Measuring languageness: Fact-checking and debunking a few common myths
Keywords:languageness, measurability, dialects, postmodernism, intelligibility
The article critically discusses a few common objections to an intrinsic, language-internal definition of what constitutes a ‘language’ (and, conversely, a ‘dialect’). It argues that, contra postmodernism (1.), languages do exist, they can be counted and languageness can be measured independently and even notwithstanding the speakers’ beliefs and ideologies (2.). It further refutes as unsound all the common criticisms to intelligibility as a tool in assessing languageness: while deviations from common-sense assessments may be expected but are not really of concern to science (3.1.), intelligibility asymmetries (3.2.), apparent infinite graduality (3.3.) and dialect chains (3.4.) are only partial problems to be solved empirically. On the contrary, intelligibility can and is routinely measured in different sciences, and, when applied to language, it tends to dovetail with other criteria, such as dialectometry and the counting of isoglosses (4.).
Blommaert, Jan & Rampton, Ben. 2012. “Language and Superdiversity”. MMG Working Paper 12-09 (https://www.mmg.mpg.de/59866/WP_12-09_Concept-Paper_SLD.pdf).
Comrie, Bernard. 1987. “Introduction.” In Comrie, Bernard (ed.), The World’s Major Languages, 1-22. London: Croom Helm.
De Mauro, Tullio. 1963. Storia linguistica dell’Italia unita. Bari: Laterza.
Fasold, Ralph W. 2005. “Making languages.” In Cohen, James & McAlister, Kara T. & Rolstad, Kelly & MacSwan, Jeff (eds.), Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, 697-702. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Gooskens, Charlotte. 2007. “The contribution of linguistic factors to the intelligibility of closely related languages.” Journal of Multilingual and multicultural development 28. 445-467.
Hammarström, Harald. 2008. “Counting Languages in Dialect Continua Using the Criterion of Mutual Intelligibility.” Journal of Quantitative Linguistics 15(1). 36-45.
Hudson, Richard A. 1996. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kalikow, Daniel N. & Stevens, Kenneth N. & Elliott, Lois L. 1977. “Development of a Test Speech Intelligibility in Noise Using Sentence Materials with Controlled Word Predictability.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 61. 1337-1351.
Kloss, Heinz. 1967. “‘Abstand languages’ and ‘ausbau languages’”. Anthropological linguistics 9(7). 29-41.
Makoni, Sinfree. 2005. “Toward a more inclusive applied linguistics and English language teaching: A symposium.” TESOL Quarterly 39(4). 716-719.
Nunberg, Geoffrey. 1997. “Topic... Comments; Double Standards.” Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 15. 667-675.
Pennycook, Alastair. 2006. “Postmodernism in Language Policy.” In Ricento, Thomas (ed.), An Introduction to Language Policy: Theory and Method, 60-76. Oxford: Blackwell.
Pennycook, Alastair. 2007. “The myth of English as an international language.” In Makoni, Sinfree & Pennycook, Alastair (eds.), Disinventing and reconstituting languages, 90-115. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Regis, Riccardo. 2020. “Italoromanzo.” Revue de Linguistique Romane 84. 5-39.
Tamburelli, Marco. 2014. “Uncovering the ‘hidden’ multilingualism of Europe: an Italian case study.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 35(3). 252-270.
Tamburelli, Marco & Brasca, Lissander. 2017. “Revisiting the classification of Gallo-Italic: a dialectometric approach.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 33(2). 442-455.
Tamburelli, Marco & Tosco, Mauro. 2021. “What are contested languages and why should linguists care?” In Tamburelli, Marco & Tosco, Mauro (eds.), Contested Languages: The Hidden Multilingualism of Europe, 3-17. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Tang, Chaoju & van Heuven, Vincent J. 2009. “Mutual Intelligibility of Chinese Dialects Experimentally Tested.” Lingua 119(5). 709-732.
Tosco, Mauro. 2008. “Introduction: Ausbau is everywhere!” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 191. 1-16.
Tosco, Mauro. 2017. “On counting languages, diversity-wise.” In Micheli, Ilaria (ed.), ATrA 3 - Cultural and linguistic transition explored: proceedings of the ATrA closing workshop – Trieste May 25-26, 2016, 234-245. Trieste: EUT.
Trudgill, Peter. 2000. Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. 4th ed. London: Penguin.
Wolff, Hans. 1959. “Intelligibility and inter-ethnic attitudes.” Anthropological linguistics 1. 34-41.
How to Cite
Copyright (c) 2021 Mauro Tosco
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.