One thing that I really love about college: free lectures! (Right now, I’m about to hear Nazila Fathi, a journalist and commentator in Iran and correspondent for the New York Times, talk about the Iranian Revolution. More on that later.) When else in my life will I be able to hear from so many notable speakers, all within a few blocks of my residence?
A few days ago, I attended a lecture by Professor John R. te Velde, a professor of linguistics at Oklahoma State University. Professor te Velde researches German dialects including Kiezdeutsch, Yiddish, Hessian, Swabian, and Swiss German. Even though I know next to nothing about linguistics, I’m glad I went — this lecture introduced me to dialect research and explained why the study and preservation of dialects is critical in understanding human language.
One question that Professor te Velde addressed was: what is a dialect, and how does a dialect develop? A dialect is a form of a language spoken in a certain area that uses a bit of its own pronunciation, words, and grammar — it’s distinct from the standardized form of a language. Standardized language, as the term suggests, has a standard set of rules and pronunciations and is reinforced through formal instruction, whereas dialects are informal and specific to a certain region or group. Dialects can develop when a group is isolated geographically, or has few foreign influences.
Professor te Velde pointed out some of the ways that Hessian and Swabian, the dialects he focuses on, differ from Standard German. I’ve only been studying German for a few months, so I’m not exactly an expert in German pronunciation (as I was unfortunately reminded at my first oral exam last week), but I couldn’t help but think that the Hessian and Swabian dialects might sound to a speaker of Standard German like a Scottish or Irish accent might sound to an American.
Why is the study of dialects so urgent and important? Dialects provide insight into the way that informal languages develop. They provide more vocabulary for a greater range of verbal expression, and the more dialects that exist within a language family, the stronger that language family is. Unfortunately, many of them are dying out.
I can’t begin to imagine the implications of this death of languages, but losing a means of verbally expressing a unique concept or emotion that doesn’t translate into another dialect seems like losing an important artifact, something that provides insight to the history and culture of a region — and that’s a really dismal thought.