinreich: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.

The question of what is a dialect and what is a language is a very old one, and up to now, there are no agreed upon criteria how to resolve it but the  influence that social and political conditions can have over a community’s perception of the status of a language or dialect seems to remain fundamental.

The case of  Neapolitan (autonym: nnapulitano; Italian: napoletano)  the language of southern continental Italy, including the city of Naples is symptomatic . This language, downgraded to dialect, was  named not after the city, but after the Kingdom of Naples, which once covered most of this area. Naples was founded by the ancient Greeks in the sixth century BC and the Greek language is a matrix that is still found today in many terms of the Neapolitan dialect . Pazziare , for example, which in Italian means playing comes from the greek ” pàizein  . Deep was then the influence of the Latin ( in 326 BC, the city became a colony of the Roman Empire ) , the language spoken by the Neapolitans until about 1200 . From the Latin word “ intras acta ” for example, is derived the word  ‘ ntrasatta ( sudden ) . And it is precisely in the thirteenth century that the Neapolitan dialect (as well as others of the Italian peninsula ) begins to take shape. The successive rulers have done the rest . Ajére , which in Italian means yesterday, comes from the Spanish ” ayer ” . Canzo , which means time ( say in Naples damme ‘ o canzo, that is, give me time ), derives from the French ” chance.” The word tamarro ( lout ) , seems to derive from the Arabic ” al- tamar ” ( Merchant of dates) .  After the conquest of Southern Italy by Giuseppe Garibaldi and the union with the Kingdom of Sardinia, the language spoken by the King of Naples, was downgraded to a dialect. The socio-political dimensions of declaring something a `dialect’ or a `language’ can  also have the opposite result from one language to several languages as happened recently in Europe: before the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian was considered a single language, whereas now Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian are considered three distinct languages despite their grammars not having undergone any change.

The  linguistic contact, taking place between languages (or dialects or sub-systems )  may arise from the rules of one or both of the languages :  it is namely the  interference . The description of the interference is usually done in terms of contrastive  linguistic ( or psycholinguistics )  in terms of phonic , grammatical and lexical linguistics . However an explanation of interference in a situation of language contact , including diffusion phenomena , persistence and evanescence of a particular  interference case  is possible only if one takes into account  extra-linguistic factors . These extra-linguistic factors can be both of individual nature (such as verbal ability , the perfection of use of the two languages , the attitudes toward each language , and so on ) the characteristic of a  bilingual speaker  presents  the same in different shades and degrees ), and  of social order (such as the size of the bilingual group and its homogeneity or socio-cultural differentiation  attitudes towards stereotypes).

The difficulties of defining a language have a direct bearing on Semantic Web applications for example with ISO 639-31 which  is a standard for identifying languages in electronic resources.