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Written languages and the history of Eurasia

September 6, 2011

Language, Culture, and History come together in Walter Cohen’s five-way comparison:

classical Arabic –> Arabic “dialects” –> Arabic popular literature

classical Chinese –> Chinese “dialects” –> modern Chinese literature

Latin –> Romance languages –> Romance literatures

Sanskrit –> Indo-Aryan vernacular languages –> Indo-Aryan vernacular literatures

Old Church Slavic –> Slavic languages –> Slavic literatures

Start with the five classical languages in the left column. Over time, each spoken language developed enough regional variation that speakers from different regions could no longer understand each other. The variants were in some cases called dialects, but to modern linguists they are separate languages because they are mutually incomprehensible.

So far, so good, and we have the same story five times over: one classical written language coexisting with several spoken vernacular languages. But how many different written vernacular languages emerged? Latin, Sanskrit, and OCS were succeeded by several written vernaculars each. Classical Arabic and classical Chinese were not (“with the exception of Maltese’s separation from Arabic,” 720). Why? Present-day political unity doesn’t provide the key: India is home to “[m]ultiple cognate written vernaculars” after Sanskrit, and the many Arabic-speaking countries, despite having quite distinct spoken languages, do not have multiple written vernaculars (and indeed, “vernacular writing, though increasingly a vehicle of literary expression, still lacks unquestioned literary prestige in the Arabic-language world,” 721).

Cohen’s argument (or part of it; the subject is massive and complicated) is that writing systems matter. The Indo-Aryan, Romance, and Slavic languages used what Cohen calls a “vocalized alphabet”: individual letters often represent a sound but not a meaning. A single Chinese character generally renders both sound and meaning. Two people speaking mutually incomprehensible versions of Chinese can read the same text, assigning the sounds of their own spoken language to each character, just as speakers of Russian and Spanish can pronounce the symbol “8” differently but mean the same thing. Something similar happens in Arabic, whose alphabet is “incompletely vocalic” (722). If too much morphological and syntactic change accumulates, it may become impossible for multiple spoken vernacular languages to share one written language. However, the Chinese and Arabic writing systems can absorb more phonological change before they become unworkable than the Latin, Sanskrit, and OCS ones.

Nineteenth-century Russian literature is a speck when you zoom this far out. What would it be like to read Pushkin and Turgenev alongside South Slavic and perhaps even West Slavic writers sharing a single written vernacular? I assume arguments over Gogol’s Ukrainianness or Russianness would be different but still possible. It’s frustratingly difficult for me to imagine what studying “Arabic literature” or “Chinese literature” must be like. Or what if the Mongol invasion had played out differently and, say, East Slavic peoples started using a Chinese-like writing system while South Slavic peoples did not? If I read Cohen right, then all else being equal, we’d expect speakers of Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian to use a single written East Slavic language.

See Walter Cohen, “The Rise of the Written Vernacular: Europe and Eurasia,” PMLA 126.3 (2011): 719-29.

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