Writing can divide even when language does not

Writing can divide us even when language unites us
Writing can divide us even when language unites us

Humans excel at discussing how their family, tribe, state, or ethnicity differs from another. Even when everything seems so similar to the outsider, the insider can fixate on one aspect of culture. A dance move, a hand gesture, the use of a spice, a pattern of embroidery–anything can show how you and I are “essentially” different.

Personally, I love these differences, but I can see the downside. When I study languages, I love the little differences. I seek out how Ukrainians pronounce Russian, how different Arabic dialects say the word “now,” how Serbs and Croats pronounce “girl” differently. Variety is the spice of life, right? When discussing these differences with native speakers, sometimes the discussion unfortunately moves to value-based ideas like language “purity” or “progressive” thinking or some other sort of ideology. I dislike ideology because it cements differences by devaluing the Other. Variety and distinctions display the uniqueness of human beings and cultures. The cultural differences I have encountered have shown me that I always have more to learn; I don’t have all the answers.

Writing systems represent a “paralinguistic” phenomenon that cultures can use to distinguish themselves. Even when people speak each other’s language, or even speak the same language, writing divides. Division may be bad, in that it can foment chauvinism, or may be good, in that it can preserve unique cultural traits. In any case, writing distinguishes cultural groups within an otherwise unified linguistic milieu.

Polyglot illiterates in India

Recently I read Michael Erard’s, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. (Anyone who loves languages must read this salute to hyperpolyglots.) In one place, he discusses the polyglot world of India. My experience supports his description, that Indians speak multiple languages. At the same time, each language does not represent an “airtight” container; every Indian seems to be speaking multiple languages simultaneously by dropping in words from whatever language comes to mind. Sid, a Telugu whom I interviewed a while ago, said he chooses the word from the language that suits most what he’s trying to say. Erard discussed the Tamil grammarian, E. Annamalai, who wrote of an Indian “monogrammar,” that is, “While they sound different and use different vocabularies, he said, the grammars are nearly the same” (Erard, 208).

Significantly, among such similar languages, distinct writing systems developed for many Indian languages. India is divided into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan languages in the North, and the Dravidian languages in the South. The four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each possesses its own writing system. Among my South Indian acquaintances, a working knowledge of at least 2-3 of them is common–but they can’t read them.

The contrast struck me between the common ability to speak many Dravidian languages and inability to read them, prompting me to ask the question of “why?” Human beings use markers to distinguish among groups, whether by food (eg, kosher), clothing (eg, hijab), or language. Since the first two do not distinguish among these South Indian groups significantly, and many people move fluidly among the languages, the societal organism grabbed on to writing as a way to distinguish. As a result, you can place a piece of writing in front of an Indian polyglot to see where in the social structure he or she belongs.

To simplify or not to simplify in China

The Chinese word for "National language&q...
The Chinese word for “National language” (國語; Guóyǔ) written in Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, followed by Hanyu Pinyin, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Tongyong Pinyin and Wade-Giles romanizations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After several decades of serious discussion, Chinese intellectuals decided to simplify Chinese writing in the 1950s and ’60s under Mao Zedong.  This reform took off on the mainland; in Hong Kong, Macau, and Republic of China (Taiwan), however, they continue to use the traditional system. The former is called “Simplified,” and the latter, “Traditional.”  For some rarer applications, one can use the standard romanized writing system, Pinyin, for writing in Chinese. I also learned about the Dungan people of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet Republics, who write their dialect of Mandarin Chinese in the Cyrillic alphabet. Compared to the other writing systems, though, this one is negligible.

While we think of Chinese writing as difficult, we have to understand that there are two significant Chinese writing systems. Native speakers/writers of each one find the other difficult. Even if speakers in Mainland China and Taiwan speak the same dialect, they may write using systems that are not mutually intelligible. In effect, Chinese writing is bilingual, even if the people are speaking the same dialect.

In this aspect, the writing systems cemented in place the divisions in the country from the ’50s and ’60s. While the Mainland was moving in one direction under Mao, the other areas that were resistant to Mao’s ideas moved in another.

These divisions are still effective today, though I don’t know if anyone has measured the extent. At my company, our IT Service Desk needs distinct teams to be able to handle requests for help in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. We know that a huge amount of traffic on the internet is “in Chinese.” But this is usually measured as “speakers of Chinese.” Since there isn’t a single written Chinese, then one would have to add the usage in Traditional, Simplified, and Pinyin Chinese writing.

One people divided by religion and writing

Slavs moved into the Balkans in Southeast Europe in around the 5th-6th century. Most believe that they moved from the North, maybe from the area of modern-day Ukraine. (From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Slavs.) They were independent tribes, without central leadership.

During successive centuries, part of them came under the influence of the Eastern Christians (Orthodox), centered in Constantinople, and some under the Western Christians (Catholic), centered in Rome. In time, the former came to be known as “Serbs” and the latter, “Croats.” These groups started to develop national identities around their respective religions. Certain geographical areas contained a majority of one group, which became another important part of their cultural identity.

The religious leadership worked to evangelize and educate the Southern Slavs, each in their own writing system. To this day, Serbs read and write principally in Cyrillic writing, and Croats almost exclusively in the Latin alphabet. Linguists recognize a single spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, with local variations that are more tied to place than to religion, though this has changed a lot since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The religious difference is thus bound up in the language through the writing system.

Writing divides where language does not

In India, China, and the former Yugoslavia we see that mutually unintelligible writing systems are used when languages are fully comprehensible. What could motivate this layer of confusion, when mutual understanding is already present?

Human beings show a tendency to identify with a group whose markers function in opposition to others. Thus a Tamil who speaks Tamil and Kannada can say to the Kannada person, “I am not Kannada because I cannot read that writing.” A Taiwanese Mandarin speaker can say to the Mainlander, “We may speak the same language, but I cannot read your writing. If you have something important to say, I’m sure you’ll tell me.” The Croat can say to the Serb, “Your writing looks so Russian! You Serbs have a much more eastern mentality than we do.” The writing systems provide data to demonstrate that our groups, which share so much in common, are different deep down.

Individuals may not pronounce these precise phrases, but they demonstrate how easy it is to move from alphabet or ideogram to identity and to ideology. We must be careful of this ease of motion.

Most importantly for me, I don’t believe in erasing differences among people, though they must be viewed with caution. I believe in these distinctions; differences in culture exist just as attached and unattached earlobes exist. They don’t necessarily imply different ideologies. Varying language systems help preserve diversity, as well. Identifying with one culture over another, though, can be dangerous. Preserving my culture must be as important as preserving your culture, otherwise we end up with self-righteousness and violence. Writing can preserve beautiful cultures, but one must believe in the beauty and value of every culture to avoid degrading ourselves.

Photo credit: Mennonite Church USA Archives / Foter.com

Why Somali is harder than your language

English: A young Somali man.
A young Somali man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Recently I was discussing with @JaredRomey about an article he posted, “9 hard languages for English speakers.”  I replied that I don’t know why Somali never makes it onto those lists; they tend to be the same list: Chinese, Arabic, etc.  Jared suggested I blog about why Somali deserves to be on the list.  He suggested 5 reasons why it’s hard–I came up with 7, but I’m only a beginner.

 

In difficulty, Somali can stand its ground against the hardest languages.  Yet the Foreign Service Institute puts Somali in category 2, where 3 is the hardest.  Category 2 includes Farsi and 3 includes Arabic.  I’ve studied both, and I don’t see how this is so; Somali seems to be way harder than Farsi and of at least the same level of difficulty as Arabic.  If you drew a Venn  diagram of languages and their hardest aspects, Somali would overlap with a lot of them.  While Mandarin and Somali have tones, Mandarin has no case.  While German and Somali have case, German has fairly simple sounds.  While Arabic and Somali have difficult sounds, Arabic has a consistent writing system.  Plus Somali does some odd things with prepositions you’ll have to read about, below.  Somali is a doosy–but the challenge is made lighter by the joy of Somalis hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.

 

For a bit of background: Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, in the Cushitic branch.  More famous branches of this family are Semitic, to which Arabic and Hebrew belong, and Egyptian, which includes the language of the ancient Pharaohs.  Some overlap with Arabic, then, is natural.

 

  1. Three (four?) writing systems.  When Somali was originally written down in the Arabic script in the 13th century (Wadaad script).  In 1920, another script was invented that somewhat resembled the Ethiopian writing system (Osmanya script).  A more minor script was invented in 1930, called the Borama script.  The official script since 1972 has been a Latin-based alphabet (Somali alphabet).
  2. All the hard sounds of Arabic.  The guttural sounds that foreigners have trouble with in Arabic–they’re all in Somali.  The emphatic ha, the ayin, the qaf, the raspy kha–they’re all there.  (They’re spelled x, c, q, and kh, respectively.)  Additionally, Somali distinguishes between short and long vowels, like in Arabic, and other languages like Japanese and Finnish.  So my friends correct me if I say “si” rather than “sii.”  Finally, they have a retroflex “d” (spelled dh) like in Indian languages.
  3. Some of the tones of Mandarin.  Most have heard of the four different tones of Mandarin: high, low, falling, and rising.  Somali only has two, high and low, but they can sound different depending on the environment they are found in.  They change the meaning of the word, too!  “Boy” is ínan, and “girl” is inán; “dog” is éy and “dogs” is eý.
  4. Irregular plurals like German or Arabic.  A Somali noun forms its plural according to a pattern that is not predictable from its singular, and Somali has 7 or so patterns.  This concept may sound familiar to German- or Arabic-speakers.  Unlike English, which almost always forms its plural with “-(e)s,” Somali has no “regular” plural suffix.  So the plural of áf  “language,” flattens the tone and repeats the last syllable: afaf.  For some nouns, a suffix is used, so hoóyo “mother” goes to hoyoóyin, and áabbe goes to aabayaal (also note the tone shift).  Finally, words may shift gender as they go from singular to plural.
  5. Prepositions–unlike anything.  Somali prepositions don’t resemble any language I know.  They’re a challenge, so I’ll explain as well as I can based largely on this academic source and this textbook.  They are divided into prepositions and “deictic particles.”  They have four prepositions, roughly “to”, “in”, “from”, and “with”.  “Deictic particles” indicate activity relative to the speaker; the four Somali deictic particles indicate toward the speaker, away from the speaker, toward each other, or away from each other.  One may need to use both a preposition and a deictic particle.  Somali tends to place these items in front of the verb, not the noun.
    For example, “I pulled the man out of the well with a rope” is nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.  The last five words literally mean, “well-the rope with-from towards_me I-raised.”  Similarly, “they used to give us news about it” is way inoogá warrámi jireen, literally, “They us-to-about news gave.”  They could have thrown a soo in there, too, right after inoogá.  It seems to me they cluster all the prepositions together.  In the first example, “from” goes with “well” and “with” goes with “rope,” but both stick by the verb.  In the second, “to” goes with “us” and “about” goes with the unspoken “it.”  Unscrambling in real time what preposition goes with what is beyond my level right now.
  6. Cases–like Greek or German.  Somali has four cases, but not the ones you may know from, say German or Greek.  They are absolutive, subject, genitive, and vocative.  Absolutive is used when it is by itself, and subject if there is another noun in the sentence.  Genitive, like in other languages, indicates possession, and vocative is used in directly addressing someone or something.  Like the plural, they are marked with a suffix or tone change, depending on the class of the noun.  In addition, like in German and Greek, the absolutive and subject are marked on the article, as well.  However, Somali also has different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned before or not (similar to English “a” and “the”).
  7. Poetry.  Somalis are known for their love of poetry.  Richard Burton noted in the 19th century the widespread recitation and performance of poetry among Somalis.  When Somali is spoken it is peppered with poetic allusion, proverbs, and alliteration.  The uninitiated cannot understand the depth of the language without a deep knowledge and appreciation of the poetry.

 

Before you feel discouraged, let me tell you that Somalis love to hear their language spoken by foreigners.  Some non-Somalis have become YouTube sensations by simply interviewing in Somali.  When you try to learn the language, you will receive tons of help.  Somalis love their language, and their love is infectious.  Enjoy taking on this challenge of learning Somali and all the new, friendly people you will recruit to help your efforts and entertain with your enthusiasm.