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103 Errors in Mapping Indo-European Languages in Bouckaert et al., Part IV (Central Europe)

Submitted by on October 10, 2012 – 7:28 pm 12 Comments |  
(Continued) The main problems with the language map of eastern Central Europe in Bouckaert et al. have already been discussed; to whit, the depiction of “national” languages as coterminous with state boundaries. The authors do occasionally deviate from this norm, showing, for example, a tiny non-Romanian area in northwestern Romania. Note also that they show Latvian as failing to reach Latvia’s northwestern coast. This view is indeed historically accurate, as northern Courland was the land of the Livonians, a Finnic-speaking people. The last native speaker of Livonian, however, died in 2009; for decades before that, Livonian was severely endangered and most speakers were bilingual in Latvian or Russian. If the map purports to depict the present situation, it is flatly wrong here. If it depicts the relatively recent past, as it does for some areas, it is more on target. Unfortunately, no time specification is provided.

Such unspecified chronology is a more intractable problem for the depiction of extinct languages. Major languages of the distant past often experienced major geographical changes, sometimes literally moving en mass when their speakers migrated. The Goths, for example, probably originated in what is now Sweden, later crossed the Baltic into northern Central Europe, subsequently moved into the steppes north and northwest of the Black Sea, and eventually spread with victorious warrior bands over much of the Roman Empire; the final redoubt of the language was the Crimean Peninsula, where it persisted until the ninth century and perhaps until early modern times. Any Gothic language polygon would thus fit a specific place only at a specific time. Bouckaert et al. have apparently selected the period just after the movement of Gothic out of Scandinavia, although the area specified does not seem to match what (little) is known about the early relocation of the language (see the map to the left).

As mentioned in the previous post, the placing of Byelorussian (Belarusian) in a small corner of the Czech Republic is a careless transcription error. But the intended depiction, that of Eastern Czech, is still off base. Czech is not heavily differentiated into dialects. The truly distinctive forms of the language are half way to Polish. Cieszyn Silesian and other Lach dialects are regarded by most Czech linguists as a Polish-influenced form of Czech and by most Polish linguists as a Czech-influenced form of Polish (politics do tend to intrude into linguistic discussions). Such dialects, however, are not on the map. What is (supposed to be) shown is “Eastern Czech,” placed in a small corner in the southeastern part of the Czech Republic. It is unclear what this designation refers to. Across the entire eastern half of the republic, one finds the Moravian dialect (or dialects), which are not strikingly different from standard Czech.

The linguistic depiction of the Italian Peninsula in Bouckaert et al. contains some curious features. This portion of the map is difficult to decipher, as extinct languages overlay extant languages, and much the area is covered by the circular labels. It is still clear, however, that the mapping here remains inconsistent. Italian is shown as extending neither into the Po Valley in the north nor to Sicily in the south. Fair enough: the local dialects spoken (or spoken until recently) in those areas are markedly different from Standard Italian, based on the Tuscan dialect. Yet the authors place other parts of the peninsula with equally distinctive dialects, such as Apulia in the southeast, in the Italian language category. In regard to the extinct Indo-European languages mapped here, the major issue is why only Umbrian and Oscan were selected to accompany Latin.




Most of the problems found on the map of Germany and environs have already been discussed. Note, for example, how Luxembourgish makes the cut on political grounds, whereas other distinctive German dialects are ignored. Of special note here is the demarcation of two Lusatian (or Sorbian) languages, although only one is labeled on this map segment. These Slavic tongues of eastern Germany are distinctive, and mapping them as separate languages makes linguistic sense. But it is difficult to understand why these relatively minor languages, with 40,000 and 10,000 speakers respectively, have been added to the tally, whereas Iranian and Indic I-E languages with hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of speakers have been ignored.

The language mapping of Scandinavia shows, yet again, striking geopolitical influence. Here we have Danish blanketing Denmark, Riksmal (or the Norwegian “national language”) everywhere in Norway except the islands and Finmark, and three separate Swedish languages covering all of Sweden except the islands, which remain unmarked. The straight east-west line that separates two supposedly distinct Swedish languages is a curious and highly unlikely feature.

But as one would expect, the continental Scandinavian languages do not actually correspond so well to national territories. Overall, the region is characterized by a dialect continuum so pronounced that some scholars regard all of the mainland North Germanic tongues as a single, regionally differentiated language. Swedish and Danish are almost interintelligible, and Norwegian is often regarded as a kind of a bridge: as a common saying puts it, “Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish.” (Norwegian vocabulary is similar to that of Danish, whereas its phonology is more like that of Swedish). But it is more complicated than that, as there is no single Norwegian language at any level. Local dialects cross the border with Sweden, but even in terms of official state recognition, Bokmål (“book language”) competes with Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”), and neither of these two variants are exactly the same as the standardized but non-official Riksmål (“national language”) and Høgnorsk (“High Norwegian”) forms. The differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk are not purely lexical (e.g. Bokmål pike ‘girl’ vs. Nynorsk jente ‘girl’), but concern grammatical patterns too (e.g. Bokmål does not distinguish masculine and feminine genders, whereas Nynorsk does). In a sense, the differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk are more pronounced than those between Bokmål and Danish (e.g. Danish word for ‘girl’ is pige, and most dialects of Danish and its standardized form do not distinguish masculine and feminine genders). The contention among these different language varieties is at once political, cultural, and historical, tied up with Norway’s former subordination to Denmark. Norwegian linguistic nationalists have often wanted to purge specifically Danish elements from the language, whereas linguistic traditionalists would like to preserve them.

Legacies of geopolitical change are also evident in the Scania region of southern Sweden. The dialects of Sweden’s far south are close to those of Denmark—so close, in fact, that some scholars place them within an “East Danish” category. Significantly, Scania was part of the Kingdom of Denmark until it was lost to the rising power of Sweden in 1658; it did not become an integral part of Sweden, however, until 1719, and which point a policy of linguistic “Swedenization” was initiated. “Eastern Danish” is thus considered by some to be a more historical than a linguistic category.

One of the oddest features of the mapping strategies employed by Bouckaert et al. is their reluctance to include islands within the territories of any language. In some cases, island groups are appended to mainland polygons, as can be seen here in the depiction of Danish (in the same manner, the Hebrides are mapped as Scottish-Gaelic speaking). Most often, however, islands and archipelagos are simply ignored, as one can see here in the cases of Norway’s Lofoten and Sweden’s Gotland and Olaand. Had Gotland been considered, I wonder whether it would have been mapped as Gutnish speaking. Gutnish, a disappearing dialect, is distinctive, and is sometimes said to be a direct descendent of ancient Gothic.

The mapping of Old Norse as coinciding with Iceland is also untenable. When Old Norse was spoken on Iceland it was also spoken in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, in northern Scotland, and pockets of the western British Isles.


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  • Trond Engen

    I wonder if their partition of Swedish is an artefact of the sample. Do they have three Swadesh lists to work with? The shaded regions “89 Swedish Up” and “90 Swedish Vl.” may indicate subregions within what’s defined as “88 Swedish list”. “Up.” would seem to mean “Uppland dialect”, the dialect of the region immediately north of Stockholm, surrounding the old Church and University center of Uppsala — and very similar to the national language. I don’t know what “Vl.” might mean. It could be “Västmanland” but if so it’s mismapped, since that’s the (linguistically quite similar) region just west of Uppland.

    I also think your own description could take some polishing. I do appreciate your need to be concise, not at least because I’ll have to make some simplifications myself.

    On Gothic:
    – I don’t think it’s settled that the Goths came from the Scandinavian peninsula. Or at least not their language. The East Germanic peoples can be found with reasonable certainty in the archaeology of Poland and vicinity and, since East Germanic stands out from North and West Germanic, may well have arisen there. The name-carrying Goths might have been some few migrants or mercenaries from across the Baltic (“three ships”) who made themselves rulers of a branch of their southern cousins.

    On Norwegian:
    – If there’s an important divide within Norwegian it’s between Western and Eastern dialects. Western dialects are basically Western Scandinavian, while Eastern Norwegian is Eastern Scandinavian. Nynorsk is a good fit to Western dialects, while modern Bokmål aligns with the urban varieties of Eastern.
    – Bokmål and Nynorsk are both rather loose standards, and it may be more precise to describe Riksmål and Høgnorsk as representing the conservative ends of the specter within their respective communities. But sociolinguistically speaking, upper class Oslo speech excerts its power all over the country, and it’s fair to say that Riksmål is mainstream while Høgnorsk is a fringe phenomenon. The map of official standards does say something, but the actual linguistic proximity between local dialects and the standards would map very differently. But it’s also my impression that the dialects in areas that have chosen (switched to) Bokmål as local standard are fading faster.
    – Your examples from Bokmål are more apt for Riksmål than for Bokmål. The unmarked Bokmål word for “girl” is jente while pike clearly would mark the text as conservative. The two-gender system is standard in the Riksmål end of the Bokmål specter, but this is far from true for Bokmål as a whole. A reasonably average contemporary Bokmål text will use the masculine indefinite article for both genders and the feminine definite article for a large proportion of the feminines. A rule for “acceptable written feminines” is hard to pin down, though. It’s sociolinguistic rather than grammatical and depending on writer, subject and what register the words or the passage are felt to belong to.

    I understand that the sampled map of Scandinavian dialects is meant as a quick overview, but I’ll add some comments anyway:
    – Showing Gutnish as a completely separate branch is overstating the case. The Gotland dialect may be distinctive, but it’s definitely part of the Continental continuum: Conservative like peripheral varieties usually are, but with different features shared with the nearest linguistic regions on the Swedish mainland — and with Finland. The idea that “it’s a direct descendant of Gothic” always sounded more like wishful thinking by local patriots to me.
    – Also the distinction between Mainland South and North is odd, I sort of see why it’s done, but I don’t understand why the border is drawn just there. And there are other just as interesting divides going elsewhere — and also cutting right through some of the coloured fields.
    – I don’t see what criterion is used to split “Ostlandic” and “Geatish” like that. I would have expected the border to go more east-west, with (at least much of) Värmland grouped with East Norwegian and the border along the coast maybe further north.
    – “East Danish” is hardly a good description of modern Skånska. Mutual intelligibility with Copenhagen Danish just across the Sound is surprisingly low. That’s apparently a fairly recent development, though, and I’ve been expecting grandma’s childhood words and grammatical forms to resurface after the Øresund bridge was built. No sign yet, though — or so I’m told.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed comments, Trond! You are absolutely right that if local dialects are thrown into the mix in addition to the standard languages, the picture in all three mainland Scandinavian countries becomes much more complex.

      I also like your point that the choice of specific dialects (or “languages”, as they call them) by Bouckaert et al. seem to be predermined by what Swadesh lists are easily available, not what languages it would make sense to sample. But to me, that just speaks of the low level of scholarship…

      • Trond Engen

        Much more complex or much simpler, I’m not sure. Neither am I sure what
        my point really is, but perhaps that modeling Mainland Scandinavian by
        the national languages is a good a choice as any. Although for the model
        it would probably be better
        to dismiss Bokmål, since it’s such an inconsistent mix of Danish and
        Norwegian, both in lexicon and grammar, but without Nynorsk important
        Western Scandinavian features are lost from the equation. (I’d also
        contend that Bokmål and Nynorsk are too intertwined sociolinguistically
        to be seen as fully independent languages.)

        Dialect Swadesh lists
        could be prone to overuse of dialect-specific words instead of synonyms
        with cognates in the national language, but I’ve no idea if that’s the
        case here. I don’t know how and for what purpose these Swedish dialect
        lists were sampled, but I remember reading a Swedish paper using Swadesh
        lists to estimate the time of divergence between Swedish dialects, so
        they might be from that set. Nor do I know if the level of lexical
        divergence of a dialect would matter significantly for the overall
        result — I think that might depend on
        how the relation between an autonomous language and subordinate
        dialects is modeled.

        • I agree that sticking to the “national languages” (whatever that is in the case of Norwegian) could have been a better choice, but it would have to be carried out uniformly…

  • Vytenis

    I should add that Polish-speaking areas on the Lithuanian territory are also wildly inaccurately depicted. You can find much more accurate maps here

    • Thanks! I don’t think they ever departed from geopolitical borders in their mapping of languages…

  • Dan

    I really have no idea what the number 17 in the south-eastern Czech Republic represents. My only idea is that it represents the Croatian language.

    These were Croats fleeing the Ottomans since the 16th century. They settled in southern Moravia, in the depicted area and also in the area a very little to the west. The Croats in the depicted area had assimilated earlier into Czech speaking people. In the area a little more in the west, three ethnic Croatian speaking villages remained, mostly surrendered by German speaking area. These spoke Croatian, but in addition they spoke German and Czech.

    After the WWII, the Germans were expelled and the Croats were dispersed into the rest of Moravia. They became an unwanted minority because of the German surrounding and cohabitation, germanisation (they were in the Third Reich, and I also think they had to fight for Germany). In 1946 they also in majority voted for the Czechoslovak people’s party, not for the Communist party of Czechoslovakia, they were considered by communists as politically unreliable, also because of a political conflict with Josip Tito and they were expulsed to the rest of Moravia where the assimilated into the majority Czech language.

    On these maps you can see two Croatian surnames in the Czech republic today. For example “Vlašic” mostly in Břeclav little district (the earlier assimiliated Croats). And “Sič” mostly dispersed through the whole Moravia (the former three ethnic villages are in Mikulov little district, right west off Bčeclav little district).

    • Dan

      OK, another idea. It can also be the area of Kopanice dialect. It is the area of late Slovak colonization in the second half of the 18th century, see this map: (area 3.2.2).

      This dialect originated from Slovak dialects. As opposed to other Eastern Moravian dialects (area 3.): 1) it has “r”, instead of “ř”, 2) in some places it has “dz” instead of “z” 3) 1st person singular ends with -em (These all are Slovak features).

      But, of course, the dialect is nowadays only spoken by older generations, I guess the young don’t speak it very much.

      • Thank you both for these comments. It seems to be an error as “17” is listed as Belarussian (that’s the language whose data is used in the study), clearly not spoken in the Czech Republic…

    • Dan

      Here’s a map of the Croatian minority (the year 1855) It is represented by two DARK GREEN circles in southern Moravia.

      One circle is west of Nikolsburg (Mikulov). The other circle is west of Lundenburg (Břeclav). The Feldsberg (Valtice) area with Czechs, Germans and Croats became part of Czechoslovakia after the First world war. As I said, the Croats in the Břeclav area had been assimilating into Czech language since the 19th century, unlike the Croats in the Mikulov area.

  • european

    Yeah, i totally thought the same. I first thought he would have accidently used one of those alternative history maps. The parts of Czechia that were just blank were exactly the claim of Deutsch-Österreich after WW1 and were later annexed as Sudetenland by Hitler. If one wants to show both current and recent historical languages in one map, it can be shown by either using dotted or dashed areas. I cannot really fathom how somebody learned can make these mistakes.

    • Exactly. Crucially, they are using political boundaries to map languages, and that’s just plain wrong!