July 13, 2021

Standard national dialect arises from those undergoing ethnogenesis along meta-ethnic frontier

National languages, such as Spanish and English, are spread by imperial expansion across nations. But within the home nation, how does one dialect of Spanish become the standard one within Spain, or one dialect of English the standard within Britain (or within America)?

This post will present the overview, and future posts in this series will be case studies of a specific expanding group and their standard dialect.

First, what causes some peoples to launch expansionist empires is covered by Peter Turchin in his mass-audience book War and Peace and War — namely, soaring levels of in-group solidarity (asabiya, borrowing a term from Ibn Khaldun). It requires massive cooperation to conquer other nations and maintain an empire, and lack of cooperation makes you vulnerable to being conquered. That solidarity itself is a response to conquering pressures bearing down on them for a long while. As various neighboring groups all come under the pressure of a single invader, they are forced into gradually banding together for common defense.

Crucially, such groups lie at the enduring boundary between the invader and the native groups. If they get quickly swallowed up by the invasion, they submit and become subjects, however much they may grumble about it. And the effect is most potent when the boundary is a meta-ethnic frontier — where the difference between Us and Them is extreme rather than minor in degree. Different language, different clothing styles, different subsistence mode (e.g., agrarian vs. pastoralist), different religion, different anything salient between an in-group and an out-group.

For example, the people around Rome were forced into solidarity in response to the expanding Celts, particularly after their hometown got sacked. The Alps were a boundary or buffer — those on the mainland European side of the Alps were all overrun by the Celts, but those on the other side, in the Italian peninsula, had some breathing room and time to prepare. Once the Celts crossed the no-man's-land of the Alps, it sent the Romans into panic mode. Those further to the south did not have to worry as much about the Celtic invasion, and they did not consolidate the peninsula behind them.

The area around Rome also bore the brunt of a separate invasion from the south, from the expansionist Carthagenians (Phoenicians who had set up base across the Mediterranean from Rome, in North Africa). That only accelerated the trend of Roman ethnogenesis that had begun in response to Celtic pressures.

Both out-groups were highly different from Romans — it was not as though the marginally different southern Italians were invading central Italy. The Celts spoke a language from a separate branch of Indo-European, and the Carthagenians did not speak Indo-European at all (Semitic). Likewise their religions: Celts and Romans shared a distant ancestor due to being Indo-Europeans, but they had differentiated by that point, not to mention the Greek influences on Roman religion that were absent among Celts. And Carthagenians were even more different, following a Levantine religion, without the Indo-European core. Romans were more sedentary, Celts were semi-nomadic pastoralists, and the Carthagenians were semi-nomadic along the coastline as sea-farers.

Being caught between these two wildly foreign invaders forged the Romans into a strongly cohesive nation, from the 4th century BC onward. They were the ones within the Italian peninsula to unite the rest of the neighboring groups, to repel both sets of invaders, and to ultimately launch an expansionist empire of their own, which would conquer the lands of their former invaders.

That expansion spread their national language, Latin, across a wide swath of territory, and in a fair amount of those lands people still speak a descendant of Latin (the Romance languages). This is the simple observation to make about how imperial ethnogenesis relates to linguistic influence on other speakers. That is, one nation spreads its language to the people of an entirely different nation.

What is difficult to see, and as far as I can tell has not been discovered yet, is how imperial ethnogenesis affects linguistic relations within the expanding in-group itself. Not everyone is on the frontlines of the Us vs. Them conflict — some of Us are closer, while some of Us are more comfortably removed. And as it turns out, those who are closer to the meta-ethnic frontier spread their dialect to the speakers of other dialects, all being within a single national language, or loose dialect chain at any rate.

So, the intense pressures of the meta-ethnic frontier cause the group undergoing ethnogenesis to spread their cultural influence not only over the starkly different out-groups who they conquer, but also over their neighboring in-group members who they unite behind them.

Ethnogenesis is primarily an Us vs. Them phenomenon, but secondarily it is a matter of who among Us is the most Us-like? Every in-group of an expanding empire is somewhat culturally diverse internally — they start as an amalgamation of neighboring groups. How can a single unified national (and later, imperial) culture arise out of that initial diversity? Hypothetically, they could average each constituent culture into a melting pot, or maybe draw lots. In reality, one of their cultures will serve as a model, which the others follow and mold themselves toward.

So then, which one of Our cultures is the most representative of who We are? Naturally, the culture of those who are leading the charge on a material and demographic level, facing the greatest risks of invasion, pillage, rape, murder, theft, and so on, along the meta-ethnic frontier. You other groups are still clearly one of Us, but you're not right there along the faultline. If you're not leading the charge materially, we won't follow your lead culturally either. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

In modern usage, we would call this a "standard dialect" of a national language, and most of the cases I will examine in future posts will be modern languages. Far back into the past, it may or may not have been a standard dialect of a single national language, but it was still the leading member of a closely related group of languages, all of which were opposed to those of their invaders.

But the cultural changes do not stop there — ethnogenesis also changes the standard dialect itself from an earlier historical state. That is, the standardization of one language within an in-group is not just taking an existing dialect, left intact, and copying it throughout the rest of the group. Crucial changes are made to the chosen dialect which distinguish it from an earlier stage of its own history.

Therefore, its speakers are not only distinguishing themselves from their invaders, and from their neighbors among the in-group, but also from their own local ancestors of a more innocent age in their past, who were not undergoing intense ethnogenesis in the crucible of mounting invasions by starkly different foreigners.

This new cultural identity that they are creating for themselves tends to render earlier stages of their cultural evolution opaque — they may not be able to understand the earlier form of their own language. This is what causes boundaries within the history of a language. For centuries, a language has remained static enough for the living to understand the dead from hundreds of years ago. And then within a few centuries of linguistic change, the living can no longer understand their ancestors of only a couple hundred years ago.

These are not gradual changes with a constant rate of change that, cumulatively over long stretches of time, render older stages opaque to present-day speakers. They are one-off seismic events that happen quickly, and then remain in place for the indefinite future (until another such seismic event). This indelible mark in the linguistic history allows us to compare it to the history of ethnogenesis, to see whether they are happening at the same time. And sure enough, they are. Massive changes that render old forms opaque do not happen in a cultural or material vacuum, but as part of the overall ethnogenetic process.

I'll actually come back later to Roman ethnogenesis and the resulting primacy of Latin within the Italian peninsula. It's a much older language — indeed, a dead one — than the others I'll look at, and the languages / dialects of its neighbors are poorly attested, unlike those of more modern languages. The basic pattern holds up, but the evidence is not quite so fine-grained as it is for contemporary languages.

And anyway, this post is just an overview, not a case study. In future posts, I'll look at American English, British English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Latin, and Hindi. The main focus will be correlating the regions that gave birth to the standard dialect, and that were the meta-ethnic frontier. Also, the temporal correlation — the birth of the standard dialect and its distinctive historical changes, and the time when its speakers were undergoing ethnogenesis in the face of the invaders.

These are the "who," "where," and "when" that are sufficient to answer the theoretical question. I've already covered "why" and "how" in this post. The "what" is less relevant to the overall point, but I will cover some basics there too. That is, it's not important what the linguistic changes are — e.g., did they change one vowel to another, or maybe devoice their final consonants, or some other idiosyncratic thing.

Most speakers of a national language today would be hard-pressed to detail these differences between standard and non-standard dialects, but they would all agree that the dialect in a certain range of territory is more standard, and the dialects in some other range are non-standard. Every speaker of American English agrees that the versions along the West Coast are far more standard than those along the East Coast, whether New England, Mid-Atlantic, or Deep Southern.

And that is true for speakers of all other national languages: Brits agree on southern dialects being standard, Spaniards on Castilian, French on northern French, Germans on High German (with an Eastern twist), Russians on southern dialects, Romans on Latin, and Indians on the Hindi belt.

Speakers do not know when these distinctive changes arose, but historical linguists do, so I'll consult them for the temporal comparison. And I'll briefly sketch the substance of the changes, for the sake of completeness, though it'll bore most people and is not relevant to the main point anyway.


  1. Turchin, to his credit, acknowledged that the Latin-Etruscan boundary was not as severe as most meta-ethnic ones, and since the Etruscans were closer to the Gauls, his theory would fit them becoming the imperial power more than the Romans.

    East coast accents are older and have diverged more. But the equivalent of "received pronounciation" in America was the "mid-Atlantic" dialect. That's receded in more recent years, but nowadays the most generic would be a sort of Midwestern, but not the distinctively upper-Midwestern of Fargo or the Superfans (I've heard some refer to Iowa as having the most generic accents, others say Kansas).

  2. Interesting because I was just reading Ibn Khaldun and he was talking about how the Arabic language had become "corrupted" after the conquering Arabs settled in the cities and mixed with the non-Arabs. He seemed to blame association with non-native speakers more than anything. His main gripe was the ending vowels of the verbs, which used to be used to modify meaning but weren't anymore.

  3. Etruscans were not pressured by the Carthaginians, whereas Romans were squeezed between both the Celts from the north and the Carthaginians from the south. And at roughly the same time -- 4th to 3rd centuries BC.

    The Punic Wars were just as crucial to Roman ethnogenesis and imperiogenesis as the invasion of Celts and the later Gallic Wars.

    The standard accent in America has always been Western, which begins around the Plains and goes all the way out to the Pacific coast.

    Mid-Atlantic was a prestige / class thing, not an agreement that "this accent is what real Americans sound like".

    RP is different because it is a variant of the standard dialect, namely from Southern and esp. Southeastern England. It's both upper-class and standard.

    America is the best test case because our cultural and economic / political centers have moved so far apart from each other that there is no overlap. Ethnogenesis has always been an out-West process, while the economic and political capitals have always remained in the Bos-Wash stretch of the East Coast.

    A working-class Californian who grew up in the 1950s sounds more American than Donald Trump, Bloomberg, the Kennedys, or any other wealthy tribe from the East Coast.

    And once you go down the class ladder within the Mid-Atlantic dialect, you could not sound any LESS American. The bus driver from the Honeymooners, Archie Bunker, Jersey Shore, Curly from the Three Stooges, etc. It's been a decidedly non-standard accent since forever.

  4. This jibes with the establishment of Hollywood, and the entertainment business, on the West Coast in the mid-century, right around when the East Coast began to lose its creative power(due to weakening asabiyah).

    If it is true that the Western U.S. started rising(around 1950) to fill the gap of declining East Coast asabiyah, this could explain why the West historically has such a bad reputation - from 1700-1950, it was the Western half of the country that had fractured asabiyah, as the East was rising in prominence.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."