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Linguistic arrogance

September 1, 2010

I like to think of myself as a humble fellow. Yet, even I am prone to linguistic arrogance.

I can’t help smiling when I read Ukrainian or Belarusian texts (most of them being the translations on hair sprays, shampoo bottles, juices, etc) and I can’t help thinking of them as a parody of Russian, which is my native language. Belarusian in particular resembles Russian a lot, but one thing that makes it distinct is that the pronunciation matches the spelling exactly. If you know how to read the letters, you know how to read any word. Somewhere I’ve read that it’s the only language in the world where the letter-sound correspondence is invariable (correct me, fellow linguists, if I am wrong).

So it reads like an ‘eye dialect’ of Russian, like a version of Russian penned by an F-student, and it makes me laugh. I remember visiting my aunt in Minsk back in 1989 and reading the street name on the wall of her apartment building: ‘вулиця Адояускага’. Which stood for ‘улица Одоевского’ and looked like the phonetic spelling of an exaggerated Russian pronunciation. Had me in stitches.

Can’t blame myself for that natural reaction, but next, the arrogant thought creeps in: ‘My language is superior. Their languages are ridiculous’. There’s the temptation to think, like many of my compatriots do, that Russian is the big language – the language – and Belarusian and Ukrainian are funny variations on the theme.

Bad thought.

Then I wonder what Russian would look/sound like to a Belarusian or Ukrainian who saw/heard it for the first time. Would they laugh?

I also wonder whether Castilian Spaniards tend to consider Catalan to be a lesser language and whether Tuscan Italians tend to think the same of Sicilian. I don’t know. Let someone enlighten me.

Now I think it’s time I proclaimed the principles upon which this Languages Blog is being founded:

There are no inferior or superior languages. English, Cantonese and Komi-Permyak are equal.

No language has more intrinsic value than any other.

No language is worth being nurtured and preserved more than another.

No language deserves disappearance.

Simple principles that I’m sure most will agree with, yet there are morons in this world who are happy to bury their own mother tongue. I might have a guilty conscience when I think of Belarusian as an inferior language, but the Belarusian President Mr Lukashenko himself had no such compunctions when he said publicly in 1994 (in an attempt to pander to his predominantly Russian-speaking electorate):

‘Belarusian is a poor language,’ he said. ‘Only two main languages exist in the world: Russian and English.’

My aunt is living in Israel now. All the signs are written in three languages there: Hebrew, Arabic and English.

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