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insight by wfx

Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!

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03/10/2018

24 Old English Words You Should Start Using Again

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Lifehack

Language changes over time; words and phrases come and go. In many cases, there is a good reason for words leaving our vocabulary.

I am certainly grateful that modern sewer systems mean there is no longer a need for the term Gardyloo – a warning call before chamber pots were poured out of windows onto the streets below.

Other old English words, however, still have perfectly valid meanings in our modern world and really need to be brought back, if only for the pleasure of saying them.

Here are 24 old English words and slang terms that are fun to say, still useful, and should never have left us in the first place:

1. Bedward

Exactly as it sounds, bedward means heading for bed. Who doesn’t like heading bedward after a hard day?

2. Billingsgate

This one is a sneaky word; it sounds so very proper and yet it refers to abusive language and curse words.

3. Brabble

Do you ever brabble? To brabble is to argue loudly about matters of no importance.

4. Crapulous

A most appropriate sounding word for the condition of feeling ill as a result of too much eating/drinking.

5. Elflock

Such a sweet word to describe hair that is tangled, as if it has been matted by elves.

6. Erstwhile

This very British sounding word refers to things that are not current, that belong to a former time, rather like the word itself.

7. Expergefactor

Something that wakes you up is an expergefactor. For most of us it’s our alarm clocks, but it could be anything from a chirping bird to a noisy neighbor.

8. Fudgel

Fudgel is the act of giving the impression you are working, when really you are doing nothing.

9. Groke

This means to stare intently at someone who is eating, in the hope that they will give you some. Watch any dog for a demonstration.

10. Grubble

Grubble might sound like the name of a character from a fantasy novel but it does in fact mean to feel or grope around for something that you can’t see.

11. Hugger-mugger

What a fun way to describe secretive, or covert behavior.

12. Hum durgeon

An imaginary illness. Sounds more like an imaginary word. Have you ever suffered from hum durgeon?

13. Jargogle

This is a perfect word that should never have left our vocabulary, it means to confuse or jumble.

14. Lanspresado

It sounds like the name of a sparkling wine, but no, it means a person who arrives somewhere, having conveniently forgotten their wallet, or having some other complicated story to explain why they don’t have money with them.

15. Mumpsimus

Mumpsimums is an incorrect view on something that a person refuses to let go of.

16. Quagswag

To shake something backwards and forwards is to quagswag, who knew?

17. Rawgabbit

We all know a few rawgabbits. A rawgabbit is a person who likes to gossip confidentially about matters that they know nothing about.

18. Snollygoster

I think we can all agree this is a fantastic sounding word. It means a person who has intelligence but no principles; a dangerous combination. Watch out for the snollygosters, they live amongst us.

19. Snottor

This old english term has the unlikely meaning of “wise.” Really?

20. Trumpery

Things that look good but are basically worthless. I said THINGS, not people.

21. Uhtceare

This means lying awake worrying before dawn. We all do this, we just didn’t know there was a word for it. Say it now, like this: oot-key-are-a.

22. Ultracrepidarian

Similar to the rawgabbit, this person takes every opportunity to share their opinion about things they know nothing about. Social media is the perfect outlet for these people.

23. Zwodder

Being in a drowsy, fuzzy state, after a big night out perhaps?

And finally, I broke the alphabetical listing to save my favorite till last…

24. Cockalorum

A small man with a big opinion of himself.

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02/10/2018

The long war over the Ukrainian language

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Boston Globe

Don’t call it Little Russian. Why the Ukraine’s lingua franca is a hot point.

By Britt Peterson.

AS AMERICANS have been learning in recent weeks, Russia sometimes has its own way of describing events—like when Vladimir Putin claimed on March 4, despite the presence of Russian troops on the ground, that he hadn’t invaded the Crimean region of east Ukraine. Then there’s the narrative about what is spoken in that invaded country: namely, the Ukrainian language.

A couple of obscure Russian imperial statements on Ukrainian have recently become popular on Russian nationalist blogs and Reddit pages. One comes from the 1863 Valuev Circular, a decree suspending the publication of many religious and educational texts in Ukrainian, or as the Russians called it, Little Russian: “a separate Little Russian language has never existed, does not exist and cannot exist.” The other is a quote attributed to Czar Nicholas II: “There is no Ukrainian language, just illiterate peasants speaking Little Russian.”

The claim that Ukrainian isn’t a language has been one of the drumbeats of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship for centuries. It’s true that the distinction between a language and a dialect is notoriously slippery, often more about politics than mutual intelligibility or shared vocabulary. As Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich famously quoted, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” But according to linguists outside of Russia, Ukrainian and Russian are two distinct, if closely related, languages. The attacks on the status of Ukrainian, in that light, offer a window onto a side of the conflict that can be hard for outsiders to grasp: the persistent ways that Russia has taken advantage of a long and complicated cultural relationship to enforce its claim to power.

In the West, it’s generally agreed that Ukrainian and Russian are separate languages, with 38 percent of their lexicon differing. (That’s slightly more than Spanish and Italian, which differ by 33 percent.) It’s also generally agreed that the three Eastern Slavic languages—Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian—split off from Old East Slavic about a thousand years ago.

Some Russian linguists, however, tell the story differently: They claim that the East Slavic ancestor was in fact a form of Russian, making Russian not a sibling, but rather the mother tongue from which the other languages descended. The word for Old East Slavic in Russian is drevnerusskiy yazyk, which means “Old Russian,” whereas Ukrainians call it the more neutral davn’orus’ka mova, or language of Rus, the medieval Russian state. Russian attempts to ban Ukrainian in its imperial territories didn’t end with the Valuev Circular—in 1876, Czar Alexander II issued the Ems Ukaz, banning the public use of Ukrainian altogether.

Ukrainian scholars will remind you, meanwhile, that 17th-century Russia, having mostly missed out on the Renaissance, was still catching up to modernity. It relied on Poland and Ukraine, with their connections to Europe and European languages, to broaden its vocabulary: “The Russian language was borrowing many constructions and forms...[from] the Ukrainians, because at that time [Russia] was underdeveloped compared with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ukraine,” said Andriy Danylenko, a Ukrainian linguist at Pace University. Ukrainian also saw a cultural revival in the 19th century, a Romantic outpouring of literature, journalism, and folk traditions that built the fundament of a new nationalist identity. In this light, the imperial Russian decrees against Ukrainian suggest the language was seen less as a poor stepchild than as a rival. 

The ban on Ukrainian was lifted after the first Russian Revolution in 1905, and after the second Revolution, Lenin and Stalin at first oversaw a period of Ukrainization, when the language was first standardized and dictionaries were written. During this time, according to Myroslav Shkandrij’s book “Russia and Ukraine: Literature and the Discourse of Empire from Napoleonic to Postcolonial Times,” some Russians viewed Ukrainian with a patronizing admiration, as a rural, archaic proto-Russian, a folk language at a time when the folk were meant to rule. One writer even suggested that elements of it be grafted onto Russian to make Russian more “pristine.” But the perils of their condescending attitude became quickly manifest in the late 1920s and 1930s, when Stalin began to enforce Russification on the language again, rewriting dictionaries to impose Russian loan words just as he purged the Ukrainian intelligentsia. 

The Ukrainian spoken today, nearly 25 years after it was first declared the country’s official language at independence, still bears scars from centuries of linguistic and demographic oppression. Although some intellectuals would like to bring back the old Ukrainian words banned by Stalin’s linguists, it’s difficult to undo the common parlance of eight decades. Most of the country is bilingual; many who check a “Ukrainian” or “Russian” census box are still fluent, often from birth, in the other language. But the years of Soviet rule created a linguistic hierarchy, in which Russian became the language of economic and social mobility, while Ukrainian was still considered a rural language. Pressure to speak Russian produced hybrid forms, known as surzhyk, close to Ukrainian grammatically but with Russian vocabulary and endings, now spoken by many Ukrainians as a private language. “Some writers have said [speaking surzhyk] is like getting home and putting on a comfortable bathrobe and slippers,” said Michael Flier, a Ukrainian philologist at Harvard.

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02/10/2018

Trump has turned words into weapons. And he's winning the linguistic war

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Guardian

From ‘spygate’ to ‘fake news’, Trump is using language to frame – and win – debates. And the press operate like his marketing agency

Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself.

Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy. 

Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.

Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said “I am not a crook” and people thought of him as a crook.

Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly don’t. So the press is at a disadvantage when dealing with a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame. 

Language can shape the way we think. Trump knows this. Here are some of his favorite manipulation techniques.

First, he weaponizes words. The modifier “crooked” convicted Hillary Clinton without a trial. The media’s constant repetition sealed the verdict. “Fake news” proclaims that the news is fake. The use of “fake” is designed to delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a “witch-hunt” by the “deep state” in an attempt to shift blame. It’s false, but when the press repeats it, his narrative wins.

The media perpetuated a Trump lie by repeating “spygate”, which falsely characterized the FBI informant as a spy. Once made, such a mistake by the press is hard to correct.

A possible immediate correction might have been to use “RussianSpyGate,” repeatedly focusing on the Russian contacts of Trump’s campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, with the FBI informant checking on Russian spying in the Trump campaign. This would have had to be done over and over, with reporters bring it up whenever “spygate” was used. Not an easy fix.

Then there are what cognitive scientists call “salient exemplars” – well-publicized individual cases, where wide publicity leads the public to take them as having a high probability and typifying a whole class. Trump turns them into weaponized stereotypes. He is a master at defaming entire groups of people as liars, rapists, terrorists – or in the case of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies – agents of corruption.

He knows how to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. “Maybe.” “I don’t know.” “We’ll see.” Yet the claim has been made and stands, with no responsibility for it.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump discusses using “truthful hyperbole” – exaggerated claims suggesting a significant truth. His hyperbole can be either positive (“great”, “terrific”, “the best”) for what he likes or negative (“a disaster,” “the worst ever”) for what he dislikes. “The worst trade deal ever” frames trade agreements as “deals”, where “deals” are seen as zero-sum games that you either win or lose – and winning is the only good outcome. “Doesn’t it feel good to win!” “You’ll win so much, you’ll feel tired of winning!”

“Deal” and “winning” are not just words. They are central to his worldview. Those who win deserve to win; those who lose deserve to lose. Those who don’t win are “losers”. This is a version of individual responsibility, a cornerstone of conservative thought. There is a moral hierarchy. Those who win are better than those who lose.

“America first” means that America is better than other countries, as shown by its wealth and power. And that wealth and power should be used to win – to acquire more wealth and power in all its “deals” – even with our allies. Power includes the power to bully or punish – for example, to impose tariffs or pull out of treaty – or at least threaten if others don’t go along with him.

Trump’s tweets are not random, they are strategic. There are four types: 1) Pre-emptive framing, to get a framing advantage. 2) Diversion, to divert attention when news could embarrass him. 3) Deflection: Shift the blame to others. And 4) trial balloon – test how much you can get away with. Reporting, and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power. There is an alternative. Report the true frames that he is trying to pre-empt. Report the truth that he is trying to divert attention from. Put the blame where it belongs. Bust the trial balloon. Report what the strategies are trying to hide.

Cornered by the Russia investigation, Trump is working overtime to twist the facts, the law, and reality in general, to benefit himself. As the indictments and the evidence pile up in favor of a case for Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election, he’s made it clear that he considers himself above both the law and the truth. As president of the United States, anything he says – true or false – is faithfully parroted by the press. This needs to change.

Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab. The press has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames. When the press gives Trump absolute power to dictate coverage, it abdicates its role as a pillar of democracy.

How can the press do a better job? Here are some basic suggestions:

First, journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.

Second, keep a steely focus on the fact that American democracy is under attack by a foreign power, possibly with collusion from the sitting president’s campaign. This is a crisis. Certain rules don’t apply in a crisis, especially the rule that the press must amplify the president’s words, whatever they are.

Third, stop letting Trump control the news cycle. Newsgathering should be a serious affair controlled by editors whose power rivals any politician’s. Stop chasing his tweets and elevating every sideshow. Start every story with truth and the context of what’s really important to citizens in a democracy. More BBC, less TMZ.

Fourth, don’t spread lies. Don’t privilege Trump’s lies by putting their specific language in the headlines, the leads or the hashtags. Don’t repeat the lies assuming people will automatically know they’re lies. People need to know the president is lying, but be careful about repeating the lies because “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”. Repetition of lies spreads them.

The job of the free press is to seek the truth and report the truth, especially the morally important truths and their consequences. If the press fails to do this job, not only does it lose its freedom, but we all do.

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11/09/2018

People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer, professor in psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, co-authored a recent paper in Topics in Cognitive Science that sheds new light on the role language plays in the natural impulse to lie.

In the research, native speakers of English, Spanish, Hebrew and Korean in four countries were invited to play a dice game in which they were paid according to the numbers they reported. Participants who used a foreign language were less likely to cheat than those using their native language, researchers found.

“When individuals have a chance to profit from dishonesty with no risk of being caught, their instinctive tendency is to cheat, while they refrain from cheating when they have time to deliberate,” Bereby-Meyer said. Such opportunities often occur in everyday situations, such as lying about a child’s age to get a cheaper ticket price, or not speaking up when you receive too much change. “There is a natural temptation to lie in these situations,” she added.

Roll of the dice

Working with groups in Spain, the United States, Israel and the Netherlands, researchers randomly assigned participants to perform the game in their native language or in a foreign language. They were paid according to the numbers they reported, and because the outcome was private, participants could cheat to inflate their profit without risk of repercussions.

Even though the game itself only involves reading numbers on a dice, all of the interaction was in the designated language and participants clicked on ‘number words’ on the screen, Bereby-Meyer said. “The die paradigm was a natural way to examine language’s effect on honesty.”

Even though the participants’ responses were private, the higher proportion of 5s or 6s selected by native language users showed that participants had a greater tendency to inflate their numbers when working in their native language.

“Even though there wasn’t much language involved, just being in a foreign language mindset made them more likely to resist temptation,” said Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago graduate student who was in charge of the UChicago part of the project.

Check your bias

Keysar and Bereby-Meyer argue that the findings challenge theories of ethical behavior to account for the role of the language in shaping ethical behavior. They believe the outcome is due to the fact that using a foreign language is less intuitive, so the automatic response systems that might give rise to cheating may be disengaged. “There is less temptation, so it becomes easier to refrain from impulsive behavior,” Bereby-Meyer said.

The study also provides a compelling narrative about inherent biases toward foreigners. “Studies have shown people with accents are perceived as less credible because they can be more difficult to understand,” Keysar said. These results suggest the opposite may be true.

Keysar believes this research has important implications, particularly in global business, in which companies work with foreign suppliers and customers on a daily basis. Even though a person’s gut instinct may be to trust these people less, the data show that if they are using a foreign language, they might be more honest.

Bereby-Meyer and Keysar plan to continue their work together in a new study exploring how language affects trust. The most recent study was done in collaboration with Shaul Shalvi from the University of Amsterdam, Albert Costa and Joanna Corey from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Sayuri Hayakawa from the University of Chicago.

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05/06/2018

Old Norse and Old English: The languages in History Channel “Vikings”

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

I recently started watching History Channel Vikings for the second time. It is a good show, highly recommended, that tells the story of various famous Viking leaders more or less contemporary but often with an age gap that would have made impossible for them to share deeds and adventures. Ragnar Lothbrok, for instance, is a semi legendary figure thought to have died around 860, whereas Rollo, founder of Normandy, is a histotical leader that lived between 845 and 930. But I’m not going to speak about them here – there is plenty of information out there for those who wish to learn more. I’d like to speak a little about two aspects of the show that fascinate me as a linguist and as a lover of historical linguistics: the occasional use in the show of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Old Norse (among other languages that have been long gone), and the meaning of the names of some of the characters, some of which are still used nowadays but people are unaware of their origin (part II of this post).

The languages of the Germanic tribes

Around 100 AD, the Germanic tribes moved out of southern Scandinavia and northern Germany to adjacent lands. The Saxons and the Angles settled in Celtic Britain, controlled by romanized Briton tribes until the sixth century, the time when the historical King Arthur lived - if he ever did so (Arthur would have been a Briton chieftain uniting Celtic and Roman tribes to fight the Saxon invaders). Other tribes stayed in Scandinavia. All of these tribes spoke a language or dialects of a language that we call Proto-Germanic (or Common Germanic) and which was in turn diversified into several dialects. In the Northern countries it got to be Old Norse. In the Anglo-Saxon territories it got to be Old English. The Germanic tribes settling in the British Isles, who spoke basically the same language as their Scandinavian (and German) cousins, got relatively isolated, both socially and linguistically, for 200 years, until they got in touch again during the Viking era. In those 200 years, the two dialects of course underwent some changes (Old English is more syntactically like German than like Old Norse, although Modern English is more syntactically like Swedish than to German), but scholars believe they remained mutually intelligible to a great extent.

These are two main old languages we can hear on Vikings: Old Norse and Old English. Old Norse is the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages and Anglo-Saxon is the ancestor of English (this is a deliberate oversimplification, since how modern-day English got to be is a quite complex matter).

The Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons needed no interpreter to understand each other

So, Old English and Old Norse were cousin languages, but in the show we often see that the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons need interpreters to communicate with each other. In Ragnar’s second journey to England, the Viking longships drift to the Wessex coast where they are met by a group of Anglo-Saxon soldiers. They try to speak to each other, but to no avail. How realistic is that? The mutual intelligibility of the two languages is a topic of study in historical linguistics and it is believed that differences between the two Common Germanic dialects (Old English in England and Old Norse in Scandinavia) derived from that 200 year isolation period would not have posed a problem of intelligibility. The literature of this period supplements these notions of mutual intelligibility. Therefore, even though linguistics (and specially historical linguistics) is not an exact science and there are obvious syntactic differences between the two languages, we believe that Ragnar Lothbrock and his Anglo-Saxon friend, the monk Athelstan, would have been able to speak to each other quite well.

As a testimonial from those times, the author of the thirteenth century Icelandic Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu makes a reference to the spoken English language in the time of Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred (986 – 1016 AD):

Ein var þá tungu á Englandi sem í Nóregi ok í Danmörku.
“One was the tongue in England as in Norway and in Denmark”

(Quote from Old English and Old Norse: An Inquiry into Intelligibility and Categorization Methdology. Master's Thesis by Eric Martin Gay. University of South Carolina - Columbia (2014).

 

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10/05/2018

Of ‘standard’ languages and ‘impure’ dialects

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Livemint

Why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the ‘standard’ and why its variants were demoted to ‘dialect’ status is a product of history and politics

The socio-linguist and scholar Max Weinreich once said, “A shprach eez a deealekt mit an armee un flot”, which translates to, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” The original sentence is in Yiddish and, in that fact, lies a delicious irony. 

Yiddish originated during the ninth century in central Europe, providing the Ashkenazi Jewish community with a vernacular that was largely Germanic-based and incorporated elements from Hebrew and Aramaic (incidentally, Aramaic was Jesus Christ’s mother tongue). The influence of the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian and others) and traces of the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese and others) is also discernible in this language. It also has a fairly extensive literature. 

The irony is that many remain unconvinced about the extent of the linguistic independence of Yiddish from the languages that it absorbed. It’s been said that Yiddish is actually just broken German and more of a linguistic mish-mash than a true language. In other words, according to some, Yiddish is itself a dialect…of German!

In popular telling, a dialect is viewed as something of a “lesser” language. When we speak of a dialect, we sometimes mean a mere spoken language (without a script) and sometimes, a variant of a standard language which, while resembling the standard, also has independent elements of its own that make it different from the standard language. 

In reality, language and dialect are ambiguous terms, terms that scholars have difficulty applying to specific situations. The ambiguity stems from the fact that why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the “standard” and why its variants were demoted to “dialect” status is a product of history and politics. It has little to do with any special features of the so-called “standard” language. 

Standardization is a process by which a language is codified and this involves the development of dictionaries, spelling forms, a grammar and possibly, a literature. It involves people reaching an agreement and developing a “model” language, a model that people aspire to achieve, even if they have not achieved it at the time of its creation. 

Standard English essentially developed from the language (actually, dialect) that was spoken in London, which is where the court moved to (from Winchester) after the Norman Conquest in 1066. This happened organically over the course of several centuries and, gradually, a standard English came to be accepted as the norm. The many variants of English like Cockney, Scots, Yorkshire English are compared to the standard and termed as dialects. 

In the case of French, the development of standard French was orchestrated by the government. In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, established the Academie Francaise. Over the next few centuries, the Academie oversaw the creation of a standard French even as its many variants stubbornly defied the Academie’s attempts at standardization, well into the nineteenth century when centuries of language reform coupled with the iron hand of government-mandated language use rules ran the old dialects into the ground. Standard French was soon on its way. 

Among the more interesting attempts at standardization has been that of Turkish. The modern state of Turkey was formed in 1922 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as president. Atatürk then initiated a series of political, legal, religious, cultural, social, and economic policy changes to transform the new Republic of Turkey into a secular, modern nation state. The adoption of the Latin alphabet and the purging of foreign words was part of Atatürk’s programme of modernization. 

The Turkish Language Association (TDK) was established in 1932 and one of its tasks was to initiate language reform by replacing words of Arabic and Persian origin with Turkish equivalents. By banning the usage of imported words in the press, the association succeeded in removing several hundred foreign words from the language. Many words, newly derived from Turkic roots, were introduced to the language. Equally, Old Turkish words, which had not been used for centuries, were pressed back into active service. A new Turkish thus became the standard. 

Owing to this sudden change in the language, older and younger people in Turkey started to differ in their vocabularies. While the generations born before the 1940s tend to use the older terms of Arabic or Persian origin, the younger generations use new expressions. Atatürk himself, in a lengthy speech to the Parliament in 1927, used a style of Ottoman Turkish which has become unintelligible to later listeners and hence it has had to be “translated” three times into modern Turkish: first in 1963, again in 1986, and, most recently, in 1995.

In similar fashion, in the subcontinent, a Sanskritized Hindi and a Persianized Urdu were “created” from the Hindustani base that was the foundation for both languages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Hindi” was willed into existence by Hindu zealots keen on a language purged of Muslim influences. The Hindustani that was spoken in the bazaars of north India was the vehicle chosen for this dream and was purged of its Arabo-Persian words, which were replaced with Sanskrit equivalents. This new creation was held up as standard Hindi. 

Other allied languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Braj and many others, many of which were centuries old and had extensive bodies of literature, were then cast as “dialects” of Hindi. The fantastic claim that such a Sanskritized Hindi is likely to have existed in the past before the Muslim invasions was made and the language thus endowed with a history that was nothing more than a purloining of the histories of its “dialects” and more than a dollop of imagination.

Parallely, Urdu was purged of “polluting” Hindu influences. Turkic, Arabic and Persian words were preferred to words from Indian languages and an acceptable Urdu was willed into existence much in the same fashion as an acceptable Hindi was. Both languages jostled for acceptance and legitimacy among their target audience and aspired for “purity” even as the common man continued—and continues to this day—to use what in effect must be rightly termed “Hindustani” (known as Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan). In effect, Sanskritized Hindi claims a history that isn’t really its own while Persianized Urdu, on the other hand, chooses not to dwell on that history much, choosing instead to look to Persian and Arabic as its forerunners.

To return to Yiddish, its lesser status was affirmed when the state of Israel chose the classical language of Hebrew to be its state language, ignoring the claims of Yiddish. When Israel was born in 1948, Yiddish did come to possess an army and navy, but lacked the “divinity” that Hebrew—the language of the Jewish scriptures—had. Hebrew, which was effectively a dead language when this decision was made, then underwent a spectacular revival and is now a widely spoken language in Israel. It is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival.

A standard language is thus a product of many things. In the common telling, it has a hallowed status. In reality, its status is a mere accident. Armies, academies, the hand of god and other things are what take humble dialects to the dizzying heights of “standard” status.

 

Below,  Hebrew is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival. Photo: iStock

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