Some Isogloss Delights
Random musings about isoglosses and pains-au-chocolat — a linguistic flâneur’s journey
Isoglosses are separation lines between distinct linguistic features of a main language. On one side on the line on a map a feature is prominent, on the other side an alternative is dominant. The word says it all: ἴσος (isos), for ’equal‘ and γλῶσσα (glōssa), for ’language‘.
German has some very interesting isoglosses, behind the illusory uniformity of the Hochdeutsch which is taught as a foreign language and common on national (but certainly not local) TV programs. Here are some of my favourites:
- The ‘Ich / Ik’ isogloss, also called the Uerdingen isogloss. It separates the southern (Hochdeutsch) Ich from the northern Ik. That Ik is similar to the neighbouring Dutch Ek, and related to our English I.
- The ‘Machen / Maken’ isogloss, called the Benrath isogloss or, to use the German form, the Benrather Linie (line). Again we see there the transformation of a softer ‘ch to a hard ‘k’ typical of these south/north isoglosses. Predictably very close to the Uerdingen isogloss.
- Further south, the ‘Appel/Apfel’ , or Speyerer Linie, or locally the Äppeläquator (nice name!) which merges into the ‘mähe/mähen, euch/enk’ isogloss, also called the Karlsruher Linie
These isoglosses (which may move over time) separate different forms of the German languages, principally (and approximately):
- Niederdeutsch north of the Benrather Linie
- Mittledeutsch between the Benrather Linie and the Speyerer Linie
- Oberdeutsch south of the Speyerer Linie
Now let me add that this is only very approximative. There are actually many more local variations and the diversity of local German dialects beyond the rough Nieder/Mittle/Ober distinction is amazing:
These days, German TVs and radios give much more room to these dialects. It can be a bit surprising at first, but they are very enjoyable. I must confess a preference for the southern German forms (Oberdeutsch). In particular I am very fond of the firm ‘Grüß Gott’ (hello) and the amazing ‘Servus’ (hello, bye) which is straight out of the Latin. ‘Servus’ may not be that common, but Grüß Gott definitely is on the Bavarian radio and television.
It can be interesting to watch dokus (documentaries) where Bavarians farmers are subtitled in German when speaking their dialect! Not so much the vocabulary but the pronunciation is quite different.
There are many other variations that learners of German will eventually come across:
- Metzger( South Germany) vs. Schlachter (North Germany) for a butcher.
- Viertel nach zehn, Viertel elf, Viertel ab zehn, Viertel über zehn for 10:15. Something as simple as that gives you four variations.
The most famous French isogloss was historically the well-known ‘oc /oïl’ isogloss, separating the Langues d’oc from the Langues d’oïl in medieval times.
In modern times there are still some interesting isoglosses that French speakers regularly come across. For instance, faithful to the old ‘oc /oïl’ isogloss, we find the ‘pomme de pin’ / ‘pigne’ isogloss, with the definitely more latinate ‘pigne’ preponderant in the south of France. A related isogloss is the ‘ forêt de pins / pinède / pineraie’.
My favourite French isogloss is without any doubt the ‘chocolatine/pain au chocolat’ isogloss, which has been the subject of some critical research.
For sure my preference is for the south-western chocolatine. After all if what you want is a pain-au-chocolat, just buy a baguette, stick a chocolate bar in it and you’re done. And maybe rub some rancid butter in your hair too (as some northern barbarian tribes used to do, to the consternation of Sidonius Appolinaris, a well-connected 5th century Roman aristocrat from south-west Gaul).