Latvia is a small country, and the average Latvian likes to sigh and say, that the Latvian language isn’t even a language, it’s soon gonna die out, and that there’s no point in learning the language. Even in the academic world there are depressed people who like to rant about the various anglicisms, and like to scare people with a dystopian future for the language if we don’t do something right away. See, young people don’t know how to “correctly” speak Latvian, write Latvian, and reading sucks for a good few, but that’s a story for another day. Today we’ll talk about what is “correct language.”
Linguists have a professional habit of seeing grammatical and spelling mistakes on every corner, and then to either correct them in their thoughts or aloud, which tends to anger people around them. Many people seem to think that commas, CAPITAL letters and other such things are not important for everyday language use. That’s why chats, e-mails and internet comments are full of phrases the meaning of which is never truly understood by anyone except the kings of the keyboard warriors. If you want people to understand you, then these things are important. But every coin has TWO faces! A language is a living organism, it lives, evolves and changes with the people who use it. The second a language stops evolving, it starts dying, and we don’t want that, do we?
A language does not begin its life in a university or any other academic institution – the point of these organizations is to organize, research, and to somehow have rules emerge out of seeming chaos. That’s important so that the language can be understood, and it’s possible to hand it down to the next generations. The research object of linguists is the real language, the one which we hear on the streets, which we see on the internet and in literature, etc. The laws of a language come from this real, alive language.
Nowadays there is a lot of anxiety about the influence of English in Latvian. But however much we might like to rant about it, we have to admit that language change due to contacts with other languages is nothing new, it’s a normal process. Over the course of time Latvian has been under the influence of both German and Russian, but we don’t talk a lot about that today. We casually use such words as brilles (glasses), bikses (trousers), panna (pan), stunda (hour), and many more which have been borrowed from German. When we go to a baznīca (church), we don’t think about the fact that its name comes from Russian. There are a lot of examples like this. Do you think that people back then didn't point at each other and say: “Look how he’s started talking?” There’s a reason why we have a slur “kārklu vācietis” (wannabe German).
Language changes, however brutal they might seem, are a normal thing and we shouldn’t worry too much. But there is one “but”. A language is given to us as a tool of communication. When we communicate, we want the other party to understand us, and so we should think about that both when we talk and write. There isn’t one “correct” way, because there are many different situations, but I think that you’ll agree that there’s no point in writing comments on the internet if no one understands what the fuck you are trying to say. You might as well just not write and do something else. If we pick out something that we want to say, then let’s make sure that everyone understands what we’re saying. That is one of the laws of effective communication.
When working in the translation business, a problem on how to pick out words is a daily occurrence. Translators know very well that that the solution to that problem is dependent on context – who is it for, is the idea or precision more important in this case, etc. For example, when translating things about medicine, our primary goal is precision to a near absurd level, but that’s important, because even the slightest mistake might cost someone their hips, heart or life. The same is with jobs in areas where safety is key. However, if we want to advertise something, then you can’t just take the text and mechanically translate it with absolute precision. Here the general idea of the ad is important, and what words to use to carry that idea. These words won’t always be very correct, but what can you do. In standard language you also can’t translate films or shows, because people talk how they talk, and their manners and expressions are a part of their personality. If someone is violently swearing, then the swearing must be as rude in the translation.
Returning to the theme of “Oh no, Latvian is dying!”, a tad bit of statistics. There are around 7k languages in the world, and most of them really are on the verge of dying. A very small part of these 7k languages is spoken by more than a million people, and Latvian is in the midst of them. If we ranked all of these languages by their number of speakers, Latvian would be near the top of the list, at around 200th place, if we want to be precise. That leaves 6800 languages below us. So – stop complaining. No language is threatened with extinction as long as it is used in many living and social spaces. We speak Latvian at home, at schools, universities, and companies, we write books in it, and we translate. The amount of stuff translated to and from Latvian is massive. And, just as in the old times, as society evolves new terms are created when we need to think of a name for something. That’s how a language grows, changes, and evolves.