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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Language prejudices and myths

There is a universal myth related to languages and attached to minority groups, rural communities and the less well educated which implies that some varieties of a language are not as good as others. Higher elites impose their rules and behaviors on the rest of the society while they also claim that their language variety is the standard one.

This type of social discrimination, which can even make nonstandard speakers feel ashamed of speaking their mother tongue, is the main cause of the resulting prejudices among speakers of different dialects of a given language. Nevertheless, language prejudices do not appear only among different dialect speakers; they are also common among speakers of a particular language who tend to analyze foreign languages by comparing them unfavorably with their own. Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of such language prejudices, which are usually based on ignorance.
One month after being sworn in, Adolfo Su├írez, Spain’s first democratically elected Prime Minister after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, was interviewed by French magazine Paris Match in 1976. According to his opinion at that time, the Prime Minister claimed that Catalan and Basque languages could not be used to teach nuclear chemistry due to their insufficient terminology; needless to say, his assumptions proved to be wrong.

Prestige languages are sometimes overpraised to the detriment of a vast majority of languages which are less known, especially in Western countries. One of the most persistent myths in popular culture is related to the birth of writing. Even though Egyptians and Sumerians created the first writing systems in the world, Western cultures have traditionally believed that it was the Greeks who achieved perfection by simplifying and improving those ideograms which were excessively complex and primitive; therefore, from a Western-centric perspective, the Greek alphabet is the alphabet par excellence. Obviously, this simplistic vision of the history of writing and the creation of the alphabet can be explained as a result of the fact that Western cultures are descendants of the Greco-Roman tradition.

The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of many other alphabetic scripts, including Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew. Being spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean basin, the Phoenician alphabet was assimilated by other cultures and evolved with the times. Although it is widely assumed that the Greeks “improved” the Phoenician alphabet by inserting vowels, nobody seems to wonder why the Phoenician alphabet, which became one of the most widely used writing systems in ancient times, contained no vowels at all.

Phoenician was a Semitic language. Unlike Indo-European languages, the representation of vowels is not a crucial issue in Semitic languages because the meaning is mostly carried by consonants. Likewise, sentence rhythm and tones are not represented in Latin alphabet; they are not important to understand the text. Nevertheless, tones must be represented when writing Chinese with the Latin alphabet (pinyin method) or otherwise the text would be unintelligible. The reason why the Greeks added vowels to the Phoenician alphabet was simply because vowels are fundamental in Indo-European languages. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that the Greeks did not improve but adapted the Phoenician alphabet to their own language. The Phoenician alphabet was already a perfect tool for what it was meant to be used for – that is, as a written expression of the Phoenician language.

Language prejudices are a reflection of our lack of knowledge of different cultures. We all have heard that “French is the language of love” but, obviously, love can be expressed in any other language apart from French. All languages in the world are able to express the same concepts, although they may use different ways. The reason is simple: what works for one language does not necessarily work for another one.

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