Disappearing Dialects in the World

Common English that is spoken in one shire varieth from another, especially the following: In my days there was a ship that set out from the Thames to sail over the sea to Zealand (Holland) and for lack of wind they tarrieth at the foreland to refresh themselves. Sheffield, a mercer, came to a house and asked for food, and particularly for eggs. And the good wife answered that she could speak no French!”

–Preface to the 1490 edition of the Aeneid, William Caxton

Even in just one language, many dialects can exist. I never really thought about this until college, when I studied Vietnamese. That’s when I learned that there were 3 major dialects (northern, southern and Hue or central dialect), plus many regional variations. This became more apparent when I studied in Hanoi for a few months, because Hanoi people spoke one way, but people in the countryside spoke differently, even though they weren’t far from each other.

Later, I came to realize this happened in Japan too. I naively believed Japanese was very standard until I learned that there were major dialects all over: Kansai dialects (there’s more than one), northern dialects, dialects in Western Honshu, Kyushu dialects and Okinawa dialects.1

However, a lot of these dialects are disappearing slowly. Dialects occur because two groups speak the same language, but they’re separated by geography (mountains, rivers, etc). Because of the physical separation, languages diverge.

Even when I lived in Ireland, I was surprised to see how many dialects and accents there were. Even in the city of Dublin, there were noticeable differences between people who lived in the north part and the southern part. This doesn’t include, say, people from Cork or Belfast who both sounded noticeably different.

But thanks to the Information Age, people are communicating more despite geography, and this seems to have the effect of making language more standard. Younger generations in Japan are speaking more consistently with each other than before, and many dialects are fading because the older generation are the only ones who actively use them anymore.

Also, years ago when I went to Vietnam, I remember spending a lot of time in Internet Cafes, surrounded by teenagers chatting with their friends over IRC. I found out later that many of these kids were chatting with folks in other parts of Vietnam too, which meant that they sharing conversations with people in other regions. I believe that this would help younger generations overcome communication problems and help bridge the gap between different regions. Also, because of state television, younger generations are used to hearing a single standard dialect.

The flip-side of all this of course is that regions lose their local “flavor”. For example, the Kansai dialect in Japan, especially Osaka, is pretty famous, and many comedians use it all the time. It has a more jovial sound that what you hear from “dry” Tokyo-style Japanese which sounds a bit more reserved. Or, consider the famous Aomori dialects which are almost impossible for other Japanese to understand.

Anyhow, just something I was pondering lately.

P.S. I know Korean has multiple dialects as well, but apart from Jeju dialect I know very little about them.

1 Ryukyu languages are not dialects of Japanese though. It’s a separate language family apart from Japanese, though they have common origin. Here, I am talking about Japanese language with regional variations.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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