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.
“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.
After a little investigation, I am unreliably informed that Dutch 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 Netherlands, 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.
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 Brussels.
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.