Dialects and imported languages
The English language, as used today in Australia, can be
traced to its earliest colonisers. It is known that the British stuffed
the colony with criminals. This lower class English is still very much
present in the local language. Australians use words like ‘mate’ which
are shunned by the (upper-class) British.
Similar is the distinction between Belgian French and French
French. Officially there is no distinction, but the reality is
different. French speaking Belgians have a slightly divergent
use some expressions they learned from the Flemish. These
characteristics can be found in the respective former African
colonies. Example given: the black Africans in the DRC
(Democratic Republic of
Congo – former Belgian Congo) still speak French with a Belgian
accent and use the typical Belgian-French expressions.
My point is: when a language is imported, then it can be
traced to the people who imported it.
This means that, if one supposes that English was imported
by Angles, Saxons, Fries and Jutes, that those respective languages
should be traceable in England. We know that there was not one single
version of Old English, but that there are several ones, and each of
them can be attributed to an English region. Some Old English texts
(pick one) Old Saxon, Old Fries, Old Norse (= also Old Danish),
etc. One can suppose for instance that the oldest texts from
Sussex (= South Saxonia) should bear a resemblance to continental Old
Saxon. Perhaps one can state that the names of those old kingdoms
do not necessarily reflect the majority of its conquerors. But at
least, some old English texts should have some resemblance with some
old texts of some regions in northern Germany. At least, that was
supposed. That was to be expected. But is it?
In fact, Hans Frede Nielsen wrote in 1979 a paper "The Old English Dialects and the Continental Germanic Languages"
in which he tried to demonstrate the existence of linguistic links
between the old continental Germanic languages and their local British
counterparts. Example: is the Old English variant of Wessex
(West-Saxonia in England) really closely related to Saxonia in Germany?
After an assiduous study Nielsen should have discovered some strong
indications in a number of language details, called innovations. But to
his great surprise Nielsen came to exactly the opposite conclusion: no
link between regional Germanic variants in Britain and their continental
homologues could be demonstrated, au contraire.
He was unable to show for example that Wessex was populated by Saxons
or that east Anglia was by Angles and so on. He found a complete chaos.
For instance, Northumbria is reputed to be conquered by Angles, but
local language innovations do not refer to north Germany (where the
Angles came from) but instead refer to Old High German (south Germany)
and Old Flemish. No logic whatsoever could be found. The Old
English dialect behaved fully independently from the Continent. For me,
this all points in one direction only: English evolved independently way
before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Sadly, this highly important paper was
superbly ignored. Actually, Nielsen himself was sorry.
Dialects: general considerations
The study of dialects is a relative recent science. It’s only the last
50 years or so that it is taken seriously. Before that time, dialects
were ‘not considered worth to be studied’.
As this science is so young, there is little consensus even
about the definition of what a dialect is, or when a local tongue can
be considered to be a dialect. The boundary between a dialect and another
language is also not clearly defined.
Some linguists consider the major Scandinavian languages like
Norwegian, Swedish and Danish as dialects of each other. Officially
they are distinct languages.
The distinction has until today more to do with politics than with objective criteria.
South-Afrikaans was considered until 1926 to be a form of
Dutch. Since then, it is supposed to be a derived, but distinct
language. South-Afrikaans speaking people can understand easily
official Dutch, and Dutchmen need little time to adapt to the
Is American English a dialect of Standard English? Most
scholars believe that there is little to distinct both tongues.
A softer type of dialect is ‘variant’, so American English can be considered as a variant of English.
One of the most used criteria is whether both people do
understand each other without great difficulties. The fact is that
Americans have no trouble at all in understanding British English. On
the other hand is West-Flemish regarded as a dialect of general
Dutch. But people from Holland, for instance Amsterdam, can by no means
understand what the West-Flemish are saying to each other. They
almost would understand general German better.
Up to how far is West-Flemish a dialect and not a separate
language? Little is known about the mechanism of the emergence of
dialects. Most scholars will however agree that 2 conditions are
important: isolation and time. South-Afrikaans is a good
example: it is relatively old (± 400 years) and was pretty
isolated. But as we saw, the distinction with official Dutch is
smaller than with some Dutch sub-languages such as Fries or
West-Flemish. Point of fact is that these are not dialects but distinct
(sub-) languages. West-Flemish is said to be a dialect until now for political reasons. Confused? You should be. UNESCO declared West-Flemish to be a distinct language.
Time is the most important condition to form a dialect. The
more dialects there are within a language group, the older this group
is. For Dutch with its official 29 dialects, this means: very old,
some 6000 years at least. English is most probably not much younger.
By comparison, France has much less dialects. It is true
that French is a relative young language as it has originated from
'northern Occitan-Romance' (mixed with its official dialect: Latin). We
can state that French is ‘only’ some 1400 years old.
We should also not confuse a dialect with a poor knowledge
of the language. People who do not use English as their primary
language have sometimes an accent, make errors, but this cannot be
judged as a dialect.