Home > 555. The Golden Thread, 6. Ars Poetica: creating & surviving poetry > A Finch’s Mandible and the Intimate Life–What Makes a Dialect?

A Finch’s Mandible and the Intimate Life–What Makes a Dialect?

File:Manx dialects.png


The map at left has gotten RT to thinking. How is it that an island like Manx, which is maybe 25 miles long, 10 miles wide, not only produced its own language, but two dialects as well? How large does a population have to be before it produces its own language or dialect? Evidently, not very large.

As is the case with speciation, isolation may be more important to the formation of a new language than the absolute number of people. Darwin’s finches developed beaks suitable to the various niches they inhabited; in the same way, people’s words adapt themselves to their surroundings and lifestyle, develop stronger or more refined beaks, curved or straight mandibles, so to say. The nitty-gritty is paramount here, the shared facts and routine push our talk and thinking in directions that are appropriate and beautiful.

But this only happens when the gene pool remains mostly unmixed–new arrivals speaking a more widespread tongue can drown out a localized language. But not necessarily. If the newcomers adopt the ways and habits of old-timers, then the two groups will grow together and become a single community speaking the local tongue. Unfortunately, the latter process seems to be the exception in our time: global economies, powered by distant energy sources, establish themselves in places that would never be able to sustain the wealth and population growth created by modern economics. In the long run, this cannot be a sound development, as it tends to degrade the environment and the sustainable industries rooted in it. The evolution of economies is abrogated–and so are the language(s) and dialect(s) created by it.

We hunger for the intimate. This is the root of dialect, to share the self even down to the words we invent, the songs we whisper to ourselves. To make each other parts of the world we live and imagine. We are captivated by the city, the anonymous and grand, the opera–but we must retreat to the enclosed courtyard, back to those who share our memories. These are imperfect, of course, but all the more poignant for being less than ideal, and they encode the experience of the land, the body, the dream. Every art is based in this.    RT


Map: Dialects of Manx; WikiCmns, Public Domain, Author: Angr.


  1. January 17, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    I was talking to a man on Skye, whose accent I recognised as being from the mainland. He came from around Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire. The accent there is particularly strong, he said, because its all fishermen and farmers. No good having a refined, quiet voice when you are trying to shout above a gale and reel in the nets.

    • January 19, 2013 at 6:00 am

      SL: On several occasions in Martinsburg, where I live, I’ve noted the many accents spoken by a *very* mixed population (about 20,000 by census figures, but probably more): the ‘originals,’ descendants of the German farming settlers of the mid-19th century; the unacknowledged Indian population, mostly of Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee descent (or so I guess); newcomers pushed out of the cities by rising prices, who comprise a random mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds; the latino construction and farm workers; the significant black population, which includes immigrants from Cote d’Ivoire and Haiti. A new culture is struggling to be born here, it seems; it would be nice to have a few spare decades to stay around and see how the town and its language(s) evolve. RT

  2. January 18, 2013 at 11:53 am

    The same principle seems to work in the mountains. I live in Asturias, which has its own language somewhat similar to Galego. Within the language there are many dialects: my dictionary lists the words in Spanish and then has dozens of variations across the province. The same is true ln the Basque Country. Great blog, by the way. I’m enjoying reading through!

    • January 19, 2013 at 6:42 am

      JP: Thanks for your enthusiasm about The Rag Tree! I’m amazed by the many language continuums in European countries: France, Germany and the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and doubtless the Eastern European nations protect a remarkable variety of traditional speech. Respect for culture seems to be emerging as a pillar of European society, while in the U.S. the culture seems to be undergoing a decades-long redefinition caused by the end of segregation and the continuing surge of immigration. And nowhere is this truer than in the mountains of Appalachia, which preserve a kind of remoteness out of proportion to their distance from the centers of “official” American life. RT

  3. Seb
    January 19, 2013 at 12:56 am

    This fascinates me. I come from Baltimore and I am always amazed by the variety in accent, word use and idiom between neighborhoods across the city

    • January 19, 2013 at 7:01 am

      Seb: I lived in Baltimore in the mid-90s and fell in love with its eccentricities and disheveled beauty. Martinsburg sometimes reminds me of Baltimore, and the remarks I made in my reply to Simon Lilly apply to Baltimore as well, I think. The trick is to hold onto what is valuable in America’s past (sometimes more than people imagine) while letting “ordinary” people continue to do what they’re best at: imagining, creating, and living a new society. RT

  1. August 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm
  2. December 24, 2013 at 9:15 pm

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