When two tongues collide

By Ray O'Reilly

No this isn't a perverse way of describing French kissing, but a new theory of how two languages can peacefully co-exist in one country.

Friday 11 March 2011

Analysing the pattern of populations speaking Castilian, the most common language spoken in Spain, and Galician, a language spoken in Spain's North West region, the researchers used mathematical models to show that levels of bilingualism in a stable population can lead to the steady coexistence of both languages.

The findings, published in the New Journal of Physics put pay to an earlier theory that, in competition, the weaker or minority language would inevitably die out. Here, Welsh is often cited as an example. The researchers fed historical data into their model, which took into consideration elements of similarity between the languages and the number of bilingual speakers.

Jorge Mira Perez, a researcher familiar with the study at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain suggests the similarity factor is critical to the peaceful coexistence. “If the statuses of both languages were well balanced,” he says, “a similarity of around 40% might be enough for the two languages to coexist.” The findings suggest that even in unbalanced language ‘divides' a higher degree of similarity (say up to 75%) would help the weaker tongue survive.

UNESCO publishes a so-called ‘Atlas of the world's languages in danger'. According to the atlas, half of the 6,000-plus languages spoken around the world today will disappear by the end of this century, if nothing is done to prevent it.

“With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also importantancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages,” says UNESCO.

The Spanish researchers suggest their work could inform policy-making and educational programmes aimed at preserving cultural heritage of this nature. Personally, I'd like to put their new model to perhaps the toughest test of coexisting languages – .

After a little investigation, I am unreliably informed that and French have much more in common than expected. Although they hail from different roots – Dutch is Germanic, while French is a Romance language – there is significant cross-over, especially French to Dutch. But these so-called loanwords have mostly come via the , not Belgium, as you'd expect, due to the years of cultural and economic dominance exerted by French speakers until the first half of the 20th century.

For centuries French was a language of nobility throughout Europe and the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands was heavily influenced by this period. But as Belgium's upper and upper-middle classes would have spoken mostly French, the Dutch spoken in the country managed to remain less ‘tainted', you could say. Check out a long list of French words of Germanic origin.

So to the situation today in Belgium, while neither language is under threat per se, they are it seems threatening to each other. Many would say the language divide is largely to blame for the patent lack of ‘peaceful coexistence' between the regions or peoples who speak them; the speakers mostly in the north of the country and the French speakers of the south.

Tiny Belgium has recently broken a record as the country going the longest without forming a government following a federal election, stealing the title away from Iraq! Though very complex to explain, one of the basic causes of the division is language and the use of it in official settings in certain designated language territories around the capital .

There is no apparent solution to this politico-linguistic conundrum. Lawyers, politicians, philologists, linguists and even kings have all been brought in at different intervals to sort out the mess. May be it's time to ask the physics and maths nerds to have a go. Couldn't hurt.

This article is published here with the author's permission. ©Ray O'Reilly.


  • Ray O'Reilly

    Ray O'Reilly writes like he thinks… between the lines. Formerly a columnist for (A)WAY, an English-language magazine in Belgium, today Ray focuses on script-writing projects, blogging and avoiding parties.

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