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Ludwig von Mises

2. Dialect and Standard Language

In primitive times every migration causes not only geographical but also intellectual separation of clans and tribes. Economic exchanges do not yet exist; there is no contact that could work against differentiation and the rise of new customs. The dialect of each tribe becomes more and more different from the one that its ancestors spoke when they were still living together. The splintering of dialects goes on without interruption. The descendants no longer understand one other.

A need for unification in language then arises from two sides. The beginnings of trade make understanding necessary between members of different tribes. But this need is satisfied when individual middlemen in trade achieve the necessary command of language. In early times, when the exchange of goods between distant regions had only a relatively slight significance, scarcely more than individual expressions and word families must have come into more general use in this way. Political changes had to be much more significant for the unification of dialects. Conquerors appeared and created states and political unions of all kinds. The political leaders of broad territories came into closer personal relations; members of all social strata of numerous tribes were united in military service. Partly independently of the political and military organization and partly in closest connection with it, religious institutions arise and spread from one tribe to another. Hand in hand with political and religious strivings for unity go linguistic strivings. Soon the dialect of the ruling or the priestly tribe gains predominance over the dialects of the subjects and laity; soon, out of the different dialects of fellow members of state and religion, a unified mixed dialect is formed.

Introduction of the use of writing becomes the strongest basis for the unification of language. Religious doctrines, songs, laws, and records preserved in writing give preponderance to the dialect in which they have been expressed. Now the further splintering of the language is impeded; now there is an ideal speech that seems worth striving to attain and to imitate. The mystical nimbus that surrounds the letters of the alphabet in primitive times and that even today?at least in regard to their printed form?has not yet quite disappeared raises the prestige of the dialect in which the writing is done. Out of the chaos of dialects there arises the general language, the language of rulers and laws, the language of priests and singers, the literary language. It becomes the language of the higher-placed and more educated persons; it becomes the language of state and culture;[10] it appears finally as the sole correct and noble language; the dialects from which it has arisen, however, are thenceforth regarded as inferior. People consider them corruption's of the written language; people begin to despise them as the speech of the common man.

In the formation of unified languages, political and cultural influences are always working together from the very beginning. The natural element in the dialect of the people is that it draws its strength from the life of those who speak it. On the other hand, the standard and unified language is a product of studyrooms and chancelleries. Of course, it too stems in the last analysis from the spoken word of the common man and from the creations of gifted poets and writers. But it is always shot through with more or less pedantry and artificiality also. The child learns the dialect from his mother; it alone can be his mother tongue; the standard language is taught by the school.

In the struggle that now arises between standard language and dialect, the latter has the advantage that it already takes possession of the person in his most receptive years. But the former also does not stand helpless. That it is the general language, that it leads beyond regional disunity to understanding with broader circles, makes it indispensable to state and church. It is the bearer of the written heritage and the intermediary of culture. Thus it can triumph over the dialect. If, however, it is too distant from the latter, if it is or over time becomes so estranged from the latter that it is still intelligible only to persons who learn it with effort, then it must succumb; then a new standard language arises from the dialect. Thus Latin was displaced by Italian, Church Slavonic by Russian; thus in modern Greek the common speech will perhaps triumph over the katharevousa of classicism.

The luster with which the school and the grammarians are accustomed to surround the standard language, the respect they pay to its rules, and the contempt they show for anyone who sins against these rules cause the relation between the standard language and the dialect to appear in a false light. The dialect is not corrupted standard language; it is primeval language; only out of the dialects was the standard language formed, whether a single dialect or else a mixed form artificially formed out of different dialects was raised to the status of standard language. The question therefore cannot arise at all whether a particular dialect belongs to this or that standard language. The relation between standard language and dialect is not always that of unequivocal association or indeed of superiority and inferiority, and the circumstances of linguistic history and grammar are not alone decisive in that respect. Political, economic, and general cultural developments of the past and present determine to which standard language the speakers of a particular dialect incline; and it can happen that in this way a unified dialect attaches itself partly to one and partly to another standard language.

The process by which the speakers of a particular dialect make the transition to using a particular standard language thereafter, either exclusively or along with the dialect, is a special case of national assimilation. It is especially characterized by being a transition to a grammatically closely related standard language, with this way being as a rule the only conceivable one in a given case. The Bavarian peasant's son has in general no other way open to culture than through the German standard language, even though it may also happen in rare particular cases that, without this detour, he becomes French or Czech directly. Yet for the Low German there are already two possibilities: assimilation to the German or to the Dutch standard language. Which of the two courses he takes is decided neither by linguistic nor genealogical considerations but by political, economic, and social ones. Today there is no longer any purely Plattdeutsch village; at least bilingualism prevails everywhere. If a Plattdeutsch district were to be separated from Germany today and be joined to the Netherlands, with the German school and the German official and judicial language replaced by Dutch ones, then the people affected would see all that as a national rape. Yet one hundred or two hundred years ago, such a separation of a bit of German territory could have been carried out without difficulty, and the descendants of the people who were separated at that time would be just as good Hollanders today as they in fact are good Germans today.

In Eastern Europe, where school and office still do not have anywhere near as much significance as in the West, something of the kind is still possible today. The linguistic researcher will be able to determine of most of the Slavic dialects spoken in upper Hungary whether they are closer to Slovak than to Ukrainian and perhaps also to decide in many cases in Macedonia whether a particular dialect is closer to Serbian or to Bulgarian. Yet that still does not answer the question whether the people who speak this dialect are Slovaks or Ukrainians, Serbs or Bulgarians. For this depends not only on linguistic conditions but also on political, ecclesiastical, and social ones. A village with a dialect undoubtedly more closely related to Serbian can more or less adopt the Bulgarian standard language relatively quickly if it acquires a Bulgarian church and a Bulgarian school.

Only thus can one gain an understanding of the exceedingly difficult Ukrainian problem. The question whether the Ukrainians are an independent nation or only Russians who speak a particular dialect is senseless in this form. If the Ukraine had not lost its political independence in the seventeenth century to the Great Russian state of the Czars, then a separate Ukrainian standard language would probably have developed. If all Ukrainians, including those in Galicia, Bukovina, and upper Hungary, had come under the rule of the Czars as late as the first half of the nineteenth century, then this might not have hindered the development of a separate Ukrainian literature; but this literature would probably have assumed a position in relation to Great Russian no different from that of Plattdeutsch writings in relation to German. It would have remained dialect poetry without particular cultural and political pretensions. However, the circumstance that several million Ukrainians were under Austrian rule and were also religiously independent of Russia created the preconditions for the formation of a separate Ruthenian standard language. No doubt the Austrian government and the Catholic Church preferred that the Austrian Rusins develop a separate language instead of adopting Russian. In this sense there is a spark of truth in the assertion of the Poles that the Ruthenians are an Austrian invention. The Poles are wrong only in saying that without this official support of the early beginnings of the Ruthenian aspirations there would have been no Rusin movement at all in East Galicia. The national rising of the East Galicians could have been suppressed just as little as the awakening of other nations without history. If state and church had not sought to guide it into other channels, then it would probably have developed from the beginning with a stronger Great Russian orientation.

The Ukrainian movement in Galicia, then, significantly furthered, at least, the separatist strivings of the Ukrainians in South Russia and perhaps even breathed life into them. The most recent political and social upheavals have furthered South Russian Ukrainianism so much that it is not entirely impossible that it can no longer be overcome by Great Russianism. But that is no ethnographic or linguistic problem. Not the degree of relationship of languages and races will decide whether the Ukrainian or the Russian language will win out but rather political, economic, religious, and general cultural circumstances. It is easily possible for that reason that the final outcome will be different in the former Austrian and Hungarian parts of the Ukraine than in the part that has long been Russian.

Conditions are similar in Slovakia. The independence of the Slovakian language from Czech is also a product of an in a certain sense accidental development. If there had been no religious differences between the Moravians and Slovaks and if Slovakia had been politically linked with Bohemia and Moravia no later than the eighteenth century, then a separate Slovak written and standard language would hardly have evolved. On the other hand if the Hungarian government had given less emphasis to Magyarization of the Slovaks and had allowed their language more scope in school and administration, then it would probably have developed more strongly and would today possess more power of resistance against Czech.[11]

To the language researcher it may in general seem not impossible to draw language boundaries by classifying individual dialects with particular standard languages. Yet his decision does not prejudice the historical course of events. Political and cultural events are decisive. Linguistics cannot explain why Czechs and Slovaks became two separate nations, and it would have no explanation if the two in the future should perhaps blend into one nation.


[10] One must distinguish between written language and cultural or standard language. When dialects possess a written literature, it will no longer do to deny them the designation of written languages. All those languages should then be called standard languages that make the claim to express all human thoughts orally and in writing and thus also to be scientific and technical languages. The boundaries between the two naturally cannot always be sharply drawn.

[11] Still more examples could be cited, including, for example, the Slovene language also. Particular interest attaches to those cases in which something similar was attempted on a smaller scale. Thus?according to information for which I am indebted to the Vienna Slavicist Dr. Norbert Jokl?the Hungarian government tried in the county of Ung to make the Slovak and Ruthenian local dialects used there independent; it had newspapers appear in these dialects in which, for the Ruthenian dialect, Latin letters and a Magyarizing orthography were used. Again, in the county of Zala the effort was made to make a Slovene dialect independent, which was facilitated by the fact that the population, in contrast to the Austrian Slovenes, was Protestant. Schoolbooks were published in this language. In Papa there was a special faculty for training teachers of this language.

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