Dialects and aggregation

One of the many interesting things I learned in Jesse Byock’s Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power is that in medieval Iceland there were no regional accents. Iceland is about the size of the state of Kentucky, with its population mainly along the coast, and in this era travel was extremely slow. Horses and boats were the fastest means of getting from one place to another. However, the settlers shared a common cultural background, and many of the men would travel to local councils several times a year and the national council once a year. They would settle disputes and determine legal rules, but also share news and generally maintain cultural ties.

Compare this to the United States, a much larger country, where there persist to this day many different regional accents. The important point to consider here, as detailed in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, is that the cultures that made up the US were already distinct in the British Isles before they transplanted themselves here, in terms of accents but also in terms of many other things. Even in the early Anglo-Saxon period there were different branches of the Anglo-Saxon language spoken and written in various parts of England.

Beyond the scope of Byock’s book and of my own knowledge are possible regional accents in Norway, where the bulk of the settlers and the culture of Iceland were from. But regardless, these coalesced in Iceland into one truly national culture. (I don’t know but doubt that they have since fragmented.) The cultures of the United States have been slowly coalescing since the 1600s, but they still retain enough regional identity to be distinguished.

The point here is that this would be a very interesting analytical tool to apply to other countries and nations in the classical sense. Germany, for instance, is a partially artificial amalgamation of different smaller cultures, as we know from history and as the maps here show. China’s linguistic variety is well-documented, and reflects known historical facts. The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere had an astonishing degree of linguistic variation. (About indigenous languages, linguist Edward Sapir famously wrote “We may say, quite literally and safely, that in the state of California alone there are greater and more numerous linguistic extremes than can be illustrated in all the length and breadth of Europe.”) I know less about other countries, but clearly the same process is at work worldwide.

All in all this should make us careful in aggregrating people together as “Indians”, “Chinese”, “Germans”, or whoever else. It may be the case that some countries really do represent nations in a 1:1 relationship, such as Iceland. But frequently this is not the case, and thinking otherwise may conceal important information when we analyze the world. We need to be very cautious about data aggregated on “national” levels.

One thought on “Dialects and aggregation

  1. Franx

    On my recent trip to Iceland, a local told me they still don’t have regional accents, even on the other side of the island everyone sounds the same. I wonder if this is because of the common medieval roots, or a general lack of immigrants to stir things up. Maybe both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s