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Evolution of language
Posted: 07 July 2013 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]
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This seems the most appropriate place to ask this question. I’ve just started tackling Latin and am working my way through all the cases, declensions etc. It appears to me (possibly wrongly) that languages simplify as they evolve, for instance OE and Middle English had cases and declensions as does Latin, and changes of consonant and vowel between singular and plural (fox, vixen). Modern English has lost this almost completely and appears to be a grammatically simpler language. My question is: why would a language originally form with such complex grammar (in preliterate societies)? Intuitively one would expect a language to become more, not less, complex as it evolved. Does anyone have a brief answer to this, or alternatively, could anyone point me at some reasonably simple linguistics texts to answer the question. Thanks

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Posted: 07 July 2013 09:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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You think that languages simplify as they evolve because you’re studying a language with complex morphology whose descendents happened to simplify that morphology, while adding complexity in other areas.  Language changes in both directions (and if you think about it, you’ll realize that has to be the case or we’d all be grunting a few monosyllables at one another).  There’s some discussion of the subject here, and of course there are entire books on it.  It’s an interesting and complicated topic!

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Posted: 07 July 2013 10:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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One problem I would suggest (I think lh pointed this out in a previous discussion) is that we simply don’t know anything about the evolution of language prior to written artifacts from a few thousand years ago. Modern humans, i.e. homo sapiens, got going somewhere around 200K years ago. The only physical basis we might have for understanding language development in that vast span of generations would be the structure of the throat as one could deduce from fossil records. It provides a pretty thin argument one way or the other.

However, it seems circumstantially incontrovertible that language evolved over at least a couple of hundred thousand years. Clearly human babies born to speechless parents didn’t suddenly start speaking complete sentences in a beautifully complex language, so language must have evolved just as our ability to fashion tools or our ability to think mathematically did. If the “out of Africa” movement started 100K years ago, and certain populations were isolated entirely from the rest of the world many thousands of years ago, clearly this is evidence of early language development. There is no measurable difference of language skills between different populations around the world. Likewise, as groups we all appreciate music, we all have certain cultural institutions like religion and marriage, and, despite what some anthropologists want us to believe, we all have a concept of time.

Anyway, maybe we’ve been using our little gray cells for things other than grammatical structure more recently. It is an interesting question.

The proviso is, of course, that most of us are seeing this from an Indo-European perspective.

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Posted: 07 July 2013 11:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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You are also only considering one aspect of language, grammatical complexity. When a language simplifies in one aspect, it grows more complex in another.

While English has lost much of its grammatical complexity, it has replaced it with complex and rigid rules for syntax (word order) and by reliance on auxiliary words and periphrasis. For example, instead of relying on morphological inflections to denote a direct object, we use the placement of the noun in the sentence. English, like all the Germanic languages, has no future tense, usually relying instead on the periphrastic “will/shall [infinitive]” to denote futurity. You’ll note that it often takes twice as many English words to translate a Latin sentence.

Also, it’s something of apples and oranges to compare Latin and English grammar. English did not get its grammar from Latin. Much of the grammatical simplicity, like the lack of future tenses, is inherent to the Germanic family of languages. English didn’t lose the future tense; it never had one. Although it is true that Modern English is much more simple grammatically than Old or Middle English, so simplification has taken place.

certain populations were isolated entirely from the rest of the world many thousands of years ago

This is less the case than one might think. Ancient peoples traveled quite widely. I think there are few examples of truly isolated peoples, at least for timescales measured in millennia. The geographic isolation of Polynesian culture is relatively recent. Native Americans were isolated from Europe, but certainly not from each other. Aboriginal Australians are the only example that spring to mind, and I’m not sure how isolated they were. Like the Native Americans, I suspect they had an active linguistic and economic exchange among themselves and their neighbors.

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Posted: 08 July 2013 02:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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You’ve only got to look at, eg, Irish or Welsh to see modern languages that, from an outsider’s POV, seem to have added “unnecessary” complexity not found in the “parent” or “grandparent” language, with lentition affecting the initial consonant of nouns apparently under certain grammatical conditions, so that while ‘Wales” is “Cymru”, “welcome to Wales” is “Croeso i Gymru”. But without wandering into waters deeper than I can swim in, the “grammatical” necessity of changing C to G, and so on, after prepositions, seems to have been essentially pronunciation-driven, that is, Welsh speakers found it easier to say “i Gymru” than “i Cymru”, so “i Gymry” became the “rule”.

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Posted: 08 July 2013 05:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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No, the voicing (c to g) is the result of an earlier nasal.

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Posted: 08 July 2013 11:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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It seems that presently language is in retrograde concerning evolution.( I shall avoid the nomenclature of “deterioration” referring to speech and writing, because that word seems to be anathema to any discussion, which I’m quite reluctant to say, on the decline in language.)

Let’s be very honest here, and my intention is not to incite, but language has certainly coarsened and devolved into monosyllabic discourse with limited vocabulary.

Please do not ask me for the data, for there is no need, one just has to turn on his television and the verbiage speaks a thousand words, with very few syllables.

It is axiomatic that language evolves; this claim is emphasized repeatedly, but does that evolution preclude deterioration. I’m also interested in profanity and how it’s categorized in linguistics. I’m not opposed to profanity as much as I’m opposed to one’s lack of word selection. As the “F” word is losing its provocativeness where does one go for the punch, or at that point do we go for the punch?

It seems that language has simplified into a smaller vocabulary and twenty-dollar words are disdained and have become ungraspable.

Honestly, have we enriched our language in the last 50-100 years? I don’t think so.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 02:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Richard - 08 July 2013 11:21 PM

language has certainly coarsened and devolved into monosyllabic discourse with limited vocabulary. Please do not ask me for the data

because you don’t have any. And indeed, it is strange for someone to assert that language is now “monosyllabic discourse with limited vocabulary” on a forum that clearly demonstrates neither of those things.

Really, Richard, you’re suffering from the extremely common misapprehension that because all you’re familiar with from the past is the very best of the past, then you think everything else in the past was up to that same high standard, and the world has gone precipitously downhill since.

It’s like people who assert than the popular music of the 1960s was so much better than today’s because they’ve forgotten all the dreadful popular music of the 1960s and can only remember the 10 per cent that was the very best, and are comparing that unfairly with 100 per cent of today’s music.

Richard - 08 July 2013 11:21 PM

Honestly, have we enriched our language in the last 50-100 years? I don’t think so.

Language today is arguably freer, more flexible than in the past, but to ask whether it has been “enriched” is missing the point - language doesn’t get “richer” or “poorer”, it just changes, and 21st century speakers and writers demonstrate brilliant use of language as often as earlier speakers and writers did. Yes, DO ask me for the data, I’ll be happy to provide a long list of modern writers who hold their own alongside all but the very finest from the past - and since “the very finest” by definition come along rarely, and are often not properly recognised until after their own times, it would not be surprising that we cannot today point to a modern Dickens or Austen.

And when the modern Austen IS recognised, in a hundred years’ time, some 22nd century Richard will probably be complaining about how much language has gone downhill since the start of the millennium.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 04:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I’ll be happy to provide a long list of modern writers who hold their own alongside all but the very finest from the past - and since “the very finest” by definition come along rarely, and are often not properly recognised until after their own times, it would not be surprising that we cannot today point to a modern Dickens or Austen.

Who is considered a “great” writer is as much a question of fashion as it is of actual ability. The canon of great writers in English was created in the late nineteenth century and excludes many, especially women writers, who were lionized in their day but ignored later. It isn’t until the 1980s that such writers began to be taken seriously again.

For instance, women writers and poets of the Romantic period consistently outsold their male counterparts, with the exception of Walter Scott. Austen, for example, sold quite well, numbers in the thousands—although she didn’t personally reap much in the way profits. In comparison, only 300 copies of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads were printed. That’s not to say that these two men were not great writers and that Lyrical Ballads wasn’t a seminal work, but it wasn’t widely read at the time.

Of course, popularity doesn’t equate to greatness, as Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer demonstrate. But writers like Eliza Haywood, Aphra Behn, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson were just as talented as Wordsworth or Coleridge, were orders of magnitude more popular than their male counterparts in their own time, and were subsequently ignored for generations.

I would bet the modern Dickens or Austen has been recognized, perhaps not lauded by the critics or the literary establishment, but he or she is probably not laboring in obscurity.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 05:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Let’s be very honest here, and my intention is not to incite, but language has certainly coarsened and devolved into monosyllabic discourse with limited vocabulary.

So by your definition, the only reason someone would disagree is because they lack intellectual honesty. You’re not making an argument, you’re simply venting emotions.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Either I’m having a very severe seizure of deja vu, or we’ve had this conversation before.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 11:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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What OP said, and it’s a very tiresome one.  At some point Richard will accuse us of groupthink and stalk off in a huff, so he might as well get it over with.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 01:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I’d like to respond to the comments to my post, but I would like to respond without eliciting rancor or the retaliatory, but expected, ultimate accusation of trolling. 

I am truly interested in a discourse for my own edification, and from your responses I can learn, which is my objective, and then formulate my own conclusions.

Zythophile presumes that I’m only familiar with the very best of the past; this is quite an assumption. I can submit many writers of the past who have produced mediocre work, but whose works are considered classics today. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes is not considered a formidable piece of literature, but the vocabulary, grammar and prose is superior and richer than many of the best writers of today. I am not referring to substantive or intellectual quality; I am exclusively referring to the use of language.

Zythophile further postulates that language is freer today. Freer does not necessarily indicate an improvement, nor does it indicate a lack of decline. Providing a long list of modern writers is not providing data, nor is it providing an academic comparison. Keep in mind, I am not comparing an intellectual or expositional piece of writing, I’m solely comparing language, referring specifically to vocabulary, grammar, and the art of prose. 

The argument that Zythophile brings up that a 22nd century Richard will probably be complaining about the deterioration of language since the start of the millennium is a standard position that many people take who defend today’s language. It is true that complaints have been constant, for even centuries, but this does not negate the fact that language has not deteriorated. The argument that English has endured, withstanding all the complaints on its decline, is not an indication that indeed it has not declined.

He claims that language changes, as if it is a separate entity and it possesses protean capabilities to change at whim. This is misleading, for people are responsible for language change, and many of the times those changes are due to misuse.

Zythophile also refers to the popular music of the 1960s compared to today’s music. Can we go back a little further in time to Beethoven, Mozart Tchaikovsky et al. and compare those composer’s works to contemporary music? They were all considered geniuses in their field. Whom do we have today to compare?
If we enter relativism into this debate, we might as well end it. As I’ve illustrated before, if one opines that Stephanie Meyer is as great a writer as William Faulkner, I must desist, because the debate becomes purposeless. De gustibus non est desputandum.

In conclusion, I noticed that nobody articulated the ubiquity of profanity in today’s daily speech. I am very interested to know if that is considered flexibility in our language or simply conformity to a trend.

I respect your opinions, please respect mine.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 02:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Please do not ask me for the data, for there is no need, one just has to turn on his television and the verbiage speaks a thousand words, with very few syllables.

Richard, you are refusing to provide evidence for, or even a precise definition of, this alleged deterioration. Yet you ask us to provide evidence that it is not happening, which is a logical impossibility. (You can’t prove a negative.)

How is this deterioration to be measured? Please be precise. Saying that you’re looking for “richer” or “superior” grammar or prose doesn’t tell us anything useful. What do you mean by “richer”? What makes one piece of writing “superior” to another? It’s also important to specify what you’re looking for up front or you will simply be engaged in a fishing expedition. And in any data set there will undoubtedly be some factor that shows “deterioration” simply due to random chance. That leads you seeing random, transient fluctuations in the data as significant.

What groups are we to use to measure this deterioration? What genres should we use for the comparison over time? You cannot expect internet discussions to exhibit the prose stylings found in a Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Woolf novel.

Can we go back a little further in time to Beethoven, Mozart Tchaikovsky et al. and compare those composer’s works to contemporary music? They were all considered geniuses in their field. Whom do we have today to compare?

This raises another point. You have to be precise about the time period the deterioration is alleged to have happened. It’s easy to create or erase a trend simply by moving the start and end points. When is this deterioration supposed to have started? I assume that it is ongoing, so the analysis will go up to the present day.

I’m not trying to be huffy or difficult, but if you’re not precise, then all sorts of biases and errors creep into your analysis.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 02:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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The composers issue is a good point, but not necessarily for the proposition that everything is deteriorating.  Many composers were greeted in their time with accusations of writing crap.  Some of it was crap and has not survived and some of it was just ahead of its time and is now considered normal, even stodgy.  Modern crap has not yet been weeded out so we hear stuff that won’t be heard by people several hundred years from now.

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Posted: 09 July 2013 10:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Dave, you are correct, I think the deterioration is ongoing, but I can’t give you a precise date as to when it initiated.  If we go back two hundred years to Melville, Dickens, Hawthorne et al. the language has certainly changed and simplified.

I’m confused as to what evidence you need for me to substantiate my opinion. As I illustrated in my previous comment that if one thinks Stephenie Meyer is as great a writer as W. Faulkner I can’t argue with that illogical opinion.  The only evidence I have concerning older literature versus modern is that the classics possess more challenging words, the scenery and characters are more fleshed out, everything in general is more descriptive.

My evidence concerning vocabulary deficiency in today’s society is based on the contemporary novels that I’ve read, the conversations that I’ve had with high school and college graduates, the media, and articles and books based on these studies.  I also referred to the ubiquity of profanity in today’s language. Do you consider it to be deterioration or a progression?  Again, I’m not concerned so much with profanity as I am with the repetitiveness of certain expletives, such as the “F” word used as an adjective, noun, gerund, verb etc. Do you honestly think that this is progression? 

Another interesting fact is how adults seem to use the same idiomatic and trendy expressions that young people use. This was never the case in the past. Vogue words such as dude, cool, bro and filler words such as, like and kind of, are now common speech patterns with many adults. These expressions might be fine uttered by a youngster, but spoken by an adult suggests a certain immaturity and a weak grasp of language.

Dave, I understand that this is not the precise evidence that you required, but we’re still dealing with opinions.  Respectfully, I would be very interested in understanding your analysis on the present state of the English language. Do you repudiate everything I’ve submitted or do you concur with a few of my assertions?

By the way, there are many great writers recognized during their lifetimes. William Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many more were quite established as preeminent authors while they continued to produce great works.

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