Sweden’s most beautiful dialect: follow-up

Following up on Sveriges skönaste dialekt 2008 (Sweden’s most beautiful dialect 2008) contest, it looks like I wasn’t the only one with a preference for östgötska (the dialect(s) of Östergötland)! After some 382,000 votes, the winner was Titti Andersson from Motala – by a remarkable coincidence, the very town where I learned Swedish.

The announcement says, “[The winner] represents a dialect that is not an old-fashioned/outdated dialect but a contemporary language with typical local features which show that the dialect lives amidst modern daily life in Sweden.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean! In my experience, many östgötska varieties are actually the brunt of many farmer and hick jokes, so it’s interesting not only that voters chose an östgötska speaker, but also that the write-up puts such a heavy spin on its modernity.

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The Alphabet Conspiracy

This amuses me to no end:

Judy: “We’re going to do away with the alphabet.”

Mad Hatter: “We’re going to murder the language!”

A scene from one of William Safire’s nightmares? No, it’s some dialogue from the 1959 feature The Alphabet Conspiracy (50 min.), which I just stumbled across over at the Internet Archives website. Probably old news, I’m sure, but I’ve never seen it before. It’s a bizarre combination of live action and animation in which the Mad Hatter tries to enlist innocent little Judy to help him destroy language – at least until Dr. Linguistics comes to the rescue!

Sure, it contains the usual claptrap about 12 words for snow in Eskimo languages and 6000 words for camel in Arabic, but at least it introduced linguistics to a larger audience. I like that it emphasizes that linguistics is a science (and the role that experimental evidence plays as a result) and that it shows how dialects are merely variants, not degraded forms of pure languages. Plus, what’s not to love about a kids’ show with isoglosses and an animated sound wave that gets outraged when it’s called ‘just a routine matter of technology’?

Some parts are quite dated, of course. I winced when Dr. Linguistics (the show’s host, Dr. Frank Baxter) talks about how “even the most primitive people” can more or less manage to express their thoughts in any language. He does say that linguists believe there’s no such thing as a primitive language, but still manages to be about as insulting as possible when talking about a large chunk of the planet’s population.

Still, Dr. Linguistics? Sounds like the makings of a good Halloween costume to me.

Non-standard linguistic terminology

Lately I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about the non-standard linguistic terminology used in various subfields of linguistics. For me, this is obviously most pertinent for Eskimo-Aleut linguistics, but it’s certainly not an issue unique to any one area (e.g. masdar in Caucasian and Arabic linguistics or aizuchi in Japanese conversation analysis).

Some of the Eskimo-Aleut terms I’m inclined to abandon are:

  • relative (ergative)
  • fourth person (third person non-reflexive)
  • postbase (derivational suffix)
  • terminalis (allative)
  • vialis (perlative)
  • similaris (equative)
  • modalis (your guess is as good as mine)

So, for the few people who actually read my blog, I’d like to throw the following question out there: What are the pros and cons of not adhering to subfield-specific terminology norms? What are the consequences of bucking tradition in favor of wider accessibility and standardization?

The pro that immediately jumps to mind is that materials using standard linguistic terminology will be more accessible to linguists and others outside the subfield. Someone wanting Eskimo-Aleut data to support a theory, for example, might be baffled by the modalis case, which is ill-described even within the subfield. Nonstandard terminology may also make it more difficult for lay users.

One con would be that by not using the familiar subfield-specific terminology, you might be isolating yourself from fellow linguists in the subfield. Another, arguably more important, would be that by insisting on standard linguistics jargon, you might be forcing grammatical categories onto a language where they aren’t appropriate (particulary Indo-European-derived grammatical terms onto non-IE languages). Choosing ‘instrumental’ rather than ‘modalis’, for example, may imply a far more unified set of functions for the case than it may have in the data. Then again, maybe people started using terms like ‘modalis’ precisely because it was easier to label what is clearly one morphosyntactic case than figure out its various functions in more detail. (I’m not saying I can do any better – at least in Iñupiaq, modalis does have a dizzying array of functions.)

Intuitively, I feel that there’s been less use of subfield-specific terms in Eskimo-Aleut linguistics within the last twenty or so years. Sadock, for example, is one who tends to use standard terminology within the subfield. He uses instrumental where others use modalis. While it’s not a perfect fit, because this case clearly has some uses that aren’t instrumental, at least some of the uses are instrumental. Fortescue keeps some of the subfield terms (relative) but not others (similaris – he uses equative instead).

My dissertation advisor (Anggarrgoon) had the brilliant idea of defining case names as variables in my LaTeX files, which means that if necessary, I can change all of the case terms in an entire document easily and without rewriting everything. Indecisive to the last? Perhaps, but I suppose I see it as leaving options open. For the time being, I’m come to the conclusion that the pros of abandoning subfield-specific terminology outweigh the cons.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the pros and cons, especially others in subfields with lots of non-standard terms. Did you abandon non-standard terms and wish you hadn’t? Stuck with them but regretted it?

Sweden’s most beautiful dialect

Lingvistbloggen and Språkbloggen have both recently posted about a contest going on over at Sveriges Radio (Sweden’s national radio). It’s called Sveriges skönaste dialekt 2008 (Sweden’s most beautiful dialect 2008). Even if you don’t speak Swedish, it’s a neat little way to hear the large variety of Swedish dialects, from skånska to värmländska to norrländska (which is really not one big homogenous dialect anyway). From SR’s perspective, this seems to be just a cute way to educate the public about the many different dialects of Swedish, not shoving standard Swedish (rikssvenska) down everyone’s throat. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t name the dialects, it just gives the speaker’s city, but that’s usually enough to figure out the dialect with a little help from a dialect map.

Personally, I’m partial to östgötska because I learned Swedish while living in Östergötland, but of course I don’t think there’s an objective “most beautiful” dialect anyway. What I think is really interesting about it is that it’s a contest decided by majority vote. Will people choose their own dialects as most beautiful, or will prestige be more important? Will they just vote for the ones they find weirdest? It immediately brings to mind Dennis Preston’s work, for example, showing that Southern US folks thought the Southern dialects were the most pleasing, while the Michiganders thought their Michigan dialect was best. It’ll be interesting to see what people choose.

Does anyone know of any similar contests in other languages?

(By the way, if you’re interested in more about Swedish dialects, SweDia is a nice place to start. They have .wav and .mp3 files of speakers from dozens of different dialects, organized by gender and approximate age group.)