Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My kingdom for a Ѣ

"The typsetters at Sytin's print-works in Moscow struck on September 19. They demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate per 1000 letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike--the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism." - Leon Trotsky, 1905
From Robert Greenberg's Language and Identity in the Balkans:
"The Literary Agreement was signed by Vuk Karadžić and Djura Daničić for the Serbs, and Ivan Kuljević, Ivan Mažuranić, Dimitrije Demeter, Vinko Pacel, and Stjepan Pejković for the Croats. The Agreement contained only the following five main points:  
(1) it is better to elevate a popular dialect to literary status, rather than create an artificial super-dialectal standard;
(2) the Southern dialect is designated as literary;
(3) the velar-fricative h will always be written in the literary language;
(4) the velar-fricative h will not be written in the genitive plural of nouns;
(5) the syllabic r will be written simply as –r-, as in prst ‘finger’ (rather than *perst). 
Points (1), (2), (4), and (5) were agreed upon unanimously. However, on the issue of the writing of the grapheme x (Cyrillic) /h (Latin), Vuk compromised with the Illyrians. Vuk had omitted this grapheme from his 1818 Dictionary, since the phoneme h had been widely lost among the Orthodox population, and for this reason Vuk felt it had no place in his phonological writing system. On this point, the text of the Literary Agreement made no references to the unanimity of this decision, and stated instead that 
'We found it to be good and necessary that the writers of the Eastern faith should write x, wherever it is etymologically appropriate, just as those [writers] of the Western faith write h, and as our people of both faiths in many places in our southern region speak.'"
Wow, South Slav peoples taking it upon themselves to unify and compromise? Don't worry, Austria found a way to ruin it:
"...compromise had eluded the signatories of the Literary Agreement on one important issue: what should the new language be called? The name of the new joint literary language was nowhere to be found in the text of the 1850 Agreement. In 1861 the Croatian Sabor (Assembly), tried to remedy the situation by voting to name the unified language the “Yugoslav”—i.e., “South Slav”—language. However, the authorities in Vienna overturned the Sabor’s decision, and promulgated the terms “Serbian-Illyrian (Cyrillic)” and “Serbian-Illyrian (Latin)” for this new South Slavic literary language."
Fast forward to today, where Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian, all mutually intelligible (even listing them separately like that is a very contentious act, mind you), are taking great pains to differentiate themselves from one another and make themselves distinct, unintelligible, proper languages.

Speech and pronunciation are political statements here, too, but we're much less cognizant of it. Stillborn efforts to make "ebonics" into a recognized dialect are little more than a punchline about the 70s, and we all more or less accept that prominent political figures do well to affect a slight, largely non-regional drawl in major speeches. But imagine if someone wanted to elevate the (now dying) Brooklyn accent to a national standard, or if there was a prominent movement to classify "American" as a language apart from "English"? Over the past few hundred years we've come to a general consensus about what "non-regional, educated 'American'" sounds like, but without any of the councils, scholars, or literary manuals that clutter the same period in the Balkans. Why are we less protective of our dialects? Growing up, my parents were adamant that I not speak like my peers, knowing the class baggage that comes with those infamous Long Island vowels, and to this day I only sound like a New Yorker when I'm very drunk or very angry (and even then, not always). It's amazing to me that we, as a nation, bowed so unquestioningly and unthinkingly to the news anchors and radio hosts.

I imagine that even if efforts to make English the national language gain greater traction, we'll see none of the fractious debates over standard pronunciation seen in other countries. It's assumed that we all just know what English is; it doesn't need to be defined. This is curiously unmodern. The very idea of "fluency" in a language is an increasingly odd one to me:
"In the Middle Ages, according to Douglas Johnson, 'it was undoubtedly difficult for the ordinary person in one part of France to be understood in another part of France'. Indeed, the situation persisted well into the nineteenth century in France. ... In travelling between villages and along the continuum of communication, there would be no point at which the peasant would imagine that they had passed through a linguistic boundary, separating one distinct tongue from another. Moments of intelligibility might get fewer, dribbling away entirely in distant horizons. The travelling peasant, however, would not stop to ask ‘do these people speak the same language as myself?’, as if there was an actual point at which the ratio between the familiar and the unfamiliar became critical and the speech pattern changed from one grammatical essence to another. This essentialism, by contrast, is insinuated into the core of modern common sense about language. We would want to know whether the speech of Montaillou should be categorized as a dialect of Occitan and whether the inhabitants of San Mateo really spoke a variant of Catalan. We assume the reality of underlying different deep grammars. If the modern political map, unlike its mediaeval equivalent, contains precise boundaries, so too does the modernly imagined map of speech. The assumptions of this imagined mapping are easily projected on to other cultures and other times. 
The modern imagining of different languages is not a fantasy, but it reflects that the world of nations is also a world of formally constituted languages. The disciplinary society of the nation-state needs the discipline of a common grammar. The mediaeval peasant had no official forms to complete, inquiring whether the respondent speaks Spanish or English. No acts of parliament decreed which language was to be used in compulsory public education or in state broadcasting; nor would the mediaeval subject have dreamt of ever going to war over such matters. The questions about language, which today seem so ’natural’ and so vital, did not arise. To put the matter crudely: the mediaeval peasant spoke, but the modern person cannot merely speak; we have to speak something - a language." - Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism
Reject the national language! The Middle Ages really weren't that bad.