User:Johan (WMF)/Knowing languages

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A short personal essay.

On knowing languages[edit]

”Do you understand what we’re saying?” Sandra suddenly asks me, sitting in my hotel room at Wikimania having a conversation with Sjoerd and Siebrand in Dutch while we’re waiting for the others to turn up. Only, of course, she doesn’t, because she says it in Dutch. For a second I freeze. The question is perfectly intelligible, and I’ve been following most of the conversation, but since Dutch isn’t a language I speak, my brain wants to answer it in Standard Germanic. And to me, Standard Germanic isn’t Dutch or English. It’s Swedish. Which isn’t necessarily helpful at all.

When we’re talking about ”knowing a language”, we have to understand that neither ”knowing” nor ”language” are very well-defined terms.

Do I know English? Well enough, I suppose. Do I know German? Well, probably. I grew up speaking German with some of my relatives, I can have conversations about most subjects and I happily read books in German. Do I know Icelandic? Well, not really. I can usually read it, though, having taken some basic Icelandic at university and being a native speaker of another branch on the North Germanic tree. I know some Icelandic, which in turn helps me read Faroese. Knowing, like so many other things in the world, isn’t a binary, it’s a spectrum, and this makes a yes-or-no question somewhat confusing.

But the really tricky part is the ill-defined word ”language”.

”A language is a dialect with an army and navy”,[1] as Max Weinreich wrote, having heard it from a member of the audience at a lecture. Since I’m Swedish, let me illustrate this with North Germanic. The definition of a language has normally very little to do with linguistics. It’s a political concept.

Sweden isn’t what happened where people speak Swedish. Swedish is what we call everything within the North Germanic dialect continuum that happens to be traditionally spoken within the borders of Sweden and Finland. On these variations we’ve forced a common orthography and an artificial boundary towards the North Germanic we now call Danish and Norwegian. With time, of course, a common written language, radio and television have made concepts like Swedish and Danish standardise and many dialects converge towards something that’s more similar to what you can hear in other parts of the country. Still, many variants of what we call Swedish might be more difficult for me to interpret than the Norwegian spoken not far from where I grew up.

I don’t necessarily understand all Swedish conversations. And sometimes I easily understand conversations in languages I don’t speak. I don’t need to know Frisian to read a Frisian text: a good grasp of Germanic grammar, English, German and Swedish will take me pretty far here. And whereas I don’t speak any Romance language well enough to be comfortable doing so,[2] a basic understanding of their grammatical features, some basic specific vocabulary in a couple of them, some Latin and fluent English mean that I’m happily reading newspaper articles in most of them. This doesn’t mean that I know French. I don’t. But I know basic Romance, the same way I know pretty good Germanic – which is pretty much the same process as someone understanding most of a strange and unfamiliar dialect they have to fight to parse but sort of grasp anyway.

Words like ”Swedish”[3] or ”Arabic”[4] tend to fool us into thinking that what we speak can be packaged into neat boxes that we put next to the other boxes. This has little bearing on reality. Human speak is far messier than this. Which makes the question ”how many languages do you know?” difficult to answer. I understand simple texts in a fair number of orthographies. This doesn’t necessarily mean I know anything of the language at all. And in the end, we all just speak ideolects that relate more or less to each other.


  1. A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot, as English Wikipedia puts it in Latin characters. To someone who speaks a few other Germanic languages, this is sentence in itself is a very good illustration of the concept, as every single word is easily understood without having spent a single minute studying Yiddish.

    a = a (English)
    shprakh = språk (Swedish)
    iz = is (English)
    a = a (English)
    dialekt = dialekt (Swedish)
    mit = mit (German)
    an = an (English)
    armey = armé (Swedish)
    un = und (German)
    flot = flotta (Swedish)

  2. The last time I tried to speak Italian, I was pleased with having been able to express my point, until I looked back at what I said and realised I had spoken Latin with an Italian accent. But it worked, of course.
  3. Which could well be defined as a dialect of Scandinavian, if we’re looking at intelligibility. But we aren't, because that's not how languages work.
  4. Which could well be defined as a number of languages, if we’re looking at intelligibility. But we aren't, because that's not how languages work.