Are Dialects Dying Out?

Dialects are spoken by fewer and fewer people every generation. What are the global forces pushing them to the sidelines, and can any of them be saved from oblivion?

Illustration by Chaim Garcia

You don’t need a degree in psychology or philosophy to understand how obsessed we are with differences. Language is no exception. Just ask the thousands of Germans who, every year, endeavor to avoid the pitfalls of Kölnisch (the dialect from Köln/Cologne) or Sächsisch (the one from Sachsen/Saxony), dialects which make them sound aggressive, childish, uneducated or simply ignorant in the ears of other Germans. From the lawyer who loses a case due to his accent, to the teacher who gets harassed by his students for not speaking Hochdeutsch (standard German), the pressure to abandon regional idiosyncrasies in language is only increasing.

It’s the same with English: in a turbo-capitalist world, few are willing to make the effort to understand the peculiarities of strange linguistic offshoots — it’s why most commercials feature “accentless” actors and announcers. Why, just think of the stigmas attached to a southern accent in the States, or a Yorkshire accent in the UK; our hearts might be forgiving, but our ears aren’t always tolerant.

And yet, our relation to dialects continues to be ambiguous. For every school that forbids the use of dialect in speech and writing — the Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough, for example, telling students that “yeah” should not replace “yes,” “yous” is not the plural of “you” and that tomorrow is not spelled “tomorra” — there is an attempt elsewhere to celebrate it. Grimsby Central Library in Lincolnshire, for instance, holds workshops to maintain regional dialects. Despite this, it’s still hard to hear words such as gingham (umbrella) or brant (steep) without cringing. Communication should be universally clear and precise, just like an EU directive. (Let me brush that irony quickly off my brow.)

Dialects are the opposite: rococo, obtuse, poetic, laden with history and affiliation. River Brant, for instance, is a tributary of the River Witham, the word “brant” originating in Old English. It is more than the peculiarity of a dialect: it speaks of geography and history and is perpetually embedded in a collective identity that has kept communities together for centuries. But can these communities keep their identities afloat?

The church of St Mary-le-Bow in the East End of London is the epicenter of cockney culture — or at least it used to be, before London became a global city in the 21st century. It was traditionally considered a requirement to be born within hearing distance of the aforementioned church’s bells in Cheapside, in the City of London, to be considered a true cockney. Glottal stops, dropping your Hs and widening of the vowels are part and parcel of cockney speech. For instance, a cockney will pronounce mouth as “mauf,” turning the “th” into an “f”; water will become “wa’er,” removing the “t” altogether; and house will become “‘ouse,” with the “h” dropped completely. General slang includes words such as “dosh” for money, “sorted” for solved (a problem) and the well known “guv” for governor (boss).

Cockney dialect and accent are dying, however, thanks to the speed at which London keeps gobbling up ethnicities and appropriating cultures. Specialists predict the death of Cockney dialect within 30 years — but don’t fret, some of its slang survives now in common English, and a lot of its musicality is moulding Estuary English, the bastard child of RP and Cockney interpreted as friendlier, less rough and more approachable.

Cockney is sadly not the only dialect in decline: In Texas, a German dialect that flourished for generations is quickly dying out, the result of previous generations no longer speaking the language at home (with the pressure to speak English during the World Wars playing a major role). It is fated to disappear in a mere 20 to 30 years.

So what is the value of a dialect, and what do we mean by value? Is it crass to reduce it to economic imperatives? If so, what are we doing to avoid these imperatives? Perhaps a better way to answer this is to assess the impact place of origin has in the valuing of dialect.

In Italy, for example, the Italian we now identify as a national language descends from a Tuscan dialect (Florentine) that conquered the nation. That victory owes much to economic and cultural prestige. The chances of a Sicilian dialect dominating Italy was slim. Today, many dialects in Italy are finally succumbing to cultural standardization — ninety percent of dialect speakers are over seventy years old — and that slow death is felt especially in the south, where dialects are not protected by advocacy groups and authorities as they are in the north.

This is especially distressing when we consider that these “dialects” are actually not dialects at all, but individual languages that developed as vernacular variants of Latin. It was only after unification that they were overtaken. The cultural importance of these dialects, however, is evidenced by the heritage and legacy of immigrants. In Canada, newly arrived Italians created associations in order to support other Italians who came from the same region. This support developed into cultural and social institutions which are still alive today. Members spoke exclusively in their dialects, a source of communal bonding strengthened by cultural identity. But these dialects too are dying out, their use deemed impractical by younger generations who reject the insularity they represent in a world where geographic and communal isolation is increasingly rare.

Practical concerns are also killing Chinese dialects. In Malaysia, for instance, the rise of English-speaking Chinese families has sidelined dialects; and the decades-long “Speak Mandarin Campaign” in Singapore hasn’t helped. In China, the message is clear: teaching your kids a dialect will not pave the way to professional success, so stick to Mandarin if you want them to thrive economically.

In an aspirational world laden with social climbers, the quaint delight of a dialect jams the signals and reminds us of a world chock full of barriers: geographically secluded, impenetrable and resistant to change. The description might sound crudely stereotypical and unrepresentative of sophisticated cities such as Shanghai, but even children in the Chinese megalopolis are now required to speak standard Mandarin in Kindergarten. After all, a job applicant with no dialect skills, but fluent English, will always get preferential treatment.

I briefly mentioned class as a determining factor in choosing to speak a dialect. Reflecting on my childhood, I recall correcting my own grandmother when she slid into dialect. My reaction was not exclusively classist, but decidedly so: I interpreted her choice of nouns as rough and crude. My own mother would never utter such words, and I was surely aware from an early age of how social status and dialect were unmistakably intertwined. It’s meditating on my own reactions that highlights how hypocritical we can be about dialects. We cherish them as cultural treasures, but drop them the second they affect our social privileges. We run hastily to document them, fearing their extinction, but wait until they’re tinged with scholarly pedigree to take action. All over the world, there are families eager to leave their humble beginnings behind — dialects included — and desperate go-getters suffering from linguistic intolerance.

Perhaps the fetishization of language is what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. Or perhaps there is a growing movement rejecting the trappings of a standardized global world. Or maybe, we all just need to relax and learn how to communicate in a language we all understand (English?). In my own (mostly monocultural) country, Portugal, there are only two official languages recognized (Portuguese and Mirandese), and a few dialects mostly understandable only to native Portuguese speakers.

The power of an idiom resides in its history and accumulated cultural influence. A dialect with literary clout, philosophical masterpieces and scientific treatises is no longer a dialect, but a language with the ability to create political truths and carve civilizational projects. After all, in Shakespeare’s time, English was only spoken by about four million people!

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