Languages getting simpler

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by flameofanor5, Oct 22, 2008.

  1. flameofanor5 Not a cosmic killjoy Registered Senior Member

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    Are languages becoming simpler? Ex. German has stuff like feminime and masculine verbs adjectives etc. Whereas english doesn't seem to. Does this mean languages keep getting simpler and simpler?
     
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  3. mathman Valued Senior Member

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    It seems that way. Latin has a very complicated grammatical structure - more than German. Modern Romance languages tend to be much simpler.
     
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  5. CheskiChips Banned Banned

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    I think they're becoming childish in their construction patterns. Learn old semitic languages and you'll see for yourself. Currently I know Latin, Hebrew, and English. Of the three English is the most simple...however it's the easiest to expand into varying situations. Hebrew is limited somewhat, and Latin could be potentially expanded (and has been)...but it's more tedious I think.
     
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  7. Mr. Hamtastic whackawhackado! Registered Senior Member

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    Not at all, it's just one more sign the human race is becoming lazier of thought and communication. We can expect devolution to become apparent anytime.
     
  8. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

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    I m 4 E Z stuff!

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  9. Mr. Hamtastic whackawhackado! Registered Senior Member

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    O Y U R A SRT-S

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  10. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

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  11. Mr. Hamtastic whackawhackado! Registered Senior Member

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  12. Search & Destroy Take one bite at a time Moderator

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    The peasants always speak like peasants and the poets like poets.
    Until the government controls art 1984 style I don't see any real 'regression' in language. And even if it does get simpler it won't get less beautiful.
    K THX 4 L@@K
     
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    But they speak the same language in most cases. Poets often use a slightly older form of their language, which comes across as more formal and perhaps even stilted. Although in some cultures, including ours, many poets enjoy exploring the most vernacular form of the language in order to expand their expressive abilities.

    It's scholars who are more likely to use a distinctly different older form of a language, or in some cases even an older language. In Imperial Rome scholarship and government business was conducted in Classical Latin, whereas the populace spoke Vulgar Latin. For several centuries the difference was largely limited to simplified pronunciation of difficult phonemes, avoidance of complex grammatical forms, and preference for slang over scholarly words. But with the collapse of the Empire, Vulgar Latin evolved into the early forms of French, Italian, etc., and that's what most people spoke, whereas scholars, priests and government agents continued to use Classical Latin. This persisted up to the Reformation, by which time the average speaker of Spanish or Romanian could no longer even understand Latin without formal training, and the languages of everyday use began to take over the halls of government, academia and the church.

    But back to the topic. Languages appear to become simplified, when viewed in hindsight. We can see no need for the bewildering paradigms--of verb conjugations with their tenses, modes and persons, and of declensions for not only for nouns but for adjectives and articles, with their genders, cases and numbers--so we regard a language like Modern English as "simpler" because it has lost them. For those of you who haughtily regard German or Spanish as less "modern" because they still have traces of the old paradigms, you should pick up a book on Latin or ancient Greek if you want to see a truly bewildering grammatical structure.

    Still, I wonder what a Germanic tribesman in 2000BCE, with his "complex" grammar, would think of Modern English, Dutch or Swedish, descendants of his language. Declensions and conjugations have almost disappeared in all three, but in their place we have a lexicon of words whose size would bewilder him. Our languages have acquired a form of complexity that is necessary for the lives we lead.

    English also has complexities that we take for granted. Take our prepositions. Their usage is almost totally illogical in many cases. Foreigners joke that the words have no meaning at all, and we retain them just as a way of identifying foreign speakers who can't quite get them right. Try explaining the difference between getting to school "in time" and "on time." Our articles are just as bad. What's the difference between "in air" and "in the air"? Do we ever say "an air" or "a water"? This is complexity.

    By the measures you're using in this discussion, Chinese is the simplest of all major languages. It has only two parts of speech: nouns and verbs. It has no gender (not even in pronouns: ta means he, she or it), no singular/plural, no present/past/future. You waste no time at all in a Chinese class learning how to conjugate verbs, or whether to put the adjective in front of the noun or behind it. The language has very few macro-level rules.

    Yet it is riddled with a plethora of micro-level rules, that only apply to a small group of words. Take numbers. Chinese has no inflections, so there's no pattern like twelve/twelfth, sixty-three/sixty-third. When you use a number you have to clarify whether you mean four dogs or the fourth dog. So you say four-unit dog or rank-four dog. Unfortunately there are about ten different words for "unit," depending on the category of the noun. Animals get one unit word (like our "twenty head of cattle"), people get another (out of respect), books also have their own (this is a culture that reveres books), and then it just gets silly: there's a unit word for large flat things like tables! (Sorry, I only know four. Fortunately as you might guess, that means that the others don't come into play very often.)

    We don't know when the technology of language was first invented. There is tantalizing (but not persuasive) evidence that all non-African languages are related, which would mean that when humans first walked out of Africa fifty to sixty thousand years ago, they already had a language. Given the near-impossibility of tracing those correlations, it's hopeless to try to find relationships among the older African languages, so we'll probably never know how old any language family is. Not only do phonetic changes make it difficult to trace words, but vocabularies slowly turn over. Even grammatical structure becomes unrecognizable.

    Nonetheless, the first language was developed back in the Paleolithic Era, when people lived in very small extended-family units of hunter-gatherers. Even though they may have had words for twenty different kinds of rocks and fifty different family relationships, on the balance their lives were simpler than ours, and in any case the very first language worthy of the name had to be a simple one. They may have started out with a set of hunting calls.

    So clearly language spent some time becoming more complicated, before it could have started becoming simpler.

    I think that cultural change is a force that causes languages to simplify their paradigms because the old paradigms don't work. Look at how we are dealing with the inadequacy of our Stone Age set of prepositions for describing relationships. In, on, with, to, for, under, etc., may have been adequate 5,000 years ago, but they're pretty useless when you're trying to describe complicated relationships in business or technology. To some extent we coin new prepositions: "about" "into" and "within" were all invented recently, by which I mean less than 2,000 years ago. We've started using words like "regarding" and "absent" as prepositions, and those are much more recent, probably within the last couple hundred years.

    But inventing new prepositions doesn't keep up with our need, so we've found a new way to express relationships. We use the compounding power that all Germanic languages have, and deploy it in a new way. In the past few decades we've built new compounds like fuel-efficient, cost-effective, cable-ready and computer-literate, to describe relationships that would be much more cumbersome and less precise with prepositions.

    Yet... would that Germanic tribesman sailing down to Jutland four thousand years ago regard this as the mark of a simpler language or a more complicated one?
     
  14. Mr. Hamtastic whackawhackado! Registered Senior Member

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    too wordy, can you summarize?
     
  15. Steve100 O͓͍̯̬̯̙͈̟̥̳̩͒̆̿ͬ̑̀̓̿͋ͬ ̙̳ͅ ̫̪̳͔O Valued Senior Member

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    Try coming to Yorkshire, and you'll see that English certainly is getting no simpler.
     
  16. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

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    simple --->complicated ---->simple
     
  17. Mr. Hamtastic whackawhackado! Registered Senior Member

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    SAM-ohhhh that's the way it seems to work, progression wise. As an apprentice electrician, I could do beautiful pipework in the 3rd year. The first two years was all MC cable-think metal hose with wires inside. That stuff was all pull and go. 4th year, I was doing almost nothing but making terminations-putting the wires together to make circuits. Then I became a journeyman. Running pipe was something I avoided, too time consuming to be profitable, back to mc cable. Everything has that progression it seems, at least learned things. Simple methods/Introduction-Complex Methods/practice-Simple methods/mastery.
     
  18. Nasor Valued Senior Member

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    Two questions about this. First, is there something about English that lends itself to the creation of these sorts of new terms? I go to school with many foreign students, and many of them (especially the ones from China or a Spanish or French speaking country) have said that they love how in English we have terms like "user-friendly" or "fuel-efficient" that succinctly convey fairly complex ideas without having to actually give an elaborate explanation for what you're trying to say. They say that these sorts of convenient phrases don't exist in their languages. Is it just a cultural thing that makes English speakers more willing to innovate and invent words? Is there something about the grammar formalities in those languages that prevents it? Or do such terms exist in those languages as well, and the people I've spoken with about it just haven't pondered their own language carefully enough?

    Second, aren't those new terms all examples of adjectives (rather than prepositions)? I realize that "fuel efficient" could be taken as describing a relationship between the car and the fuel, but it doesn't seem possible to construct a prepositional phrase with something like that.
     
  19. Mr. Hamtastic whackawhackado! Registered Senior Member

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    hmmm you mean combination words? like Milkdud? or like Tractor-Trailer? How about Killjoy? Speedo? Liverwurst? Limeade? Boondoggle? Sunlight? Sunshine? Sunflower? Spongebob? Sadomasochism? Cheddarwurst? Homosexual? Homophobic? Homonecrophiliac? Quicklieriestly? Careful with that last one, it might go off.
     
  20. CutsieMarie89 Zen Registered Senior Member

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    I've only studied Spanish, Latin, English, and American Sign Language (ASL) but English seems the most difficult to me. There are so many spelling and grammatical rules in English that make no sense at all. And I can understand how people can easily grow frustrated with the language, even native speakers don't understand it completely. ASL is extremely simplistic as it cuts out almost all of the fluff words in English, (which I noticed has a lot of fluff).
     
  21. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

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    Fluff words?
    Surely you mean diversity, enrichment, choice...
     
  22. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

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  23. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    There certainly is. English is becoming a highly synthetic language, meaning one in which new words are formed by shoving existing morphemes, or entire words, together. All of the Indo-European languages have this trait and classical Latin and Greek were famous for it, but the modern Germanic languages use it very intensively. In English in particular, word-building has become commonplace, to the extent that individual speakers often coin combinations transiently: “What did you think of my garbage-disposal-unclogging that saved us a plumber’s bill?”

    Again, to a greater or lesser extent this word-joining facility is available in all of our sister Indo-European languages. At the very least, most of them freely plumb the word lists of Greek and Latin to form technical and political jargon. But most of them have grammatical rules and phonetic structures that inhibit their ability to cram words together as freely as we do. Spanish speakers are still grappling with the establishment of conventions. A drug addict is el drogadicto, a single word made possible by the fact that droga ends with A and adicto begins with A so they squeeze together easily. Not so easy with rana, “frog,” and hombre, “man,” which would become the ungainly ranahombre. So “frogman” is el hombre-rana, obeying the Spanish rule that adjectives follow their nouns. Spanish sentences naturally have more syllables than their English translations because Spanish does not have our huge stock of monosyllabic words, but they’re made even longer by the heavy use of prepositions, which are unavoidable because of the awkwardness of building compound words. A truck driver is simply el conductor de camiones, seven syllables to our three.
    I’m flabbergasted to hear a Chinese speaker say that. Chinese has such a rich word-compounding ability that it makes English look inflexible. It’s one of the reasons I call Chinese the world’s best language. “Computer” is dian-nao, “electricity brain.” “Petroleum” is shi-you, a literal translation of the original Latin-Greek “stone oil.” “Bicicyle” is jiao-ta-che, “foot step vehicle.” “Tavern” is jiou-jia, “wine house.”
    As I pointed out, the phonetics, grammar and syntax of English (and to a greater or lesser extent in all the other Germanic languages) make it somewhat easier to build compound words than it is in the Romance languages, which have lost much of Latin’s flexibility. The Slavic languages fall somewhere in between. I don’t know enough about the Celtic or Indo-Iranian languages, or the isolates like Armenian and Albanian, to speak about all the other members of the Indo-European family.

    Your Chinese friend isn’t much of a linguist if he doesn’t recognize the fact that his native language can run circles around ours. Consider this: because of the phonetics of Chinese, it is almost impossible to borrow European words. So they’ve built up a vocabulary for science, philosophy, politics, etc., by building compound words almost entirely from Chinese roots. English, in contrast, builds most of its compounds from Latin and Greek roots. When my friends in Eastern Europe looked at a page of written English, they said it was obviously a Romance language, not Germanic!
    Well sure, but most of them have noun forms: user-friendliness, fuel-efficiency, cost-effectiveness, etc.
    That’s exactly my point. We build compound words to express relationships that cannot conveniently be expressed using prepositions. We could say “friendly to users” and “efficient with fuel,” I suppose, (and notice that the prepositions become pure noise words, placeholders with no meaning, when used that way) but how would we render “cost-effectiveness” with a prepositional phrase?

    We have a group of about 30 prepositions and conjunctions, most of which are inherited from the Stone Age. Unlike nouns and verbs, and even adjectives and adverbs, English doesn’t really provide a mechanism for inventing new prepositions and conjunctions. (We’re still struggling with “and/or,” a basic operator in Boolean logic!) Chinese just doesn’t bother with them. Instead of “the dog is in the box,” they say “dog occupy box interior.” They do it all with nouns and verbs, of which they have tens of thousands to express the most subtle of relationships… and if they need a new one they can always create it.
    I agree. We compare English to Russian and say it’s “simpler” because adjectives don’t have to agree in gender, number and case (whatever that is) with their nouns. But we just don’t notice the other complexities of English.
    I think people misunderstood what you mean by “fluff.” Words like “the” and “a,” for example, serve almost zero denotational purpose. They’re just there to help us parse sentences—and to make it harder for foreigners to speak correctly.
     

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