Engine Room Column: Who is allowed to use the dialect of scholarly writing

In his Engine Room Column, our Director of Research Funding Kalle Korhonen gets back to the discussion on the methods of dialect reseach, which took place in the end of 2018 in Finnish media.
Kuva: Christin Hume / Unsplash

Language-related work will continue at Kone Foundation in 2019, when language specialist Ulla Tiililä continues to evaluate the impact of the Kone Foundation Language Programme. A related topic is the discussion on the methods of dialect research, which took place in the end of 2018 even in the opinion pages of Helsingin Sanomat. Dialect activist Jani Koskinen had written his University of Helsinki MA thesis in a Savonian dialect of Finnish. Previously he had written his Bachelor’s thesis using the same dialect.

At least three different topics emerged in the discussion: (1) the relation between standard language and its dialects in academic writing; (2) the idea of dialects as threatened minority languages; and (3) the question of who is allowed to use a language or a dialect.

There are no watertight criteria for distinguishing between different dialects of one language and different languages. A common definition is based on the combination of comprehensibility and speaker experience: if the speakers of different language forms understand each other, they speak different dialects, and if not, their languages are different. Moreover, speakers can feel that they speak different languages and call their languages with different names. Political factors can also come into play: according to a common saying, language is a dialect with its own army. In Finland one often forgets the fact that dialect differences are not necessarily regional, but they can also depend on social class. The definitions are of course very much alive, and it has been proposed that one can distinguish languages and dialects by using distance measuring (Søren Wichmann).

Jani Koskinen used a dialect in academic writing, because he wanted to “expand the domain of an endangered language form” (Helsingin Sanomat 21 Dec. 2018). According to his supervisors, Janne Saarikivi and Rigina Ajanki, the use of a dialect was justified, because the thesis was “action research, in which the language form used was part of the research itself” (Helsingin Sanomat 4 Jan. 2019). In their view it was natural to write such an MA thesis in a dialect, since its topics were the limits of, on the one hand, written and spoken language, and on the other, language and dialect.

Thus, the point was not to use a dialect in academic writing for fun in a textual genre usually reserved for an academic idiom close to the standard language. And it is unlikely that there would emerge a movement for the use of a Savonian dialect in academic writing, since the approach was based on action research. History provides us with good examples of how a literary form of the “standard” language has become so different from the language used in a community that it has finally lost its status as a literary language. This is what happened to Latin, which diversified into daughter languages distinct from each other and their mother. As a consequence, people slowly began to use the daughter languages in writing even in Romance areas. In academic writing, Latin lost its status slowly (and not entirely) during the 18th and 19th centuries. But this situation, which took centuries to develop, cannot be compared with the relation between Finnish and its dialects in our own times. However, both Finnish and the Romance languages are somewhat threatened as languages of scholarly communication.

But is it reasonable to call a dialect an endangered form of language? In the collective volume Sustaining Linguistic Diversity (2006), Gregory R. Guy ja Ana M. S. Zilles emphasize that our idea of a threatened language is often based on a language which is used by an ethnic group (“tribe”) and has a name of its own. In their view, low-status language varieties or dialects defined by social class or ethnicity can be considered as minority languages or living linguistic heritages to be protected and revitalised. In practice, all this depends on who is able to tackle the issue and start promoting a language form in new ways.

Finally, the discussion also touched upon a sensitive topic: can a non-Savonian person use a Savonian dialect? Saarikivi and Ajanki (Helsingin Sanomat 4 Jan.) expressed their reasonable opinion: using a Savonian dialect in academic writing cannot be compared to a non-Sami person wearing a Sami hat, which is currently considered an insult. However, they added the argument that the writer of the thesis had family in Savonia. Does one really need such an argument? Why should one have family relations in an area the language form of which one is using? Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to use any language? In principle, yes. However, one must also be prepared to be sensitive. I can at least imagine a situation in which someone learns a language in order to gain influence among a minority or to be able to control the community. It is not easy to learn a language well, but it is possible. In my own view, if your aim is to promote the status of a minority language or a dialect, you are certainly allowed to learn it despite your background or family relations. But if the aim is to control or colonise, you are not. Would such a simple principle be sufficient?

Author

Kalle Korhonen