The Linguasphere Register

of the world’s languages and speech communities

Boundaries of close relationship

Volume 1, page 69

In fact, the most frequently useful feature in determining boundaries among related idioms is the natural lie of the land. Valleys and plains allow the free movement of languages and linguistic features, but it is in mountain valleys that the distinctions among neighbouring languages become most obvious. Watersheds and mountain ridges are among the greatest dividers of language.

Serious attempts have also been made to establish scales for the measurement of relative intelligibility among immediately related idioms, [1] but here also it becomes difficult to establish consistently firm ground. It is generally accepted that degrees of inter-intelligibility are influenced by a wide variety of extraneous factors, including the acuity of hearing, relative intelligence and previous linguistic experience of the person whose comprehension is being judged, as well as reciprocal feelings among speakers of immediately related languages, and the subject-matter actually under discussion.

It must be once again stressed that there can be no absolute definition of any of the three terms outer language, language or dialect, since their application depends not only on degrees of relative inter-intelligibility but also the relative complexity of any given linguistic environment. Thus although both [52] Deutsch (German) and [79] Han-yu (Chinese), in all their respective varieties, are presented in terms of these three layers of immediate relationship, it is clear that Chinese embraces an even wider range of internal variety than does German.

Another significant feature of the linguasphere, clearly apparent from the Register, is the way in which small isolated languages more often than not contain deep divisions within themselves, as though the voices of each internal community need to be able to define themselves in terms of their closeness to voices of at least one other related, but distinct, form of speech.

In Europe, for example, such internal division is found within such isolated and relatively “endangered” ethno-linguistic entities as:

- [40] Euskara or Basque (with nine inner languages and over thirty dialects, extending across the Pyrenees from Vizcaya to the Pyrénées-Atlantiques);
- [41] Saame or ‘Lappish’ (with three outer languages, nine inner languages and fourteen further dialects spoken across northern Scandinavia and into Russia);
- [50] Gaeilge+Gàidhlig or Gaelic (with a sequence of five inner languages and up to thirty dialects spoken from the south coast of Ireland to the northern Hebridean islands of Scotland);
- [51] Rumantsch+Grischun with Nones+Cadorino or Ladin (with two outer languages and eight inner languages spoken in the Alpine valleys of Switzerland and Italy);
- [52] Frysk+Frasch or Frisian (with four outer languages, ten inner languages and double that number of dialects - spoken on or near the North Sea coast and islands, from the Netherlands to Schleswig-Holstein); and
- [53] Serbska+Serb__ina or Sorbian (with two inner languages and a dozen dialects, spoken in a small area south of Berlin).

For an exemplification of the way in which the Linguasphere classification has been applied to the detailed configuration of languages in other areas of the world, see any of the individual zones of the Register, and particularly the discussion in many of the headings to individual zones. A synopsis of the zones within each sector is presented in Volume Two (pp. 16-35).

Finally, it should be mentioned that a potential by-product of the Register’s listing of inner languages within outer languages relates to the planning and application of machine-translation. It is obvious that the problems confronting the design of a bilingual translation program are considerably less when the program is translingual (i.e. covering languages classified within the same net), and especially when the two languages are immediate enough in relationship to be treated within the same outer language. In other words, help in the development of published literature in a previously unwritten or little written language can be expected to benefit from the machine-translated version of literature already existing elsewhere in the same outer language, depending of course on the availability of a programmer with the necessary linguistic knowledge. Research in Mexico has already led to the creation of computer programs which can move a text largely by substitution between two very closely or immediately related languages, in contrast to the general reformulation required by translations between unrelated or distantly related languages. [2]


[1] See, for example, Casad 1974.

[2] For early development in this field, see Weber, McConnel et al. 1990, based on work by Bill Mann and David Weber in the 1970’s and subsequent use in the field of [84] Quechua languages in the 1980’s.

See also

  • Outer Languages, Inner languages and Dialects Volume 1, page 65

    Within each zone, and within each of its successive sets, chains and nets, every component language (in the broadest sense of an individual "language") is classified in terms of three successive layers of immediate relationship - outer language, inner language and dialect. Where the countable noun "language" is used in this discussion, it refers potentially to the successive layers of outer language and inner language. No form of speech exists in isolation from all others, and individual languages exist not only for purposes of communication but also to mark social distances among (...)

  • Questions of ’dialect’ Volume 1, page 68

    The traditional dichotomy of “language(s)” and “dialect(s)”, in the consideration of immediately related idioms, has frequently implied that a dialect is not only subordinate to a language but also in some way inferior in quality or correctness. The term “dialect” has also been applied sometimes in a deprecatory sense to specific languages, implying that they are unwritten or in some way “undeveloped”. As a result, in a discussion of African languages over thirty years ago, it was proposed that the use of the term “dialect” be abandoned, because it had been so ambiguously employed on its long (...)

  • Endangered languages Volume 1, page 70

    An endangered speech community is one whose common language is in demographic decline, the voices of that language being no longer replaced in proportion to those dying. The present size of an endangered speech community is not a factor in its definition as "endangered". An endangered language may be defined as an outer language, the voices of which are no longer being replaced in a balanced proportion. Publicity has been generated in recent years for the defence of “endangered” languages and their communities of voices, and this is in every way to be welcomed. The most reliable (...)

SPIP | Sign In | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0