(Originally published November 21, 2014)
In another post, we touched upon the arbitrariness of the designation of language versus dialect. Let’s examine how distance within a community can contribute to language divergence and distinct identities.
Many countries have a specific language that corresponds to that community’s ethnicity. For example, Swedish is the national language of the Swedish people. But not everybody who lives in Sweden is ethnically Swedish; immigrants come from throughout Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere for economic opportunities. Likewise, not all Swedes live in Sweden, as many settle in milder locations. What does this mean for the language spoken within that group of people? As we’ve discussed before, languages are constantly evolving due to contact with other languages. In some cases, the languages evolve due to linguistic as well as cultural influence from different groups of people. Spanish is a good example of this, having official status in about 20 different nations. Because of Spaniards’ intermingling with diverse indigenous populations of the Caribbean, Central and South America, we have great diversity within Spanish dialects. But the case of Spanish is rather unique in that the Hispanic peoples share some common genetic heritage, yet have developed their own countries with unique histories and cultures associated with them. What about when you a have a diasporic relationship with a lesser common group of people? Modern Greek is predominately spoken in Greece and Cyprus, although millions of Greek and Cypriot descendents currently live in Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries. With second- and third-generation born individuals may still speak their heritage language, the language of the new country will obviously impact how they speak both languages. Therefore, the Greeks of Montreal may show signs of Quebecois French and English in their pronunciation of Greek and maybe even in their syntactic structure, that is, the way they order their sentences. What about Greek people who do not have direct ties with either Greece or Cyprus, modern countries that promote a stabilized education or at least utilization of their dialect? Consider the native Greek-speakers of Calabria, Italy. Descendents of settlers of Magna Graecia (Great Greece) within Southern Italy (including Sicily), there are small populations of Greek-speakers scattered in villages in today’s “heel” region of Italy. This poses an interesting dilemma in the ethnicity of these people who feel equally Italian and Greek due to their unique dialect of Greek, which inevitably has been heavily influenced by the local Italian. Similarly, the ethnic Greeks of Istanbul, Turkey also are in a unique situation where they are multilingual and have specific questions to their own identity due in part to the languages they speak.
What do you think about the ethnic identity of people who speak a language different from yours? Are all people who speak Dutch the same? How do you relate to other English-speakers knowing that there are considerable differences between Australians, Brits and Americans? As always, I’m curious to hear your comments!