Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Linguistic Heisenberg Principle: Scandinavian Languages

It's the Heisenberg principle that holds (not so?) that the closer you look at something, the less likely it is to be there.   I guess I've written before about how true that is with language(s).  And here's a new case: Scandinavia, for present purposes meaning Sweden, Norway, Denmark.   Start at the level of the various nations.  If you wanted to say "I am a subject of the crown," Google translate says it would come out this way:
Swedish:  Jag är ett ämne av kronan
Danish: Jeg er et emne af kronen
Norway: Jeg er en gjenstand av kronen
Don't know about you, but these look suspiciously alike to me--even granting that funny-looking "gjensand" in the third line, you really want to shout "People!  It's all the same language!  Get over it!"--even though the "crown" in each case would be a different crown in each country (and no, I have no idea whether any of the three would refer to the monarch as "the crown," but it is convenient for my purpose).

 On the other hand, if you start looking at the sub national level, you begin to find there are variations which may be at least as substantial as those between nations.  I wrote a few days ago about the Isle of Gotland where it seems they speak what might be called Icelandic [Ég er háð kórónu--actually, that does look/sound a bit different.]   Aside from  Gotland, I  gather there may not be a lot that you can call separate languages in Sweden, though there may be stuff that counts as "dialect"--as, for example, Göteborg, where it is said they speak with a Scots burr.

In Denmark, they'll tell you there isn't any dialect.  Maybe not but--well, I don't find this quite plausible.  Denmark is, after all, part island, part mainland.   I'd be surprised if the (mainland) Jutlanders fromn Århus speak quite the same as the (island) Zealanders from Copenhagen.  I've had at least one Copenhagen Dane whisper that I should listen up to the person nearby talking country style (I couldn't pick up any real difference).

But I suspect it is Norway where dialect thrives: mountains, after all, and fjords, and impenetrable valleys, just the sort of places you would expect to develop their own modes of speech--and also to keep them down through the ages ("you rule Norway from the sea," it is said, and I can see why: until perhaps the 20C, you really weren't going to get to the interior, and there really wasn't that much to go for anyway).  On language, there's a pretty good Wiki  (Cf. also this) where we learn that there are two "standard" versions of "Norwegian," and a tropical (heh!) rain forest of dialect variations.  Indeed it is said that the only people who speak "pure Norwegian" are the Sami, the people we used to call the Lapps--and they learned it as a second language (come to that, Sami languages also have their own wheels within wheels, but this is getting ridiculous).


Anonymous said...

i had a norwegian descended friend in washington when i lived there. he served one term in congress, got elected in the lbj sweep in a republican district, got beaten, worked as a lobbyist for the milk producers and did taxes on the side. lynn stallbaum. he told me he graduated from an agricultural high school in wisconsin. didn't know there was asuch a thing.

The New York Crank said...

You look to high mountains and water barriers reducing social intercourse while languages mutate in place.

The other direction is, a common language mutated in various locales by different outside influences coming in.

Example: Today's working class New York syntax and diction is not that of my childhood.

Circa 1940-something (forgive my inadequate attempt at phonetic spelling - "eaw" sounding kind of like "Yeah"): Hey, I easked youse a question.

Current: Yo, I axed you a question.

The difference? Working class New York was once a mixture largely of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish and German immigrants, mashing up their pronounciations. Today, the descendants of those folks are mostly assimilated and speak more-or-less standard English. The new working folks more heavily skew toward Afro-American and Hispanic, with consequent changes in syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Alas, we will never again hear a current story like the one once told by the late newspaperman Earl Wilson about a reporter who was phoning in details about a New Jersey refinery fire.

"Da early smoke could be seen all da way to Joisey City. It left an early film on cars, windows, even peoples' eyeglasses. The flaming earl caused damage estimated at $500,000. It was the woist earl refinery fire anybody in the fire department could remember."

With that, the reporter announced he was done and told Wilson, "Well, so long, Oil."

Crankily Yours,
The New York Crank