Sunday, June 5, 2022

Impure thoughts – foreign influence on native language use


[distillation image*]

Languages are alive. They are born, often create conflicts as they grow, thrive, struggle and, unfortunately, even die. Above all, languages develop as they interact in the world around them, whether in the place of birth or in new homes. This dynamic leads to the creation of local versions, some close to the original, as in American English, and other much distinct, such as Moroccan Arabic. Even today, it is possible to see this process in action and even view the evolution as the most natural of phenomena.

Fundamentally, people learn how to express themselves in a language by observing, listening and interacting with the language. By the time children start formal schooling, they already have a strong sense of intonations and their implications, sentence structure and the underlying meanings of countless words, including positive and negative implications. Parents and close family members shape the language of their children by encouraging through positive reactions, e.g., smiles and immediate response, and correcting through negative feedback, e.g., hard looks and formal correction. Even adults receive such feedback from their children when they use the wrong technical term or massacre the name of a singer or musical group. Thus, it is impossible to isolate language from continuous feedback from the environment.

Therefore, when the speakers of a language choose to spend extensive time in a country or area where another language is spoken, not to mention raise their children in such a foreign environment, it is inevitable that their native language undergoes gradual but constant changes. These modifications may not be noticeable to the speaker but natives will immediately notice the differences, sometimes even to the point of asking for clarifications on what was said. These changes involve intonation, syntax and vocabulary.

Every language its own song, its audio ID, without any reference to words. For example, most Westerners find it easy to identify Italian just by its song-like cadence. Some languages feature greater tone differential, such as French and Spanish while other are known for their flatness, such as Russian. English is somewhere in the middle. Living in foreign countries provides constant exposure to another rhythm, modifying the native language. Thus, Russian speakers in Israel tend to speak more sing-song over time as do English speakers, reflecting the Hebrew rythyms of everyday life. LIkewise, Canadian French speakers use a slightly flatter than their French counterparts. The words may be the same but somehow the foreign version sounds different.

A slower process involves sentence structure. Each language has its own ways of arranging sentence parts. English tends to be short and direct, i.e., subject, verb and object, while Russian is on the other extreme where word order is quite fluid and adjectival phrases precede the noun they describe. The continual exposure to foreign syntax eventually creates a hybrid version of the first language that can be most easily identified in locally produced newspapers. I have read Hebrew newspapers produced in the Los Angeles and Russian magazines published in Israel. They sounded strangely alien even if the vocabulary was essentially the same as the original language. I was told that traditional Odessan Russian sounds very Ukrainian in terms of phrasing, not a surprise given its geographical location. The local language casts a shadow on the original language.

The easiest modification of local versions to identify is vocabulary. Insidiously and unavoidably, local useful words enter the daily vocabulary of the speaker. Almost no Russian in Israel, immigrant or 1st generation Israeli, says “policlinica” to say medical center but uses instead the Hebrew kupat holim. Israelis in the United States do business, not esekim. French Canadian easily integrate French and English to create such wonderful hybrids such as courriel, which is a combination of courrier and electronique, i.e. email, and try to enjoy their week-end. The French may laugh at them at every opportunity (and do so) but the average Metropolitan French does not speak  a completely pure French as the English word often sounds much cooler, being from a foreign language. Thus, it can be truly difficult for expats to visit “home” and avoid use of words from their adopted language.

To clarify, this human linguistic evolution is lifelong and natural. Just as the human body never stops changing. neither does language. People react and learn, with the ultimate goal of trying to be fully understood by the other party. There is nothing unnatural or even impure about the process. While the differences in speech may sound lazy or even illegitimate, they are obviousment, as my late father would say in jest, just the result of natural chemistry.

* Picture captions allow the blind to have fulll access to the Internet.

Pictures credit: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=2028602">OpenClipart-Vectors</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=2028602">Pixabay</a>

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