March 27, 2014 by libroshombre
Hillbillies were mentioned in my last column as being synonymous with hicks, rednecks, and Hoosiers, which is “the official demonym of residents of Indiana.” In so writing, I presumed that “demonym” meant “derogatory nickname,” but it actually means “place-name-based label that describes the resident of a particular city, territory, or country,” according to WordSpy.com. Assumptions can be dangerous things, and ditto for generalizations. Unfortunately, as author Ted Cook noted, “The narrower the mind, the broader the statement.”
A library conference presenter affirmed this in his lecture about cultural communications. His focus was on the different ways people of varying cultures interact, standing closer or further away, speaking rapidly or slowly, and so on. The presenter’s point was well-intended and appreciated, for it’s important that librarians make those seeking information comfortable. He effectively aroused our sympathies for Natives, Asians, Africans, and Hispanics, but his message taught in an unintended way when he discussed southern American speech and how its speakers are often perceived as being slow-witted or foolish. The presenter got some laughs and carried on at a length offensive to some southerners present.
Rather than brood, it caused this southerner to reflect on an Economist.com article from last February titled “How a Dialect Differs From a Language.” It said that languages are distinguished from dialects in two ways: the linguists’ way, and the political-social way. From the political-social perspective, “languages are typically prestigious, official, and written, whereas dialects are mostly spoken, unofficial, and looked down upon.” Linguists, on the other hand, believe “if two related kinds of speech are so close that speakers can have a conversation and understand each other, they are dialects of single language. If comprehension is difficult to impossible, they are distinct languages.” Cantonese Chinese is a different language than Mandarin, as are Syrian and Moroccan Arabic.
Languages vary in how they arrange their informational contents, as described in a 2011 MSNBC.com article by Natalie Wolchover about how the very first human speakers phrased their thoughts. English speakers use a “subject-verb-object” word order (SVO), as in “I love you,” whereas Latin uses a subject-object-verb order, like “I you love.” Research shows that more than half of the 2,000 modern languages use the SVO or “I you love” order, and most likely have since the first human speakers 50,000 years ago in East Africa, sounding “somewhat like the speech of Yoda, the tiny green Jedi from ‘Star Wars.’”
Most languages are in constant flux. In his book “Why Do Languages Change?” Larry Trask proposed that “our alphabet does not contain nearly enough letters … practically every accent of English has 24 consonant sounds and somewhere between 14 and 20 vowel sounds … A mere 26 letters is not nearly enough to do this straightforwardly.” It’s behind many of English’s notoriously numerous inconsistencies.
Trask described how consonant letters were invented by Semitic speakers of the Near East, the system was spread by the Phoenicians and improved by the Greeks, who added vowel letters. The Greeks passed their alphabetic system to the Etruscans, who bequeathed 19 letters to the Romans: ABCDEFHIKLMNOPQRSTU. “In the alphabet the Romans inherited,” Trask wrote, “the letter C stood fro the sound /g/, while K stood for /k/. But the Romans, probably under the influence of the Etruscan teachers, avoided K and began using C for both /g/ and /k/.” And when they later needed a letter for /g/ sounds “[i]nstead of reviving the exiled letter K, however, the Romans chose in the second century BC to invent a new letter by adding a stroke to the C, thus producing G.”
K began with the Semite’s “kap,” their word for “hand.” Their K was a drawing of an open, close-fingered hand, drawn from the Egyptians symbol for the letter D. The Phoenicians drew it like a backwards K falling over, but the Greeks made it face to the right, like today’s K. Somewhere I read that the Romans despised the letter K because of Carthage being spelled Karthage by its inhabitants. However, I can’t find any supportive evidence. Nonetheless, “Your assumptions are your windows to the world,” author and public library champion Isaac Asimov noted, “Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”