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The Académie française exists to ensure that Gallic Vulgar Latin does not change any more than it already has.

By the 9th Century, the only place where real Latin survived was within the walls of churches and monasteries. That is not to say that everyone yet knew, or at least would acknowledge, that the language of the Romans was no longer truly a living one. The French recorded the first quasi-Romance official document in 842, and Italians would be in denial for well over a century longer. Further centuries later, Greeks and Arabs knew crusading interlopers from France, Italy, England, and Germany all alike as “Latins.”

Paradoxically, the recognition that Latin was kind of dead actually bolstered its standing…


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Presumably remembering declensions is higher on Maslow’s hierarchy than shoes.

Today, it is fashionable to think of those who stand on the correct usage of language as snobs, arbitrarily impugning valid alternatives to the standard register. Strictly speaking, it is true that communication is not necessarily hindered by “improper” vocabulary or grammar, but this is only a fraction of the point. The past seventy or so generations of Europeans would have been spared an ocean of confusion, division, and strife had they all paid attention to their Latin teachers and continued to speak the same language.

It is also amusing to note that it was not just the Roman literati…


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Italicus es, an provincialis?

Tacitus was spending a sunny day at the arena in the 1st Century A.D. when the man sitting next to him casually asked whether he hailed from Italy, or the provinces. A few generations earlier, that question would have been inconceivable. Romans of olde jealously restricted true Romanitas to natives of the Eternal City and its immediate environs. Other Latins and Italians more broadly were better than barbarians, but that was not saying much. But with the extension of Roman citizenship to most Italians in the 80s B.C., Romanisation picked up rapidly. …


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In 2012, some Chinese expressed excitement to finally have a leader who “speaks Putonghua.”

Change is hard. In spite of heavy political, economic, and social pressure, pushed by a highly motivated state with unlimited power and resources, making everyone in China speak Mandarin has still been an uphill battle. To this day, as many as 30% of Chinese, over four hundred million people, are not proficient in the standard dialect. Many more speak it only as a second language.

China’s non-Mandarin community is massive, but relatively atomised. Aside from Mandarin, there are seven major dialect groups. …


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A 16th Century aristocrat built Shanghai’s Yu Yuan Gardens for his father after he failed the civil service exam.

Noh meng si guilo va?

My first encounter with Chinese dialects was a tricky one: my (American and Spanish) friends and I were locked out of our university after curfew, and my not-so-eloquent entreaty to let us in was met by the porter calling us white devils. I arrived in Shanghai assuming that I could get by entirely in Mandarin. I was well aware that China is a linguistically diverse country, but had been told by Chinese and Westerners that anyone I would encounter would speak the dialect I knew. For the most part, this is true. …


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The land of rocky soil, forbidding coastlines, and undiluted Latin.

If a Roman centurion, frozen in the high alps, thawed out today, where would he feel most at home? Of course, many people speak Latin today. But assuming he does not want to spend all his time with priests and Classicists, and assuming he has had enough of a culture shock and would prefer the path of least linguistic resistance, his best bet would be Sardinia.

Thanks to its isolated geography, the Mediterranean island has had little of the foreign influence that has transformed other Romance languages. The Italian-American linguist Mario Pei calculated that Sardinian is 92% similar to Latin…


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As he nears the gate of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante is accosted by the giant Nimrod, whose blasphemy in building the Tower of Babel has landed him in chains in the citadel of treachery. Other shades at least have the consolation of telling the traveller their stories, but since it was he “through whose ill counsel in the world no more one tongue prevails,” all he can manage is the gibberish “Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi!” “Each language is to him, as his to others, understood by none.”

One wonders if this gave Dante pause. After all, he…


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Long after the last sultan departed, the Alhambra Palace looms over Granada.

Spanish is not a particularly well-known language in Europe, but even people who do not know a word beyond hola are aware of one unique feature. Much of Spain was under Arab Islamic rule for centuries, and this epoch left an indelible legacy in the Spanish language. In the context of the modern crises of Muslim immigration and religious division, this history is important: a supposed halcyon era of cultural exchange back in the Middle Ages provides an example for Europe today.

This all seems plausible enough. Arabic held sway in the Iberian Peninsula for nigh on eight centuries, longer…


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A schloss, or a slot?

When English speakers visit Amsterdam or Berlin, they often notice familiar words sprinkled among the strange sounds and thirty-letter strings of consonants. Most have at one time or another been puzzled by the facts that the Germans, not the Dutch, call themselves Deutsch; a few have been even more confused to learn that the Dutch call their neighbours Duits (with very similar pronunciation). The path that led us to this bizarre situation is a tricky one; like so much in linguistics, it has as much to do with historical accidents than organic language development.

The dialects we know today as…


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In 1877, Oxford linguist Henry Sweet predicted that in a century the speeches of England, America, and Australia would be mutually unintelligible. Thanks to revolutionary leaps forward in communication and travel, that did not pan out. To some extent, the story of the past century has been one of homogenisation. In postwar America, the horsemen of apocalypse for regional accents arrived in the forms of geographical mobility and the nightly news. Counterintuitively, today’s national standard has its roots in the heartland (apparently the Iowa accent tested best with audiences nationwide), rather than the country’s Northeastern nerve center. Distinctive accents survive…

John Mandeville

Former economist at Magdalen College, Oxford; current investment banking analyst writing to stay sane

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