What is language revitalization about? Some insights from Provence

by James Costa (Sorbonne Nouvelle / UMR LACITO (CNRS), Paris)

Should you find yourself in Provence this summer, you might wonder why some villages have bilingual signs at the entrance. Your surprise would be forgiven, since you are unlikely to have heard anything but French in most places, and likely a lot of English as you approach the Mediterranean. But if you listen more closely, observe more closely, you might come across a world that is fast vanishing, but that is still present. You might stumble upon a concert in a language that you cannot identify, or wonder why some street names don’t sound French. You might even hear people speak Occitan—for this is what it is, a language also known as Provençal, one which many locals will refer to as “Patois” (a derogatory term in France to refer to anything other than French traditionally spoken in the country).

Bilingual sign (French, Provençal)

This sort of experience might happen to you in Provence, but not only. Across the European Union, several million people speak a language that is not the official language of the state they live in. Across Europe, there are language advocates who defend and promote the right to speak one’s language. This struggle for language rights also extends to Latin America, North America, Australia, and many other places. This, many scholars assert, is a consequence of globalization—a backlash against uniformity if you like. A way of being oneself, of finding meaning locally in a world that seems to be getting smaller. In my recent book, Revitalising Language in Provence: A Critical Approach, I argue otherwise. Those movements are not a reaction to globalization—they are, on the contrary, a way of taking part in this process, on the very terms defined by those who define what globalization is (and not on their own terms, as Leena Huss [2008, 133] asserts).

But let’s start from the beginning. This book focuses on Provence, home to what is perhaps the earliest language reclamation movement, or at least one of the earliest. Poets had already started writing texts in defense of Gascon, Provençal or Languedocien (all dialects of what most scholars of Romance linguistics view as Occitan) back in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is perhaps a consequence of an increasingly aggressive move to promote French in all administrative domains at the expense of Latin and Occitan, which had been in use for official usage for centuries in what is now Southern France. But it was after the French Revolution Terror government (after 1793) sought to eradicate the “patois” that a genuine interest was born in various parts of France, resulting in the south in a rediscovery of the poetry of Medieval Troubadours and in a scholarly interest in the history of Provence and Languedoc before their annexation to France. It wasn’t, however, before the 1850s that an organized language-based movement was formed, under the aegis of poets such as Frederic Mistral or Joseph Roumanille.

The Felibrige was the name they gave to their movement, a name whose origin remains mysterious. The Felibres sought to revive the Provençal or Occitan language (which was still almost universally spoken in all of Southern France) through poetry and literature. And indeed, Mistral published a series of long, epic poems that were hailed across Europe as monuments of literature. Mirèio is probably his most well known poem, a love story set in the Crau region of Provence and an allegory of the language revival movement. Mirèio was acclaimed in Paris as a chef d’æuvre, and was prefaced by Lamartine.

I recount parts of the history of the movement in the book but for this blog post, suffice it to say that while successful on a literary level, it never succeeded in political terms. Provençal was long banned in education, and despite a strong Occitan movement throughout the 20th century, the use of Provençal continued (and continues) to decline. But the story I tell in this book isn’t the story of the language movement. Instead, following a two-year ethnographic study in Provence, I ask why the movement was based on language at all, like so many others afterwards—but, crucially, none before, or at least none before the 1840s.  Continue reading “What is language revitalization about? Some insights from Provence”

One Language, Two Grammars: the ‘Plight’ of Classical Armenian

by Robin Meyer (University of Oxford; Hon. Secretary for Student Associate Members)

Armenian is one of those Indo-European languages that very rarely gets much attention from students of historical linguistics or comparative philology; most frequently, it crops up only in discussions of the augment, laryngeals, and the Glottalic Theory. This, alas, is unlikely to change.
Yet, Armenian can serve as an interesting case study for a number of fields within linguistics, not least language contact and corpus linguistics. With these two topics in mind, allow me to introduce you to Armenian – albeit in extreme brevity –, and to illustrate one of its more curious traits: its two grammars.

Map of Armenia in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE
An exceedingly short introduction: Iranian, Greek, and the Armenian language(s)

Armenian, attested in its Classical form (called գրաբար |grabar|) since the 5th century CE, is a language with a couple of twists. Until a ground-breaking paper by Heinrich Hübschmann (1875), Armenian was thought to belong to the Iranian language family. In fact, Armenian is most closely related to Greek – and even that not all that closely (Clackson 1994). For the most part, this relationship is not immediately obvious at the surface, particularly if compared to the similarities between, for instance, Vedic and Old Avestan, or Latin and Oscan.
The reason for its historical allocation to the Iranian family lies in the inordinate amount of Iranian loan words and calques, both lexical and phraseological, in Armenian. These are mostly taken from Parthian (North West Middle Iranian; Meillet 1911–12, Schmitt 1983). Less obviously, even certain Iranian syntactic structures and patterns have been replicated (Meyer 2013, 2016). These borrowings are, without doubt, owed to long-lasting contact between Armenian and Parthian speakers. Since the 5th century BCE, Armenia was under Iranian rule in one form or another: Achaemenid, Artaxiad, Arsacid Parthian, and later Sasanian Persian. For the most part, an Armenian king of Iranian origin ruled as primus inter pares among other Armenian and Iranian noble families. The history and ethnic composition of Armenia is, of course, far more complex than can be described in one sentence; excellent summaries can be found in Hovannisian (1997).

So far, so good. Continue reading “One Language, Two Grammars: the ‘Plight’ of Classical Armenian”

Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics

by Tam Blaxter (University of Cambridge)

Quantitative methods in historical linguistics are most often used to answer ‘variationist’ questions. We assume that we know what the possible forms of a language were, but ask questions about their distribution: when was one form replaced by another? Who used which forms? Were some more common in particular linguistic contexts, genres or text types? For this reason, quantitative methods might seem unappealing to historical linguists primarily interested in describing a historical variety—its grammar and lexicon—or describing etymologies. From time to time, however, quantitative data can throw a light on these more basic descriptive questions.

An excerpt from the Old Norwegian Homily Book

Old Norwegian, unlike its better-studied West Nordic sister Old Icelandic, exhibited height harmony of unstressed non-low vowels. Readers familiar with Old Icelandic texts will expect to see three distinct vowels in unstressed syllables: /a i u/ written <a i u>. In Old Norwegian texts we find an additional two graphemes, <e o>, in complementary distribution with <i u>. These vowels agree with the vowel of the stressed syllable for height: <i u> appear in unstressed syllables whenever the stressed syllable was high and <e o> whenever it was non-high. There are two exceptions to this rule: when the syllable contained the vowel normalised ǫ, which was the u-umlaut product of *a, we find unstressed syllables with <u> and either <e> or <i>, and when the stressed syllable contained the i-umlaut product of *a (usually normalised e but sometimes written ę to distinguish it from /e/ < Proto-Germanic *e), we find unstressed syllables with <i> and either <u> or <o>.

In theory, then, we could use the vowel harmony to distinguish between the stressed phonemes /e/ and /ę/ which were not (consistently) distinguished in the orthography: the former should have harmony vowels <e o> while the latter should have <i o/u>. However, Old Norwegian vowel harmony is a slippery creature. Few texts exhibit it totally consistently, making it difficult to sort out what is orthographic and what phonological variation. If we take a qualitative approach in which we read individual texts and describe their orthographies, we can’t confidently interpret deviations from vowel harmony as meaningful. If, on the other hand, we take a quantitative approach which includes data from many different texts, interesting patterns may become clear. Continue reading “Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics”

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 5

Notes on the nominal system of Bashkardi

by Agnes Korn (CNRS / UMR Mondes iranien et indien)

This article studies the nominal system and noun phrase of Bashkardi, a language of the Iranian family spoken in Southern Iran in the region of Bashakerd. Bashkardi is a very little studied language, and is in particular need of being documented because it is a minority language endangered by heavy influence from Persian. The article is based on recordings made by Ilya Gershevitch in 1956.

In discussing the Bashkardi nominal system, I compare it to that of geographically or historically neighbouring languages such as Balochi, spoken nearby in the province (and also in the form of the Koroshi dialect spoken in Fars province to the west). From a historical perspective, Middle Persian and Parthian, the only two Western Iranian languages attested from Middle Iranian times, are adduced to elucidate the development of the Bashkardi nominal system.

I argue that the nominal system of Bashkardi agrees with Persian and other Western Ir. languages in having lost the distinction between direct and oblique case (preserved in Kurmanji, Balochi etc.), but that a trace of the oblique case might be present in the possessive marker -ī. Like Middle Persian, Bashkardi employs adpositions to mark syntactic relations, but none of these is used in a systematic way as of yet.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12087

Finiteness in Greek and Latin, then and now

by Dag Haug (University of Oslo)

Finiteness is a crucial notion in modern theories of grammar.  The concept originates in the work of ancient grammarians on Greek and Latin and it has often been thought to be inadequate for other languages. In my talk, I trace a very brief history of the idea and then show that Greek and Latin themselves actually display a number of phenomena relating to the syntax and semantics of participles and infinitives that challenge this traditional idea of finiteness. Thus, there is still a lot to learn from the grammar of Greek and Latin if one is willing to dig deeper than the traditional descriptions.

A video recording of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 13 January, 4.15pm. The slideshow accompanying the paper is available here.

Understanding the loss of inflection

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

The role of inflection is one of the most conspicuous ways that languages differ from each other. While English speakers only have to learn four or five forms of the verb, speakers of Georgian have to deal with paradigms containing hundreds of forms. In return for their efforts, they gain the ability to express complex propositions compactly: the single word vuc’er requires five words in its English translation ‘I am writing to him’.

Surrey Morphology Group
Loss of Inflection: a research project by the Surrey Morphology Group

The extent of inflectional morphology also distinguishes different historical stages of the same language – during its recorded history English has dramatically reduced the inflection it inherited from Proto-Germanic, leaving only a few relics, like the distinction between pronominal I/me, she/her, he/him.

The inflectional poverty of modern English may come as a relief to the many people who learn it as a second language, but its meagre remaining stock of inflection is zealously guarded by purists. Barack Obama was ‘roundly criticized’ for using a subject pronoun in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” – a use described by Hock in his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991: 629) as ‘the ultimate horror’ (admittedly in scare quotes), and which even led one blogger to comment “believe it or not, this was a contributing factor to my voting decision”. Continue reading “Understanding the loss of inflection”