Saturday, May 08, 2010

The durability of the relationship between language and space

Early this year, a really cool report came out from the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA*) in Bonn, Germany. It was done by Oliver Falck, Stephan Heblich, Alfred Lameli & Jens S├╝dekum, and it's called:
Dialects, Cultural Identity, and Economic Exchange
The full report is available here, just scroll down to number 4743. A while back it got some international press, notably this piece in The Economist, including this:
When people migrate within Germany, they tend to go to places where dialects resemble those spoken in their home region 120 years ago.
Here's how the report's conclusion lays this out:
dialects were shaped by past interactions, prior mass migration waves, religious and political divisions, ancient routes and transportation networks, and so forth. Dialects act as a sort of regional memory that comprehensively stores such information. Consequently, language variation is probably the best measurable indicator of cultural differences that one can come up with.

Our findings imply that there are intangible cultural borders within a country that impede economic exchange across its regions. These intangible borders are enormously persistent over time; they have been developed over centuries, and so they are likely to be there also tomorrow.
One key example of dialect patterns is the case of Goslar, illustrated in the map here. (Click to enlarge.) The dialect was shaped by heavy immigration from the southeast (shown by the orange, showing greater similarities between those dialects with Goslar). This pattern was created by 16th c. immigration from Saxony to Goslar by miners.

German dialect maps are often used as examples of beautifully clear regional differences, with big, clean isoglosses stretching across a pretty vast territory. But even within the traditional dialects of German-speaking Europe, enclaves like this are remarkably common. It really underscores what we've come to call "Purnell's Law" here in Madison: Language is local.

The report has good historical depth in terms of earlier political boundaries, migrations and trade routes, etc. and their conclusions about the persistence of old patterns of contact and old boundaries are pretty exciting. In the U.S. the history of English is still relatively shallow. Some work here is considering history in these ways, but there are big opportunities.

*The German name is Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, 'research institute on the future of labor', in case you're wondering how they got 'IZA'.)

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