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Evolution of language
Posted: 11 July 2013 10:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]
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Pyrite,
I appreciate the information and I concur with your observations, you’ve delineated what I failed to do, thank you.
You’ve also applied a civil tone to the debate, which is indispensible for an intelligent discourse. 

Dave said:

“I disagree. I see it as just curmudgeonly kvetching.
A[sic] inquiry of value would be one that defines what it is going after and then pursues its goal with analytical rigor. Are we talking about grammar and usage? Are we talking about diction? Are we talking about literary style? Richard is just lumping all his complaints indiscriminately into the English-is-going-to-hell basket.

The only reason I’m posting on this thread is to try and make this point clear to others. I consider Richard a lost cause.”

It seems that Dave will vehemently disagree and chastise anyone who articulates a point of view that faintly reeks of prescriptivism.  The word should be banned on this forum. In fact I think Dave should inform subscribers that prescriptive viewpoints are not allowed on his forum. I noticed that he briskly excoriates any comment, article, or opinion that leans towards a more traditional stand.

When someone opines on the decline of the English Language doesn’t it seem reasonable that the argument entails all the categories related to language: grammar, vocabulary and usage etc. Therefore, I’m not lumping all my complaints together. My statement was a generalization, but I purposefully avoided grammar, because that would have set off another set of condescending remarks from Dave and a few others.
Note that when I respond to his accusations with a reasonable explanation, he never acknowledges an agreement or a disagreement. He just goes on to another tangent or reiterates his demand for “data”.

Pyrite I’m curious if Dave responds to your last post, which certainly favors my position.  I wish I could have articulated my point of view as artfully as you did. I think perhaps I have to obscure my approach with a softer brush, but at this point the die has been cast.

Jack Lynch, the author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma says, “The descriptivists assume that a statistical report on prevailing habits in the whole population can take the place of a sharp ear and a sensitive spirit. They also sometimes hint that no one is qualified to offer an opinion on the language without a doctorate in linguistics.”

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Posted: 12 July 2013 01:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]
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He just goes on to another tangent or reiterates his demand for “data”.

Some posters here, quite unreasonably, request evidence to backup assertions.

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Posted: 12 July 2013 04:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]
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First, no one is being banned for expressing opinions. Nor do I have an aversion to people posting prescriptivist arguments here. What I do object to are illogical and poorly formed arguments and those that repeatedly reject long-established fundamentals of linguistics.

Can you provide me with data that language is not deteriorating? Can you offer a link that would provide me with that sort of information? I don’t think so, for I too might not be able to present you with data to support my position. I can, however, provide data on the decline in vocabulary test scores, which indirectly supports my position.

As I said earlier, and as a fundamental tenet of logic, you cannot prove a negative. No one can offer proof that something is not happening. The person making the positive assertion, e.g., “language is deteriorating,” is responsible for offering the supporting evidence.

Again, first you must define what you mean by “deteriorate” and state it in terms that can be measured. Once you’ve done that, we can look at vocabulary test scores or whatever evidence to see if they support or refute the claim.

What do I mean by “challenging words”?  You know very well what I mean

I honestly don’t know what you mean. Of course I’ve got a general notion of what you’re on about, but I don’t know with enough precision that I can objectively measure it. And if you are talking about deterioration, it is all about measurement, what is the objective state of the language at one point as compared to another.

And regarding Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” when it was written it was very much in sync with linguistic theory, but the theory of the 1940s has long since been discarded as incorrect. Language simply doesn’t work the way that Orwell depicts it in that essay or in 1984. Furthermore, while Orwell was a great writer, he was a terrible observer of language, particularly his own. Like many artists, he was good at creating art, but lousy in his self-description and analysis of how did it. For example, Orwell tells writers to avoid the passive voice, but fails to notice that he himself uses the passive voice twice as often (about 20% of sentences, compared to the typical 10%) as other writers of the day.

The fundamental point behind Iron Pyrite’s last post is a good one. You have to compare equivalent corpora. I suspect that much of the “deterioration” that Richard is seeing is really due to three factors: 1) in past generations, nearly all writing that one saw was edited. This is not the case with the internet (and with journalism now that they’ve fired all the copy editors); we now see in print how people have always written. 2) A shift in fashion away from formal, stylized prose, to something more akin to normal speech. And 3) Iron Pyrite’s point that more people than ever before are writing. Reasons like this are why I keep harping on the importance of data. Without objective measurement, all we have are biased personal observations (like Orwell’s).

But it took only one William the Conqueror to destroy the inflections of Anglo-Saxon, within a few generations.

The loss of grammatical complexity was already underway in Old English before the Normans got there. It was really the Vikings and the Danish occupation of much of England that sped up the process, which was probably already underway, albeit more slowly, when the Anglo-Saxons moved across the channel. (We don’t have any records of the language that early, so whether or not the language was changing and the degree of change underway is somewhat speculative.) Between the English and the Danes you had tens of thousands of ordinary people, who spoke similar but not mutually intelligible languages, engaging in daily commerce. Such situations have produce pidgins and undoubtedly contributed to the loss of inflections. The imposition of the French aristocracy on top of the Anglo-Saxon society, which produced two distinct languages rather than one mixed one, probably didn’t have much impact on grammar—vocabulary, yes; grammar, not so much.

But, and this goes back to the very beginning of the thread, I disagree with Iron Pyrite that loss of inflections equates to loss of complexity overall. What complexity is lost in grammatical inflections is gained in a more complex and rigid syntax. The problem isn’t the statement that English is less grammatically complex than it once was—there is no doubt about that. The problem is in the assumption that this means we will all be speaking in grunts a few generations or centuries from now. In other words, loss of grammatical complexity does not, in and of itself, equate to “deterioration.”

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Posted: 12 July 2013 05:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]
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Jack Lynch, the author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma says, “The descriptivists assume that a statistical report on prevailing habits in the whole population can take the place of a sharp ear and a sensitive spirit. They also sometimes hint that no one is qualified to offer an opinion on the language without a doctorate in linguistics.”

Of course, statistics won’t tell you everything, especially when it comes to determining good from bad writing. There is a place for a discussion of aesthetics and style. But the claim that language is deteriorating is one of fact, not opinion or personal preference, and must rest on measurable factors. Asking for precise metrics by which any alleged deterioration can be measured is simply intellectual rigor.

They also sometimes hint that no one is qualified to offer an opinion on the language without a doctorate in linguistics.

I would just like to point out that no one on this thread (or even this forum, as far as I can recall) has brought up the subject of qualifications (until now). We’ve been arguing the ideas on their merits, not on who is making them. That is as it should be.

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Posted: 12 July 2013 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]
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It seems that two (to my mind) very different things are meant in this thread by language: (1) grammar and lexicon, and (2) rhetorical style. I have read Faulkner, but not S Meyer, although I have read the other author mentioned, D Brown. I would be hard-put to find evidence of any huge differences between the grammar of Faulkner and Brown: they are both writing in 20th century English. I could see how an argument might be made that one or the other had a larger vocabulary or used words not in common usage, but then I would have to see the analysis before I accepted that one beat the other word-wise. As far as language meaning “style”, yes, I have observed that there is a large difference between Faulkner and Brown. Whether one is better than the other or less deteriorated I will leave to others as I pretty much did not care for either’s works (the few of both that I have read).

As for grammatical “complexity”, I wonder why certain Indo-European language subfamilies (such as Armenian, Baltic, and Slavic) kept case, even through periods of low literacy while others did not. (I am aware that Bulgarian is one Slavic language that lost case.) Also, the transitions between Proto-Indo-European and a large number of its (older) daughter languages case was preserved, during a time when none of them were being written.

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Posted: 12 July 2013 05:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]
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happydog - 11 July 2013 06:43 AM

Computers have certainly experienced this same “retrograde” evolution. They’ve gone from being richly complex things that only the truly literate could use or appreciate into little toys that every idiot can use and carry around in their pocket. I miss the good old days.

There are some indications here… You are equating language with some kind of user interface. Is that what it is? Maybe so. In that case, language has become something any idiot can use in order to interface with a world vastly more complex than it was 2000 years ago. Language was never the thing itself, it is always instead, like the play, the thing with which to do something, whether to prick the conscience* or to contain information. By some weird transverse symmetry, language becomes simpler as the subject matter becomes more complex.

*edit: to catch the conscience

Dave said:

But, and this goes back to the very beginning of the thread, I disagree with Iron Pyrite that loss of inflections equates to loss of complexity overall. What complexity is lost in grammatical inflections is gained in a more complex and rigid syntax. The problem isn’t the statement that English is less grammatically complex than it once was—there is no doubt about that. The problem is in the assumption that this means we will all be speaking in grunts a few generations or centuries from now. In other words, loss of grammatical complexity does not, in and of itself, equate to “deterioration.”

Well, not entirely my thoughts. I was putting the word “deterioration” in Richard’s mouth. My argument is similar but not the same: It is possible for language to deteriorate because there are better and worse forms of language. As Dave has stated, this is more of a stylistic and aesthetic question. I’m really trying to focus in on the reasons for the loss of inflection which occurred in over a long period of time. I think actually I’m satisfied that it had a lot to do with social upheaval ... that the second law of thermodynamics works with language and that complex systems need a lot of energy to maintain and are destroyed easily. ON THE OTHER HAND, the greatest genius of the English language wrote in a largely non-inflected tongue. There was a whole lot of energy being directed toward language circa 1600 in London.

I don’t think we’re going to end up speaking in grunts. I think we’re going to end up becoming a silicon-based life form that look back on their carbon-based human ancestors with a mixture of contempt, pity, and despair, that is, if they are capable of emotion.

jheem:

It seems that two (to my mind) very different things are meant in this thread by language: (1) grammar and lexicon, and (2) rhetorical style. I have read Faulkner, but not S Meyer, although I have read the other author mentioned, D Brown. I would be hard-put to find evidence of any huge differences between the grammar of Faulkner and Brown: they are both writing in 20th century English. I could see how an argument might be made that one or the other had a larger vocabulary or used words not in common usage, but then I would have to see the analysis before I accepted that one beat the other word-wise. As far as language meaning “style”, yes, I have observed that there is a large difference between Faulkner and Brown. Whether one is better than the other or less deteriorated I will leave to others as I pretty much did not care for either’s works (the few of both that I have read).

As for grammatical “complexity”, I wonder why certain Indo-European language subfamilies (such as Armenian, Baltic, and Slavic) kept case, even through periods of low literacy while others did not. (I am aware that Bulgarian is one Slavic language that lost case.) Also, the transitions between Proto-Indo-European and a large number of its (older) daughter languages case was preserved, during a time when none of them were being written.

I’m a big admirer of Faulkner but I wouldn’t promote him as a model of English usage. But the difference in vocabulary is pretty telling. One thing that strikes me is that up until the early 20th century, virtually all British intellectuals had a working knowledge of Latin. Even some Americans did. A lot of the English usage was predicated on Latin. The grammar and lexicon could reliably be modeled after Latin and pretty much all the eggheads would know how to understand it. That’s no longer true. The rhetorical style, as you point out, was a different matter.

I have also wondered why some languages kept the inflections while others have abandoned them. It seems pretty random.

[ Edited: 12 July 2013 08:42 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 12 July 2013 09:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]
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Eliza D,

I notice that you intermittently contribute your standard snide and patronizing one-sentence gibe, which is always expected from Dave’s cheerleading crowd. Do you have an independent and formulated opinion of your own? Can you counter my argument without the mockery? At this point the trolling accusation must be festering on your mind.

You submitted:

He just goes on to another tangent or reiterates his demand for “data”.
Some posters here, quite unreasonably, request evidence to backup assertions.

Dave’s forum essentially involves word usage, etymology etc. Therefore, at this propitious moment I must inform you that data and evidence are two different words with different meanings. Data is factual information, information organized for analysis.  Evidence is something that is indicative, something that is helpful in forming a conclusion. (I’m paraphrasing definitions from dictionaries.) Evidence is also anything in evidence to support an assertion.

Therefore, I think evidence has been presented to support my position, whereas data has not.  However, data can be produced concerning low vocabulary test scores that indirectly supports my position. In addition, my evidence is empirical, based on my observations in schools, of the media, and in the world. 

Let’s be realistic, not every argument can be proven with data. Fortunately, the criminal courts only need evidence.

Concerning my contribution to this thread, I am only interested in edification and information to absorb and formulate my own conclusions. My initial thread galvanized a few members to offer their point of view, which has been very instructive, and it helps me to establish a better argument. If I’m able to accommodate Dave with a better analysis for my argument he in turn will accommodate me with an instructive rebuttal, and that is what I want.

I do feel strongly that language has declined, and the majority of members on this forum feel it hasn’t. It’s a prerogative we both maintain.

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Posted: 13 July 2013 04:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]
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Data can be evidence, but not all evidence is data.

In addition, my evidence is empirical, based on my observations in schools, of the media, and in the world. 

It’s not empirical; it’s anecdotal. Which is why I asked for “data.” We need objective and controlled (e.g., comparable users—literary writers and literary writers, journalists or journalists, or common folk and common folk) observations of language usage at two points in time (at least, more would be better) to reliably determine if a particular change has occurred. Without that we can’t even say for certain whether or not there has been a change, much less whether that change constitutes “deterioration.”

The reason one person’s uncontrolled observations are not acceptable are 1) they’re not repeatable. Others can’t examine them to determine if your conclusions are valid. And 2) they’re subject to all sorts of unconscious biases. For example, there’s confirmation bias, where you tend to remember the few instances that support your pre-formed hypothesis and forget or don’t even notice the majority that refute it. That’s not a personal swipe. It’s something we all do. A famous example can be found among ER nurses who will swear to you that emergency rooms are busier on nights with a full moon. But a review of admission records shows that statistically, full moon nights are the same as any other. But the nurses remember the busy nights with full moons, forget the slow ones, and ignore all the non-full-moon nights that are either busy or slow.

Also essential is a firm definition of what constitutes “deterioration.” I don’t think we’ve established what that is. The “I know it when I see it” definition doesn’t fly.

If you want to save a lot of corpus work, I’d be happy if you restricted your discussion to changes that have already been well established so we could focus on what “deterioration” is. How does the loss of inflections constitute deterioration? Is the loss of the subjunctive deterioration? The apostrophe seems to be on the glide slope to elimination. Is this deterioration? What about the increase in profanity in published works?

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Posted: 13 July 2013 07:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]
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I do feel strongly that language has declined

You’ve made that very clear.  It’s also clear to some of us that you have no interest whatsoever in revising that feeling and are here primarily to vent, which is why we are not wasting our time engaging your “arguments” point by point.  Be honest: is there any evidence that would make you think “Gee, I was wrong, language is not deteriorating”?  If so, what kind of evidence would that be?

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Posted: 13 July 2013 12:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]
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Richard:

I’ve rarely had a response that showed such a consistent failure to understand the points I was making.

I, and many others, do enjoy and learn and prefer classical literature.  You obviously do not. 

Not true. My point was that to write in Dickens’ style now (unless as a deliberate pastiche for a specific literary purpose) would be bad writing, because the language has moved on; just as today ‘Their’s not to reason why’ would be considered a punctuation error.

I claimed that classic literature is more descriptive and contains a deeper vocabulary. You seem to refute that but yet your refutation is contradictory

Actually I didn’t refute, or attempt to refute, that at all. What I did say was that you had not brought any worthwhile evidence to support your claim. Different.

What you refer to as ponderous is essentially elaborate sentence structure with careful attention to detail.

Actually, in this case Dickens was certainly being deliberately ponderous. It’s a Victorian joke.

Regarding profanity, you submitted one poem with one profanity, but I wasn’t referring exclusively to literature in my argument. I was referring to speech and writing.

Do I really need to spell out to you that the whole point of the poem is to mock the ubiquity of said profanity in everyday 1890s Australian speech?  And that if it had not been ubiquitous, the poem would have been meaningless?

Second, in the past vulgarity in speech was exclusive to the lower classes, whereas today it is very common amongst the upper and educated classes.

Yes, I said so.

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Posted: 13 July 2013 01:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]
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Richard, you obviously enjoy holding centre stage and your postings are prolix.  As such, I and many others here will simply skip through them, if we read them at all, so be grateful that Dave is doing you the courtesy of reading them in full and responding to them. I simply can’t be bothered to wade through and respond to multiple lengthy, bigoted posts.  Make your points more succinctly and you may just be taken more seriously.

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Posted: 13 July 2013 06:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]
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Has this all been resolved then?
#sisyphean
#lifestooshort

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Posted: 13 July 2013 09:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]
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Laulu,

I appreciate the clarification. I don’t, however, agree entirely with the Dickens’-style analogy.
Dickens’ language is considered a bit flowery, as is Shakespeare’s’, but why would it be considered “bad writing”, and by whom, the same people who don’t think that there is such a thing as “bad writing”?

Keep in mind; I’m defending my position with everyone on this forum. Everyone demands evidence, as if that would settle the argument.  I can claim that people had better manners fifty-seventy years ago, but how do I produce the evidence?

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Posted: 13 July 2013 11:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]
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ElizaD,

I don’t enjoy centre stage at all; I’m trying to respond to everyone’s countering arguments.  It would take too much time—and an impossible feat— to edit my responses to avoid prolixity. Furthermore, I haven’t even responded to many of the questions.

Do you speak for everyone on this forum? You claim that you cannot be bothered to read my lengthy posts, but apparently you do.

You also claim that my posts are bigoted. That’s a pretty aggressive and inaccurate statement. I have a different viewpoint on language—seemingly from everyone on this forum—and that makes me a bigot, interesting.

My opinion is as valuable as anyone’s on this forum, if you don’t agree with it, which you obviously don’t, that’s your prerogative.

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Posted: 14 July 2013 01:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]
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Languagehat,

You’ve made that very clear.  It’s also clear to some of us that you have no interest whatsoever in revising that feeling and are here primarily to vent, which is why we are not wasting our time engaging your “arguments” point by point.  Be honest: is there any evidence that would make you think “Gee, I was wrong, language is not deteriorating”?  If so, what kind of evidence would that be?

No, what I’ve made very clear is that I’m here to be educated. I’m not venting, I’m responding to a bombardment of questions, rebuttals and criticisms.

Your question is hypothetical, there is no evidence, but if there were I would change my mind.
If someone is asked what he thinks of a Picasso painting and he responds, cool, is his response an example of our progression and enrichment of the English language? That’s just one example of how we’ve infantilized our language. If you respond yes, then I have no argument and I will use Dave’s expression, “it’s a lost cause.”

Dave said:

It’s not empirical; it’s anecdotal. Which is why I asked for “data.”

The expression anecdotal evidence refers to evidence from anecdotes. Because of the small sample, there is a larger chance that it may be unreliable due to cherry-picked or otherwise non-representative samples of typical cases. [1][2] Anecdotal evidence is considered dubious support of a claim; it is accepted only in lieu of more solid evidence. This is true regardless of the veracity of individual claims.[

Empirical evidence is evidence that is found by a direct observation, experience, or situation. The evidence is real and believable because it is shown to you and you see it.

I explained that my evidence is based on my observations over the years, in conversations with students, and adults, in the media, and in the world. I do not cherry-pick my evidence, nor do I encourage my position. I’ve read numerous articles and books and viewed educational shows that match my viewpoint.  Why would this not be defined as empirical evidence?
Conversely, I have never observed or heard evidence on the great improvement of the English language.  The tautology that language evolves and changes does not indicate an enhancement or progression, but it seems to be the standard response in trying to defend the sustained integrity of the language.

Dave said:

In past generations, nearly all writing that one saw was edited.

In past generations we also had cursive writing, letters and manuscripts that were not necessarily edited.

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