Saturday, July 24, 2010

Language and place

I've been thinking recently about the connection between language and place, not coincidentally because that was the theme of the SILS conference I attended last month. As an English-speaking American of German and Scotch-Irish ancestry, I haven't in the course of my life placed a lot of weight on the relationship between a language and the geographic location where it is spoken. No doubt this is probably partly because of the omnipresence of English, even in countries where it isn't the native language. Certainly there are plenty of dialects, even just in America, but I was born in Florida to parents from New Jersey and California, and went to school in Tennessee and Montana, and I've been speaking the same English the whole time, noticing only slight differences in the English spoken to me in those different places. It is definitely the case that American dialects are fading in younger generations as people acquire more language from standardized sources such as television and the internet, and people move around more and are exposed to people from many different regions. But that's not what I want to talk about today.

I think the issue of language and place is a difficult one for Americans because 99.8% of us natively speak a language that was imported within the last 500 years (though in my own family I only have to go back 100 years to find someone born in Germany). On the other hand, Salish peoples have been speaking Salishan languages in British Columbia for around 10,000 years. While there have been changes in the language (10,000 years bp would probably find a single group of people speaking Proto-Salish, whereas today there are more than twenty mutually unintelligible Salishan languages) and migrations (modern Salishan languages stretch south and west in Montana), there is certainly some truth to saying that 10,000 years you would find the same people speaking the same language. This relation with place can be found in the languages spoken there. No, I'm not going to claim some Sapir-Whorfian causality between the geography of British Columbia and the Salishan languages. But the time depth of lexical items and semantic change in cognates can be used as a somewhat reliable method for investigating migrations. (For instance, the time depth of words for certain types of trees can be used to map some Indo-European migrations in and out of areas containing those tree species.)

For indigenous peoples, there is typically a strong, often spiritual, connection between language and place. Yes, every people is indigenous to somewhere, but I think the most appropriate use for the term "indigenous" is to mean people who live in the general geographic area of there ancestors. For instance, we could say that the Navajo are indigenous to America, since Na-Dene peoples have been here for tens of millenia, but not necessarily indigenous to the southwest, since Apachean peoples migrated there within the last millenium. Some people talk about the fricatives and labialized consonants of Northwestern languages recalling the lapping of waves on the shore. While I agree that's a beautiful image, it doesn't really have any objective fact to it. On the other hand, the fact that Tsimshianic languages have affixes meaning "upriver" and "downriver" does say something about where the languages are spoken. At the risk of touching on the language/culture debate, we wouldn't expect to find such affixes in a language that's been spoken in a riverless desert for 5000 years.

The slogan for the SILS meeting last month was "For every place a language". I like it. Because there is a language for every place, and I think it's something that Americans often forget. People are too quick to say "Learn English if you want to live in America", even though most of our ancestors didn't bother to learn Cherokee or Delaware or Kitsai or Karuk when they came to America. Perhaps we don't like to think about such things because we don't have those ties to our ancestors. My grandmother's grandfather lived all his life in a place I have never seen, and all his life spoke a language I can't understand. Maybe we devalue the connection between language and place because it's something most of us can never hope to have.

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