The divergence of languages

laelene Posted in general blog,Tags: ,

Every now and then I hear a phrase that is so British English that I can’t help but notice.  Today, for some reason, it was "full stop" that caught my attention.  It was just a conversation drifting over my head, one that I was loosely hearing, but not really paying attention to.  I was rather focused on my own work until I heard that term.  Full stop.  Period.  It’s something I would never use, except in the context of making a full stop at a stop sign (which I rarely do, what with the popularity of rolling stops in California).  It is far more comfortable for me to say "period."

This got me thinking about a myriad of other terms that I don’t normally use, like 5er (a five pound note) or alight (get off).  In fact, alight throws me off quite often – for some reason I always think of that as getting on the subway, rather than getting off.  It has always fascinated me, this divergence of language.  Certain terms in certain regions vary greatly, as shown in the classic confusing case of fries (American) versus chips (British) and chips (American) versus crisps (British).  It interested me enough for me to keep an extensive list of everything I came across in my time in England that varied from popular American usage, whether it was a different spelling, different term, or different meaning.

Chinese has diverged even more, with Cantonese and Mandarin being so different verbally that neither can understand the other without training.  How peculiar for a language to split so drastically, yet remain the same (pretty much) in written form.  Granted, there is still a disparity between traditional and simplified forms of writing, but generally they are similar.  What I don’t understand is how this came to be when this was supposed to be a united country that developed these differences.  At least for Spanish, the changes can be seen correlated with geographic locations that are quite far apart.  It makes me wonder how the Chinese government dealt with the different dialects.

Likewise, the romance languages have the same root and Portuguese and Spanish have close ties to each other.  Spanish itself has different forms based on if you are from Europe, North America, or South America.  Now isn’t that something?  That sort of change makes far more sense to me, since the Americas are a world away from Spain and it only natural that it evolved differently.  I can even understand that Mexican Spanish and Argentinian Spanish could have moved in different directions due to the distance.

So why is it that China seems to be the only country with such a strong split?  That’s not even to count the endless list of other dialects that are commonly spoken throughout the country.  Perhaps it has something to do with the billions of people and vast land?  I guess India has seen something like that too, with their host of dialects.  Still, it really puzzles me how a country can stay together when a lot of its people don’t seem to be able to communicate with each other.  I guess it could have worked a long time ago when writing was the most common form of communication to people who didn’t live in your immediate vicinity.  I wonder if that’s why Chinese writing remained a constant but spoken language didn’t.


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