Sunday, February 10, 2019

Language simplification and complexification

Eldest Son is interested in languages, and can tell us a lot about families of the same and how this bit or that of the language changes over time.

In almost all cases he mentions, the result has been a net simplification of the language--e.g. fewer cases.

Aside from enforced vocabulary mixing (e.g. beef/cow), can you think of instances when a language became more complex?

If not, then we have a problem.

  1. Perhaps we have had a bias for observing simplifications.
    • Maybe linguists have been using the wrong tools to project into the past. Since these are dead languages, they have to make some assumptions.
    • Maybe languages tend to become simpler when they get recorded, either natively or when interacting with literate cultures. Pidgins do tend to have simpler structure--but the changes don't seem that dramatic.
  2. If not, then we have an "expanding universe" kind of problem. Extrapolating back points to greater and greater complexity. I'm not sure how to extrapolate with any precision--it depends partly on what sorts of other cultures your test language happened to run into. The best I can do is say: "It was more complicated."

    The language families are different enough that you can't point back to a single ur-language--you wind up with several of them. Sort of like Babel.

Are there good examples of complexification?

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

All the time. Languages in isolation get more complicated. While most languages are essentially mastered by native children by age five, there are isolated in the Caucasus which are not mastered until age eight. Languages simplify in contact with non-native speakers. Stripped down languages, such as English, Farsi (Persian) and Swahili, got that way because a lot of people in the area learned them as a (ahem) lingua franca. Then they get more complicated again when they are left alone.

A pidgin is an extremely simplified version of a language developed by non-natives. A creole is a step more complicated, adding in bits from nearby languages and developing new markers to express more complicated thoughts. The children who learn a pidgin make it a creole. Those who grow up with a creole make it a fully complex, nuanced language very quickly. It is often not new cases but additional words in the sentences that make the complexity. These then gradually get whittled away into sounds or affixes. If a new group comes along and learns the language a few centuries later, they start cutting out those affixes and endings in a repeat of the previous pattern.

For an explanation of how this happens, I recommend John McWhorter's books or find him on The Great Courses on Linguistics. (Don't buy it. Lots of libraries have it.)