Why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the 'standard' and why its variants were demoted to 'dialect' status is a product of history and politics
The socio-linguist and scholar Max Weinreich once said, “A shprach eez a deealekt mit an armee un flot", which translates to, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy." The original sentence is in Yiddish and, in that fact, lies a delicious irony.
Yiddish originated during the ninth century in central Europe, providing the Ashkenazi Jewish community with a vernacular that was largely Germanic-based and incorporated elements from Hebrew and Aramaic (incidentally, Aramaic was Jesus Christ’s mother tongue). The influence of the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian and others) and traces of the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese and others) is also discernible in this language. It also has a fairly extensive literature.
The irony is that many remain unconvinced about the extent of the linguistic independence of Yiddish from the languages that it absorbed. It’s been said that Yiddish is actually just broken German and more of a linguistic mish-mash than a true language. In other words, according to some, Yiddish is itself a dialect…of German!
In popular telling, a dialect is viewed as something of a “lesser" language. When we speak of a dialect, we sometimes mean a mere spoken language (without a script) and sometimes, a variant of a standard language which, while resembling the standard, also has independent elements of its own that make it different from the standard language.
In reality, language and dialect are ambiguous terms, terms that scholars have difficulty applying to specific situations. The ambiguity stems from the fact that why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the “standard" and why its variants were demoted to “dialect" status is a product of history and politics. It has little to do with any special features of the so-called “standard" language.
Standardization is a process by which a language is codified and this involves the development of dictionaries, spelling forms, a grammar and possibly, a literature. It involves people reaching an agreement and developing a “model" language, a model that people aspire to achieve, even if they have not achieved it at the time of its creation.
Standard English essentially developed from the language (actually, dialect) that was spoken in London, which is where the court moved to (from Winchester) after the Norman Conquest in 1066. This happened organically over the course of several centuries and, gradually, a standard English came to be accepted as the norm. The many variants of English like Cockney, Scots, Yorkshire English are compared to the standard and termed as dialects.
In the case of French, the development of standard French was orchestrated by the government. In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, established the Academie Francaise. Over the next few centuries, the Academie oversaw the creation of a standard French even as its many variants stubbornly defied the Academie’s attempts at standardization, well into the nineteenth century when centuries of language reform coupled with the iron hand of government-mandated language use rules ran the old dialects into the ground. Standard French was soon on its way.
Among the more interesting attempts at standardization has been that of Turkish. The modern state of Turkey was formed in 1922 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as president. Atatürk then initiated a series of political, legal, religious, cultural, social, and economic policy changes to transform the new Republic of Turkey into a secular, modern nation state. The adoption of the Latin alphabet and the purging of foreign words was part of Atatürk’s programme of modernization.
The Turkish Language Association (TDK) was established in 1932 and one of its tasks was to initiate language reform by replacing words of Arabic and Persian origin with Turkish equivalents. By banning the usage of imported words in the press, the association succeeded in removing several hundred foreign words from the language. Many words, newly derived from Turkic roots, were introduced to the language. Equally, Old Turkish words, which had not been used for centuries, were pressed back into active service. A new Turkish thus became the standard.
Owing to this sudden change in the language, older and younger people in Turkey started to differ in their vocabularies. While the generations born before the 1940s tend to use the older terms of Arabic or Persian origin, the younger generations use new expressions. Atatürk himself, in a lengthy speech to the Parliament in 1927, used a style of Ottoman Turkish which has become unintelligible to later listeners and hence it has had to be “translated" three times into modern Turkish: first in 1963, again in 1986, and, most recently, in 1995.
In similar fashion, in the subcontinent, a Sanskritized Hindi and a Persianized Urdu were “created" from the Hindustani base that was the foundation for both languages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Hindi" was willed into existence by Hindu zealots keen on a language purged of Muslim influences. The Hindustani that was spoken in the bazaars of north India was the vehicle chosen for this dream and was purged of its Arabo-Persian words, which were replaced with Sanskrit equivalents. This new creation was held up as standard Hindi.
Other allied languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Braj and many others, many of which were centuries old and had extensive bodies of literature, were then cast as “dialects" of Hindi. The fantastic claim that such a Sanskritized Hindi is likely to have existed in the past before the Muslim invasions was made and the language thus endowed with a history that was nothing more than a purloining of the histories of its “dialects" and more than a dollop of imagination.
Parallely, Urdu was purged of “polluting" Hindu influences. Turkic, Arabic and Persian words were preferred to words from Indian languages and an acceptable Urdu was willed into existence much in the same fashion as an acceptable Hindi was. Both languages jostled for acceptance and legitimacy among their target audience and aspired for “purity" even as the common man continued—and continues to this day—to use what in effect must be rightly termed “Hindustani" (known as Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan). In effect, Sanskritized Hindi claims a history that isn’t really its own while Persianized Urdu, on the other hand, chooses not to dwell on that history much, choosing instead to look to Persian and Arabic as its forerunners.
To return to Yiddish, its lesser status was affirmed when the state of Israel chose the classical language of Hebrew to be its state language, ignoring the claims of Yiddish. When Israel was born in 1948, Yiddish did come to possess an army and navy, but lacked the “divinity" that Hebrew—the language of the Jewish scriptures—had. Hebrew, which was effectively a dead language when this decision was made, then underwent a spectacular revival and is now a widely spoken language in Israel. It is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival.
A standard language is thus a product of many things. In the common telling, it has a hallowed status. In reality, its status is a mere accident. Armies, academies, the hand of god and other things are what take humble dialects to the dizzying heights of “standard" status.
Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.