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Thursday, 15 June 2006

While it is yet Today

Counter Languages change. This has already been established. For this reason, translations need to change along with them. At what rate this needs to be done has not yet been established, but in the case of The United States of America, the answer to that question is obviously somewhat in excess of two and a quarter centuries, but somewhere not far short of four centuries.

This is seen in that no attempt has ever been made to officially translate the founding documents of the country, composed at the end of the 18th century. The orthography is often updated, and certainly the punctuation, but never the language. But going back another 175 years to the founding documents of the American nation, composed in the early 17th century, we find that not only must the orthography and punctuation be changed, but the spelling of most words is so archaic as to require revision in virtually all modern quotations of the same.

But is this a change to language? I maintain that it is. For changes of language are first reflected in in the written record by changes of spelling. In the last century the government of Mongolia, lately free of its Russian overlords but not of the domination of their culture over the previous century, threw out the ancient Mongolian writing system and replaced it with an alphabet based on the Russian one. Why was this done? Because the Mongolian alphabet reflected a language of some six centuries past, and learning to read in it essentially required the mastery of a different language altogether. Now, the alphabet itself was fully adaptable to Modern Mongolian, but its cultural associations were wholly with the pre-communist world of the Mongol Empire, which was sucessfully extinguished by a lifetime of communist rule. During that time the ancient Mongolian alphabet, along with the current Mongolian language, had been academically supressed in favor of Russian.

So when the new governing elite of Mongolia, trained as they had been in the Russian academic system, set out to reform the Mongolian orthography, they decided instead to jettison it altogether in favor of a strict phonetic system using as its base the Cyrillic letters of the Russian alphabet. Since by that time only about five per cent of the population could read Old Mongolian, the change was easy to implement. Old Mongolian is at last extinct, both as a spoken and now finally as a written language.

So we can see here the mechanism by which any written language eventually becomes extinct:

1) The spoken language of an ethnic group is reduced to writing and literature in that language (which at this moment is the same, both spoken and written) becomes widespread. That is to say, not everyone who speaks the language can necessarily read it, but everyone does have access to someone who can. During this time the spoken language is itself standardized by the presence of the written language.

2) The spoken language continues to change, as all languages do, but its rate of change is held in check by the presence of the writen language. That rate in turn is dependent upon the level and extent of education in the written language. Along with this development is the spread of the language itself, along with its writing system, to the trading partners of the original ethnic group.

3) The spoken language changes to the extent that the written language (which can never keep pace with changes in the spoken language) grows farther and farther behind it in development. At this stage other ethnic groups may change the written language slightly to adapt it to their own needs. But without an internal upheaval in the original ethnic group, a language can continue on in this stage for centuries--even millennia. A single paradigm shift, however, can move a language from this stage to the next in the course of a single lifetime--to the point that elderly people are unable to communicate directly with their own great-grandchildren.

4) Prepatory to the paradigm shift, a new language begins to impinge on usage of the old one. This ocurrs through the political, cultural, and economic hegemony of a more powerful nation. Trade and education is more and more being conducted in the new language, although the old language continues to be spoken by the masses. This is an unstable situation that craves resolution, which when it comes, comes swiftly.

5) As more and more education is conducted in the new language, it becomes more difficult for users of the spoken language to master their own archaic written language. This is especially so if the new language has a writing system that is much more in sync with its own vernacular. Suddenly, something happens to bring about the paradigm shift, and the old written language, which has long ceased to be spoken, is replaced with the writing system of the new language. Not in every case is it replaced with the new language itself--but the old orthography is completely abandoned, never to be revived. Traces of it will probably remain in the new system, but at the time it is formed, the new system will represent the current status of the spoken language better than the old system ever could. Interestingly enough, the old language will continue to endure indefinitely as a second language of the educated clergy if its status as a liturgical language is allowed to remain.

I could spend the next month writing about how this process has worked out in history, but instead I will just briefly list some outstanding examples.

1) Etruscan gave its writing system to the languages of central Italy, one of which prevailed over all the others, even to the extinction of Etruscan itself. The Latin alphabet and language so thoroughly replaced those of Etruscan that there is hardly a trace now to show that the language ever existed.

2) Paleo-Hebrew endured for centuries until being snuffed out by the Assyrian and Babalonian Captivity of Israel and Judah. Hebrew remained as a liturgical language, but its orthography was replaced by the square letters of the Assyrians. Now "Hebrew" has been revived as the national language of Israel, but 90% of its vocabulary is either constructed or borrowed from other languages.

3) Latin itself, many centuries after replacing Etruscan (the language of the Latin's erstwhile conquerors), was itself replaced as a spoken language after the Barbarian conquest. First, the pure Latin of Rome was adulterated into the Vulgar Latin of the Barbarian troops sent to occupy the far corners of the Empire. Then, as the empire crumbled and multiple tribes rushed in to occupy its fringes, the various Vulgar dialects developed into languages of their own--dozens in all, which are in turn gradually being swallowed up by the national languages of their respective countries. Latin remained well into the 20th century as the language of Catholic and classical education, with a revival of sorts now underway on the Internet.

And now I'll give an example of a language that has never undergone such a paradigm shift, and briefly explain why.

Greek was the language of the City-States of the first millennium BCE; the language of the Greek Empire under Alexander and his disparate successors; and the trade language of the whole Mediterranean Basin during the days of the Roman Empire. It continued on as the official language of Byzantium after the fall of the West, but seemed doomed by the Islamic conquest which nibbled at the corners of the Empire for eight hundred years before the fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought all of the Greek-speaking world under the domination of a culture whose written language was Arabic.

Why, then, when Greece finally emerged from Islamic occupation 380 years later, was Greek still the national language, as it is to this day? The answer lies in the fact that while Arabic was the liturgical language of Greece's conquerors, Turkish was their spoken language. In addition, spoken Arabic itself had already splintered by that time into dozens of spoken languages. Thus it was unable to compete with the spoken Greek even as a trade language. Furthermore, as the Greeks resisted Islamification they continued to use Greek as their liturgical language, as to this day. Yes, there developed a dichotomy between the spoken and written Greek, as there must, but no other language qualified to take advantage of this weakness, and Greek endures to this day as a language that is spoken one way and written another.

Now, I could write another whole article on what this all means to us as speakers and writers of English, and how that relates to the Today's New International Version.

But not Today.

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