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Language development: complex to simpler? 
Posted: 07 January 2013 06:03 PM   [ Ignore ]
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In the midst of a late-night internet cruise trying to find out if my theory about Northern Italian ‘z’ sounding like ‘th’ held any water, I got severely deflected by various distractions, amongst which this one, which I found on some obscure (sorry to participants) forum.

The argument centred around accents in English amongst a very international set of people, one of whom said the following when discussing the ‘simplification’ of language between, f.e., German-Dutch-English. I thought it was an interesting question:

Why would language start off in the distant past as very complex and not the other way around? I wish someone could give some insight or theories as to why this maybe.

From my own tussles with ancient Latin, modern Russian and other IE languages, this fact had often struck me.

Also, I seem to remember in some Linguistics tutorial learning about how the simplest tribes/peoples usually had the most involved and complex grammars.

So what the woman said on that forum resonated. I know it’s probably been done to death (please ignore if so supplying relevant link!) but it is a curious thing; the mind is ready to learn/make extremely complicated language structures yet ‘civilisation’ usually pares this down.

Are we not making enough of a natural mental skill through laziness/civilisation?

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Posted: 12 January 2013 06:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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BlackGrey - 07 January 2013 06:03 PM

In the midst of a late-night internet cruise trying to find out if my theory about Northern Italian ‘z’ sounding like ‘th’ held any water, I got severely deflected by various distractions, amongst which this one, which I found on some obscure (sorry to participants) forum.

The argument centred around accents in English amongst a very international set of people, one of whom said the following when discussing the ‘simplification’ of language between, f.e., German-Dutch-English. I thought it was an interesting question:

Why would language start off in the distant past as very complex and not the other way around? I wish someone could give some insight or theories as to why this maybe.

From my own tussles with ancient Latin, modern Russian and other IE languages, this fact had often struck me.

Also, I seem to remember in some Linguistics tutorial learning about how the simplest tribes/peoples usually had the most involved and complex grammars.

So what the woman said on that forum resonated. I know it’s probably been done to death (please ignore if so supplying relevant link!) but it is a curious thing; the mind is ready to learn/make extremely complicated language structures yet ‘civilisation’ usually pares this down.

Are we not making enough of a natural mental skill through laziness/civilisation?

-You have raised a very interesting question.
-I have some experience on this subject. Some understandings came from antiquity books and others from personal observation on children from parents of different languages. The subject you presented is very complex and has many different sides. I will draw an analogy with the hope of simplifying some of what I observed on this matter.
-Let’s take two neighboring villages from the past, which speak different languages and are mortal enemies. At a certain point they decide to stop the slaughtering and the only way to do that, was by complete intermarriage of their young unmarried generation.
-One language has very simple grammar and the other, a very complex one and no school of any sort existed. 
-The children of that intermarried generation will speak a new language by the time they mature. The easiest words to be pronounced and the words that make more sense will be naturally selected from parent’s languages. Depending on the circumstances, the words will be half and half, but this can vary greatly. But the grammar of the new language will definitely be simple grammar and hardly any of the complex grammar will be added to the new language.
-If your point is that highly civilized German-Dutch- English languages have simple grammar, versus Romanian for example, which has very complex grammar and no civilization in the background at all, you came with one of the best linguistic questions possible. I know how all this happened, but it’s a long story and I will leave that “fairy tale” for later, when the readers get to know me better.
-Some people say that Romanian grammar comes from Latin, but that is not true entirely. The tribe of Oltenii speaks with Latin grammar, but they came from the south and their grammatical structure is incorporated into Romanian grammar and judged as a whole. That gives the impression of Latin grammar into the language, but if that third of Oltenian grammar is removed from the language, a very different picture can be seen. Romanian language is spoken without that grammar by most people; therefore it is not an indispensable part of the language. Computer evaluation of a language is only as good as the input placed there. I hope it is understood that until 12 years ago, most people into Romanian Academia were not there by merit, but were elevated only with good political communist support. Today the corruption is such that it is even worse. There will be another 20-30 years before the best and brightest will in the right positions in former communist countries. I know this is not the place to talk politics and I will not do it again. But this point had to be presented in order to clarify why certain things don’t match. 
-This is only one facet of the many sides of the subject you raised and I hope others will come with some of the things they learned on this topic.

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Posted: 13 January 2013 01:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I know how all this happened, but it’s a long story and I will leave that “fairy tale” for later, when the readers get to know me better.

D N F T T

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Posted: 13 January 2013 07:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Why would language start off in the distant past as very complex and not the other way around?

Assumes facts not in evidence.  That certain ancient IE languages are more complex (morphologically) than certain modern ones does not mean language in general has an inherent tendency toward simplicity.  (I don’t understand “the ‘simplification’ of language between, f.e., German-Dutch-English”; those are all modern languages of similar complexity.) A moment’s reflection should indicate that that is not the case; since language has been with us for something on the order of 100,000 years (no point arguing about the exact timing, since we’ll never know), if it were indeed inexorably simplifying we’d all be communicating in grunts by now.  The fact is that a simplification in one area (say, morphology) is invariably accompanied by new complexity in other areas, like syntax.

And like Eliza says, please ignore the latest loquacious loony.

(Edited to fix lack of singular/plural accord.)

[ Edited: 13 January 2013 07:32 AM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 13 January 2013 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Eliza, I think the T-word is inappropriate here. But agreed: let’s not encourage fissures in the jerry!

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Posted: 13 January 2013 10:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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LOL. But, let’s not further confuse the German/English issue under discussion, and settle for cleavages in the chamber!

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Posted: 20 January 2013 05:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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languagehat - 13 January 2013 07:29 AM

Why would language start off in the distant past as very complex and not the other way around?

Assumes facts not in evidence.  That certain ancient IE languages are more complex (morphologically) than certain modern ones does not mean language in general has an inherent tendency toward simplicity.  (I don’t understand “the ‘simplification’ of language between, f.e., German-Dutch-English”; those are all modern languages of similar complexity.) A moment’s reflection should indicate that that is not the case; since language has been with us for something on the order of 100,000 years (no point arguing about the exact timing, since we’ll never know), if it were indeed inexorably simplifying we’d all be communicating in grunts by now.  The fact is that a simplification in one area (say, morphology) is invariably accompanied by new complexity in other areas, like syntax.

And like Eliza says, please ignore the latest loquacious loony.

(Edited to fix lack of singular/plural accord.)

Fair comment, and sorry for this late reply. I did indeed overstate the question the first time, and perhaps even asked the wrong one…

With the German-Dutch-English thing, I was referring to the complexity of the grammar in certain areas (gradually less influence of old case system from German through Dutch to English, verb endings, word order etc) but this can never really hold water as all these languages develop together.

I think I was nearer the point with the tribal observation - that the more primitive the tribe was, the more complex the grammar. When the move to civilisation came this seemed to strip away some of these complexities, perhaps as a result of making the language somehow easier to access for newcomers to a city, for example.

I use the words primitive and civilised in the more formal way, to emphasise the point. From few talkers of a language to many, from agricultural or agrarian to urban, from simple ideas to scientific, etc.

Does this make my point any clearer or should I finally call in the nurse? :-)

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Posted: 20 January 2013 06:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Skibberoo - 13 January 2013 10:51 PM

LOL. But, let’s not further confuse the German/English issue under discussion, and settle for cleavages in the chamber!

Damn. Off course: there’s always the potential for fissures in the jerry…

Heh.

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Posted: 21 January 2013 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I think I was nearer the point with the tribal observation - that the more primitive the tribe was, the more complex the grammar.

What is your evidence for this?

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Posted: 21 January 2013 07:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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languagehat - 21 January 2013 06:47 AM

I think I was nearer the point with the tribal observation - that the more primitive the tribe was, the more complex the grammar.

What is your evidence for this?

Obviously I cannot prove it from day 1 of the first proto-language ever, but I can see a pattern of isolated groups learning and refining, almost incestuously, their dialects to the point of great complexity, unaffected by outside influence, affected greatly by local culture and beliefs.

As man went from the Iron age into more modern times, and the human population continued to grow, the contacts between groups increased. When civilisations appeared, they were a melting pot of cultures drawn to the prosperous core. In these situations, I can see how ‘lingua franca’ effects could come in, stripping some of the more obscure complexities in favour of general inter-understanding.

This guy explains a bit more about the trend of German-Dutch-English that I was on about. It’s not proof, but the idea seems at least plausible?

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Posted: 21 January 2013 08:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Speaking only for myself, I do find the idea that languages become more complex in isolation and simpler as a result of contact with other cultures/languages to be plausible.  One could point to many specific examples of the latter phenomenon.  Examples of the former are probably harder to come by, and there may be counterexamples to the latter that I am unaware of.

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Posted: 21 January 2013 02:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Obviously I cannot prove it from day 1 of the first proto-language ever, but I can see a pattern of isolated groups learning and refining, almost incestuously, their dialects to the point of great complexity, unaffected by outside influence, affected greatly by local culture and beliefs.

What is the size of your sample?  How many language families are represented?  I don’t mean to sound picky, but in my experience such statements are almost universally based on a few cases someone happens to know about, all from one or two language families.  I would point out that (say) the Indo-European family, while it has spread all over the world, is no more important for these purposes than Basque or Ket, and the more examples you can adduce from a large number of language families, the more convincing the assertion becomes.

I do find the idea that languages become more complex in isolation and simpler as a result of contact with other cultures/languages to be plausible.

Well, sure.  But plausibility plus a nickel will get you a subway ride, as they used to say back in the day.

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Posted: 21 January 2013 02:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Hawaiian became pretty darned simple in isolation…

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Posted: 22 January 2013 02:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Afrikaans (a modern language) simplified the grammatical structures of Dutch and German, and absorbed bits of the other languages it was exposed to, such as Malay, Xhosa and French. 

I’m no linguistic expert but I believe that the languages of the Bushmen, another isolated group, are complex.  Wikipedia:

Khoisan languages are best known for their use of click consonants as phonemes. These are typically written with letters such as ǃ and ǂ. The Juǀʼhoan language has some 30 click consonants, not counting clusters, among perhaps 90 phonemes, which include strident and pharyngealized vowels and four tones. The ǃXóõ and ǂHõã languages are similarly complex.

Grammatically, the southern Khoisan languages are generally fairly isolating, with word order being more widely used to indicate grammatical relations than is inflection. By contrast, the languages of Tanzania have large numbers of inflectional suffixes.

[ Edited: 22 January 2013 02:55 AM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 22 January 2013 03:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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There are scholars who put forward the argument that much of the loss of grammatical inflections in English (compared to say modern German) is due to contact with Old Norse and the existence of the Danelaw and Viking settlers in England in the eighth and ninth centuries. (Although some of the grammatical simplification, like the loss of the subjunctive, was well underway before this.)

But I’m with Languagehat. We must first rigorously define what we mean by “simplify” (e.g., the loss of inflections in English was made up for by complicating syntax and unfamiliar modes of speaking may appear complex when they are actually just new to that observer). And the fact that contact has the ability to simplify language doesn’t mean it always (or even usually) does. Throwing out examples doesn’t help. You need to conduct a systematic survey of languages in this regard to come up with meaningful results.

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Posted: 22 January 2013 04:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Throwing out examples doesn’t help. You need to conduct a systematic survey of languages in this regard to come up with meaningful results.

It may or may not help, but we are merely an internet forum, many of us not linguistic experts so “throwing out examples” is the best we can do.

Even better would be to see what the experts’ studies say.  So far, I’ve found this from Otto Jespersen in 1937 so hopefully someone else can come up with something much more recent because the simplification of languages sounds like an ideal doctoral thesis:

In short, even if we can clearly prove our theory only on a minority of languages spoken on the Earth, that minority still embraces all languages known during the era about which we can speak as having a history, and because of that we can dare to assert that the tendency towards simplification of grammatical structure is universal in the world of languages.

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