Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hammershaimb, Aasen, Aavik

Linguistics, the nation and literature.

I regard myself as a literary translator, rather than a linguist as such, but certain linguistic phenomena interest me, such as the creation and restitution of languages. This is where linguistics meets social, and especially literary, needs.

The three men listed in the title are by no means the only linguists who have actually built and formed parts of their respective languages, but they are representative of people who felt it their duty to do something for the written language of their respective countries, so that it would become a usable national language - not least that a national literature could be written in them.

Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) started of what was to become nynorsk. Venceslaus Hammershaimb (1819-1909) created a new spelling for Faroese so that it could become a viable written language. Johannes Aavik (1880-1973) even created neologisms and used Finnish calques to expand the Estonian language, also to make it more suited to writing literature.

Their efforts are not to be divorced from a national (language) consciousness, first perhaps hinted at by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who had moved from East Prussia to Riga and was maybe the first leading poet and intellectual to make people, in this case in the Baltic countries, aware of the fact that what many regarded as mere peasant dialects and idioms could be turned into literary languages, by drawing on oral folk tales and poems, committing them to paper, and using words to be found there when writing new poetry. His efforts in turn sparked off the work of, for instance, Johann Snellman (1806-1881) and Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) in Finland, and Friedrich Kreutzwald (1803-1882) in Estonia.

For more details on all these linguists and men of letters, you can turn to Google. The phenomenon of raising the dignity of a national language is not restricted to northern countries alone. The same was done with, for example, what was to become modern Hebrew, and Afrikaans, which was in effect a breakaway dialect of Dutch.

But my point is that when all these linguistic efforts were made to consolidate national languages, literature, at first poetry, later novels, were an essential and symbiotic part of the efforts. I wonder how linguists, anno 2009, would go about the same tasks. Would literature, as such, still play an equally major part?


David McDuff said...

I think that Herder is a fascinating character, but I've yet to find a decent book that goes into an examination of his role in laying the foundations of national consciousness in the North - especially in Finland, where he was undoubtedly a major influence on figures like Snellman.

And no, literature would not play a major part today - it would all be government commissions and statistics.

Eric Dickens said...

Thanks for that, David. In the introductory part of the large Estonian-English dictionary (1982, reprint 1992) collated by lexicographer Paul F. Saagpakk, there is a separate article on the theme of "Linguistic innovation in Estonian".