Friday, 9 October 2009
Over the summer I came across an interesting letter in a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail (3 August 2009), which is published in Vancouver, British Columbia. The writer was Professor Tom Priestly, who is professor emeritus of Slavic linguistics at the University of Alberta, and he was commenting on the use of the words language and dialect. I quote his letter in full:
In his letter Linguistic Clarification (Aug 1) Dan Calinescu makes the non-linguists’ error of referring to the Romanian and Moldovan ‘languages’ as if they could be defined in non-political terms. Perhaps he doesn’t know the decades-old-saying, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’. The word ‘language’ has multiple meanings and when it refers to standard languages (English, Romanian etc.) it has to be used in the real-world political sense.
Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are now separate but still similar enough to be taught as one language at some universities; not long ago, they all belonged to a single ‘language’ with local variants that were about as different as British and American English. Danish and Norwegian are distinct ‘languages,’ but most people consider the difference smaller than the ones just cited. (One must be deliberately inexact: No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.)
And Moldovan was indeed created, inexpertly, by Soviet bureaucrats; while the country was and is independent, its ‘language’ is what its officials say it is. The fact that it is now virtually identical to Romanian is beside the point.
Here in Northern Ireland a number of people have set themselves up as experts and have argued that the Ulster-Scots language is merely a dialect. I would suggest to them that they note carefully the comments of Professor Priestly.
First of all Professor Priestly states that, ‘One must be deliberately inexact: No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.’ Such honesty is truly refreshing.
Secondly he says that Moldovan is ‘what its officials say it is’. In the case of Ulster-Scots the government of the United Kingdom has said that it is a regional or minority language in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That was made clear when the United Kingdom government ratified the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It recognised Ulster-Scots as a regional or minority language and there the matter rests.
On the basis of official recognition and in the absence of any ‘acceptable measure of linguistic difference’ the matter is well and truly settled.
Posted by Nelson McCausland MLA at 23:12