allanswers.org - sci.lang FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

 Home >  Science >

sci.lang FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Section 1 of 3 - Prev - Next
All sections - 1 - 2 - 3


Archive-name: sci-lang-faq
Version: 2.29
Last-modified: 3 Mar 2002
Last-posted: 20 Jun 2002

Except where noted, written by Michael Covington (mcovingt@ai.uga.edu)
Maintained by Mark Rosenfelder (markrose@zompist.com)

      The Web version of this FAQ can be found at:
         http://www.zompist.com/langfaq.html
	 (The most up-to-date FAQ will always be the Web version.)

      Changes this month: Added a question on etymology.

NOTE: This FAQ file doesn't cover everything!  Many good books and many 
      important ideas are left unmentioned.  All readers should be aware 
      that linguistics is a young science and that linguists rarely agree 
      100% on anything.

DISTRIBUTION: This file may be freely distributed electronically, or 
      as handouts in linguistics classes.  Please retain the author
      attributions and addresses, and this paragraph.  Before using it 
      in print, please contact the authors.
===============================================================================
CONTENTS

 1. What is sci.lang for?
 2. What is linguistics?
 3. Does linguistics tell people how to speak or write properly?
 4. What are some good books about linguistics?
 5. How did language originate?
 6. What is known about prehistoric language?
 7. What do those asterisks mean?
 8. How are present-day languages related?
 9. Why do Hebrew and Yiddish [etc.] look alike if they aren't related?
10. How do linguists decide that languages are related?
11. What is Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar all about?
12. What is a dialect?  (Relation between dialects and languages.)
13. Are all languages equally complex, or are some more primitive than others?
14. What about artificial languages, such as Esperanto?          
15. What are some stories and novels that involve linguistics?
16. What about those Eskimo words for snow? (and other myths about language)
17. Where can I get an electronic IPA font (or other electronic resources)?
18. How do I subscribe to the LINGUIST list?
19. How can I represent phonetic symbols in ASCII?
20. Is English a creole?
21. How do you look up a word in a Chinese or Japanese dictionary?
22. What about Nostratic and Proto-World?
23. What are phonemes and why's it so hard to lose a foreign accent? 
24. How likely are chance resemblances between languages?
25. How are tone languages sung?
26. Why are there so many words for Germany?
27. Why do both English and French have plurals in -s? 
28. How did genders and cases develop in IE? 
29. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
30. Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex?
31. Where did (some word or phrase) come from?
===============================================================================
1. What is sci.lang for?

Discussion of the scientific or historical study of human language(s).
Note the "sci." prefix.  The main concern here is with _facts_ and
theories accounting for them.

For advice on English usage, see alt.usage.english or misc.writing.
For casual chatter about other languages see soc.culture..
Discussion of or in Greek or Latin is available in sci.classics.
The sci.lang.translation newsgroup focusses on translation and issues of 
  concern to translators and interpreters.
The comp.ai.nat-lang newsgroup focusses on natural language processing
  by computers.

Like all "sci." newsgroups, sci.lang is not meant to substitute for
a dictionary or even a college library.  If the answer to your question
can be looked up easily, then do so rather than using the net.
If you don't have a library, then ask away, but explain your situation.
===============================================================================
2. What is linguistics?

  The scientific study of human language, including:
     Phonetics (physical nature of speech)
     Phonology (use of sounds in language)
     Morphology (word formation)
     Syntax (sentence structure)
     Semantics (meaning of words & how they combine into sentences)
     Pragmatics (effect of situation on language use)

  Or, carving it up another way:
     Theoretical linguistics (pure and simple: how languages work)
     Historical linguistics (how languages got to be the way they are)
     Sociolinguistics (language and the structure of society)
     Psycholinguistics (how language is implemented in the brain)
     Applied linguistics (teaching, translation, etc.)
     Computational linguistics (computer processing of human language)

  Some linguists also study sign languages, non-verbal communication,
  animal communication, and other topics besides spoken language.
===============================================================================
3. Does linguistics tell people how to speak or write properly?

No.  Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive.
Linguistics can often supply facts which help people arrive at a
recommendation or value judgement, but the recommendation or value
judgement is not part of linguistic science itself.
===============================================================================
4. What are some good books about linguistics?

(These are cited by title and author only. Full ordering information
can be obtained from BOOKS IN PRINT, available at most bookstores and
at even the smallest public libraries.)

  CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LANGUAGE, by David Crystal (1987) is a good place 
     to start if you are new to this field.
  LANGUAGE, by Edward Sapir (1921), is a readable survey of linguistics 
     that is still worthwhile despite its age.
  Some good surveys of linguistics:
     An Introduction to Language - Fromkin and Rodman (1974)
     The Social Art - Ronald Macaulay (1995)
     The Language Web - Jean Aitchison 
     Language: The Basics - R.L. Trask (1996)
  AN INTRODUCTION TO LANGUAGE, by Fromkin and Rodman (1974), is one of the 
     best intro linguistics survey texts.  There are many others.
  THE WORLD'S MAJOR LANGUAGES, edited by Bernard Comrie (1987) contains
     meaty descriptions of fifty languages.
  AN INTRODUCTION TO THE LANGUAGES OF THE WORLD by Anatole Lyovin (1997)
     surveys everything and has good sketches of some languages Comrie skips. 
  CAMBRIDGE TEXTBOOKS IN LINGUISTICS (a series) consists of good,
     modestly priced introductions to all the areas of linguistics.
  Any encyclopedia will give you basic information about widely studied
     languages, alphabets, etc.
===============================================================================
5. How did language originate?

Nobody knows.  Very little evidence is available.
See however D. Bickerton, LANGUAGE AND SPECIES (1990).
===============================================================================
6. What is known about prehistoric language?

Quite a lot, if by "prehistoric" you'll settle for maybe 2000 years
before the development of writing.  (Language is many thousands of years
older than that.)

Languages of the past can be recovered by comparative reconstruction
from their descendants.  The comparative method relies mainly on
pronunciation, which changes very slowly and in highly systematic
ways.  If you apply it to French, Spanish, and Italian, you 
reconstruct late colloquial Latin with a high degree of accuracy;
this and similar tests show us that the method works.

Also, if you use the comparative method on unrelated languages,
you get nothing. So comparative reconstruction is a test of whether 
languages are related (to a discernible degree).

The ancient languages Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and several others form 
a group known as "Indo-European."  Comparative reconstruction from 
them gives a language called Proto-Indo-European which was spoken 
around 2500 B.C.  Many Indo-European words can be reconstructed with 
considerable confidence (e.g., *ekwos 'horse').  The grammar was 
similar to Homeric Greek or Vedic Sanskrit.  Similar reconstructions are
available for some other language families, though none has been as 
thoroughly reconstructed as Indo-European.
===============================================================================
7. What do those asterisks mean?

Attached to a word, either of 2 things.
An unattested, reconstructed word (such as Indo-European *ekwos);
or an ungrammatical sentence (such as *Himself saw me).

(In a generative rule, such as AP -> Adj (AP)*, it indicates that
an element may be repeated zero or more times.)
===============================================================================
8. How are present-day languages related?
                                                           [--Scott DeLancey]

This is an INCOMPLETE list of some of the world's language families.  More
detailed classifications can be found in Voegelin and Voegelin, CLASSIFICATION
AND INDEX OF THE WORLD'S LANGUAGES (1977), and M. Ruhlen, A GUIDE TO THE 
WORLD'S LANGUAGES (1987).  (Note: Ruhlen's classification recognizes a 
number of higher-order groups which most linguists regard as speculative).

A language family is a group of languages that have been proven to have
descended from a common ancestral language.  Branches of families likewise
represent groups of languages with a more recent common ancestor.  For 
example, English, Dutch, and German have a common ancestor which we label
Proto-West-Germanic, and thus belong to the West Germanic branch of Germanic.
Icelandic and Norwegian are descended from Proto-North Germanic, a separate 
branch of Germanic.  All the Germanic languages have a common ancestor, 
Proto-Germanic; farther back, this ancestor was descended from Proto-Indo-
European, as were the ancestors of the Italic, Slavic, and other branches.

Not all languages are known to be related to each other.  It is possible that 
they are related but the evidence of relationship has been lost; it's also 
possible they arose separately.  It is likely that some of the families 
listed here will eventually turn out to be related to one another.

While low-level close relationships are easy to demonstrate, higher-order 
classification proposals must rely on more problematic evidence and tend to 
be controversial.  Recently linguists such as Joseph Greenberg and Vitalij 
Shevoroshkin have attracted attention both in linguistic circles and in the 
popular press with claims of larger genetic units, such as Nostratic 
(comprising Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Dravidian, and Afroasiatic) or 
Amerind (to include all the languages of the New World except Na-Dene and
Eskimo-Aleut).  Most linguists regard these hypotheses as having a grossly 
insufficient empirical foundation, and argue that comparisons at that depth 
are not possible using available methods of historical linguistics.

This list isn't intended to be exhaustive, even for families like Germanic
and Italic.  Nor is it the last word on what's a "language"; see question 12.

  Note: English is not descended from Latin.
        English is a Germanic language with a lot of Latin vocabulary,
        borrowed from French in the Middle Ages.

INDO-EUROPEAN
    GERMANIC
      North Germanic:  Icelandic, Norwegian / Swedish / Danish
      East Germanic:  Gothic (extinct)
      West Germanic:  English, Dutch, German, Yiddish
    ITALIC
      Osco-Umbrian:  Oscan, Umbrian (extinct languages of Italy)
      Latin and its modern descendants (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, 
         Catalan, Rumanian, French, etc.)
    CELTIC
      P-Celtic:  Welsh, Breton, Cornish
      Q-Celtic:  Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx
      Some extinct European languages were also Celtic, notably those of Gaul
    HELLENIC:  Greek (ancient and modern)
    SLAVIC:  Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, etc. 
         (not Rumanian or Albanian)
    BALTIC:  Lithuanian and Latvian
    INDO-IRANIAN
      Indic:  Sanskrit and its modern descendants (Hindi-Urdu, 
         Gypsy (Romany), Bengali, etc.)
      Iranian: Persian (ancient and modern), Pashto (Afghanistan), others
    ALBANIAN:  Albanian
    ARMENIAN:  Armenian
    TOKHARIAN (an extinct language of NW China)
    HITTITE (extinct language of Turkey)

AFRO-ASIATIC
    SEMITIC:  Arabic, Hebrew (not Yiddish; see above), Aramaic, Amharic
      and other languages of Ethiopia
    CHADIC:  languages of northern Africa, e.g. Hausa
    CUSHITIC:  Somali, other languages of eastern Africa
    EGYPTIAN:  Ancient Egyptian
    BERBER:  languages of North Africa

NIGER-KORDOFANIAN:  includes most of the languages of sub-Saharan 
    Africa.  Most of the languages are in the NIGER-CONGO branch; the
    most widely known subgroup of N-C is BANTU (Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, etc.) 

URALIC 
    Finnish, Estonian, Saami (Lapp), Hungarian, and several 
    languages of central Russia

MONGOL:  Mongolian, Buryat, Kalmuck, etc.
TURKIC:  Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, and other languages of Central Asia
TUNGUSIC: Manchu, Juchen, Evenki, Even, Oroch, and other languages of NE Asia

    Some linguists group these three families together as ALTAIC.
    Rather more controversially, some add Korean and Japanese to this group.

    It has been claimed that URALIC and ALTAIC are related (as URAL-ALTAIC),
    but this idea is not widely accepted.

DRAVIDIAN:  languages of southern India, including Tamil, Telugu, etc.

SINO-TIBETAN
    SINITIC:  Chinese (several "dialects", or arguably distinct languages:
      Mandarin, Wu (Shanghai), Min (Hokkien [Fujian], Taiwanese), 
      Yue (Cantonese), Hakka, Gan, Xiang
    TIBETO-BURMAN: Tibetan, Burmese, various languages of Burma,
      China, India, and Nepal

AUSTROASIATIC
    MON-KHMER:  Vietnamese, Khmer (Cambodian), and various minority 
      and tribal languages of Southeast Asia
    MUNDA:  tribal languages of eastern India

AUSTRONESIAN
    Malay-Indonesian, other languages of Indonesia (Javanese, etc.)
    Philippine languages: Tagalog, Ilocano, Bontoc, etc.
    Aboriginal languages of Taiwan (Tsou, etc.)
    Polynesian languages: Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Tahitian, etc.
    Micronesian:  Chamorro (spoken in Guam), Yap, Truk, etc.
    Malagasy (spoken in Madagascar)
  Most of these languages fall in a branch called MALAYO-POLYNESIAN

JAPANESE:  A number of linguists argue that Japanese is ALTAIC; others,
    that it is most closely related to AUSTRONESIAN, or that it represents 
    a mixture of AUSTRONESIAN and ALTAIC elements.

TAI-KADAI:  Thai, Lao, and other languages of southern China and 
    northern Burma.  Possibly related to AUSTRONESIAN.  
    An outdated hypothesis that TAI is part of SINO-TIBETAN is still 
    often found in reference works and introductory texts.

AUSTRALIA:  the Aboriginal languages of Australia are conservatively 
    classified into 26 families, the largest being PAMA-NYUNGAN, consisting
    of about 200 languages originally spoken over 80-90% of Australia.

A large number of language families are found in North and South America.
There are numerous proposals which group these into larger units, some of
which will probably be demonstrated in time.  To date no New World language 
has been proven to be related to any Old World family.  The larger North 
American families include:

ESKIMO-ALEUT:  two Eskimo languages and Aleut.
ATHAPASKAN:  most of the languages of Alaska and northwestern Canada,
    also includes Navajo and Apache.  Eyak (in Alaska) is related to
    Athapaskan; some linguists put these together with Tlingit and Haida
    in a NA-DENE family.
ALGONQUIAN:  most of Canada and the Northeastern U.S., includes
    Cree, Ojibwa, Cheyenne, Blackfoot
IROQUOIAN:  the languages of NY state (Mohawk, Onondaga, etc.) and Cherokee
SIOUAN:  includes Dakota/Lakhota and other languages of the Plains
    and Southeast U.S.
MUSKOGEAN: Choctaw, Alabama, Creek, Mikasuki (Seminole) and other
    languages of the southeast U.S.
UTO-AZTECAN:  a large family in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., 
    includes Nahuatl (Aztec), Hopi, Comanche, Paiute, etc.
SALISH:  languages of Washington and British Columbia
HOKAN:  languages of California and Mexico; a controversial grouping
PENUTIAN:  languages of California and Oregon; also controversial

Work on documentation and classification of South American languages still 
has a long way to go.  Generally recognized families include:

ARAWAKAN, TUCANOAN, TUPI-GUARANI (including Guarani, a national language
of Paraguay), CARIBAN, ANDEAN (including Quechua and Aymara)

LANGUAGE ISOLATES:  A number of languages around the world have never been
successfully shown to be related to any others-- in at least some cases 
because any related languages have long been extinct.  The most famous 
isolate is Basque, spoken in northern Spain and southern France; it is 
apparently a survival from before the Indo-Europeanization of Europe.
===============================================================================
9. Why do  Hebrew and Yiddish
           Japanese and Chinese
           Persian and Arabic
   look so much alike if they aren't related?

Distinguish LANGUAGE from WRITING SYSTEM.
In each of these cases one language has adopted part or all of the 
writing system of an unrelated language.

(To a Chinese, English and Finnish look alike, because they're written 
in the same alphabet.  Yet they are not historically related.)

An excellent introduction to writing systems is Geoffrey Sampson's
WRITING SYSTEMS (1985).  The authoritative (but expensive) reference
is Daniels and Bright's THE WORLD'S WRITING SYSTEMS (1996), which
discusses every known script.
===============================================================================
10. How do linguists decide that languages are related?           [--markrose]

When linguists say that languages are related, they're not just remarking 
on their surface similarity; they're making a technical statement or claim
about their history-- namely, that they can be regularly derived from a 
common parent language.

Proto-languages are reconstructed using the comparative method.  The 
first stage is to inspect and compare large amounts of vocabulary from the 
languages in question.  Where possible we compare entire _paradigms_ (sets 
of related forms, such as the those of the present active indicative in 
Latin), rather than individual words.

The inspection should yield a set of regular sound correspondences between 
the languages.  By regular, we mean that the same correspondences are 
consistently observed in identical phonetic environments.  Finally, _sound 
changes_ are formulated: language-specific rules which specify how the 
original common form changed in order to produce those observed in each 
descendent language.

Applying the comparative method to the Romance languages, we might find

  'I sense'  Sard /sento/  French /sa~/   Italian /sento/   Spanish /sjEnto/
  'sleep'         /sonnu/         /som/           /sonno/           /suEn^o/

  'hundred'       /kentu/         /sa~/           /tSento/          /sjEnto/
  'five'          /kimbe/         /sE~k/          /tSinkwe/         /sinko/

  'I run'         /kurro/         /kur/           /korro/           /korro/
  'story'         /kontu/         /ko~t@/         /(rak)konto/      /kuEnto/

and hundreds of similar examples.  We see some correspondences--

  (1)        Sard /s/      French /s/     Italian /s/       Spanish /s/
  (2)             /k/             /s/             /tS/              /s/
  (3)             /k/             /k/             /k/               /k/

but they seem to conflict: does Sard /k/ correspond to Spanish /s/ or /k/?
Does French /s/ correspond to Italian /s/ or /tS/?

In fact we will find that the correspondences are regular, once we observe
that (2) is seen before a front vowel (i or e), while (3) is seen in other
environments.  Alternations within paradigms, such as It. /diko/ 'I say' 
vs. /ditSe/ 'says', will help us make and confirm such generalizations.

We may interpret these now-regular correspondences as indicating that an 
initial /s/ in the proto-language has been retained in all four languages, 
and likewise initial /k/ in Sard; but that /k/ changed to /s/ or /tS/ in 
the other languages in the environment of a front vowel.

Actually, this process is iterative.  For instance, at first glance we 
might think that German _haben_ and Latin _habere_ 'have' are obvious 
cognates.  However, after noting the regular correspondence of German h to 
Latin c, we are forced to change our minds, and look to _capere_ 'seize' 
as a better cognate for _haben_.

Thus, similarity of words is only a clue, and perhaps a misleading one.
Linguists conclude languages are related, and thus derive from a common
ancestor, only if they find *regular* sound correspondences between them.

To complicate things, derivations may be obscured by irregular changes,
such as dissimilation, borrowing, or analogical change.  For instance, 
the normal development of Middle English _kyn_ is 'kine', but this word
has been largely replaced by 'cows', formed from 'cow' (ME _cou_) on the 
analogy of word-pairs like stone : stones.  Analogy often serves to reduce 
irregularities in a language (here, an unusual plural).

_Borrowing_ refers to taking words from other languages, as English has
taken 'search' and 'garage' from French, 'paternal' from Latin, 'anger' from 
Old Norse, and 'tomato' from Nahuatl.  How do we know that English doesn't
derive from French or Nahuatl?  The latter case is easy to eliminate: 
regular sound correspondences can't be set up between English and Nahuatl.

But English has borrowed so heavily from French that regular correspondences 
do occur.  Here, however, we find that the French borrowings are thickest in 
government, legal, and military domains; while the basic vocabulary (which 
languages borrow less frequently) is more akin to German.  Paradigmatic 
correspondences like sing/sang/sung vs. singen/sang/gesungen also help show
that the Germanic words are inherited, the French ones borrowed.

If you want more, Theodora Bynon's HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS (1977) is
very good, and not long; R.L. Trask's HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS (1996)
is very readable and covers more recent studies.
Anthony Fox's LINGUISTIC RECONSTRUCTION: AN INTRODUCTION
TO THEORY AND METHOD (1995) concentrates on the reconstruction process
itself, and assumes some knowledge of linguistics.  On Indo-European,
try Beekes, COMPARATIVE INDO-EUROPEAN LINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION (1995).
===============================================================================
11. What is Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar all about?

Several things; it really comprises several layers of theory:

(1) The hypothesis that much of the structure of human language is
inborn ("built-in") in the human brain, so that a baby learning to
talk only has to learn the vocabulary and the structural "parameters"
of his native language -- he doesn't have to learn how language works
from scratch.

The main evidence consists of:
   - The fact that babies learn to talk remarkably well from what seems
     to be inadequate exposure to language; it is claimed
     that babies acquire some rules of grammar that they could never
     have "learned" from what is available to them, if the structure of
     language were not partly built-in.
   - The fact that the structure of language on different levels
     (vocabulary, ability to connect words, etc.) can be lost by injury
     to specific areas of the brain.
   - The fact that there are unexpected structural similarities between
     all known languages.
For detailed exposition see Cook, CHOMSKY'S UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR (1988), 
Newmeyer, GRAMMATICAL THEORY: ITS LIMITS AND POSSIBILITIES (1983), and
Pinker, THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT (1994).

This theory is by no means accepted by all linguists, though many   
would agree that some core part of language is innate.

(2) The hypothesis that to adequately describe the grammar of a human
language, you have to give each sentence at least two different structures, 
called "deep structure" and "surface structure", together with rules
called "transformations" that relate them. 

This is hotly debated.  Some theories of grammar use two levels and
some don't.  Chomsky's original monograph, SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES (1957),
is still well worth reading; this is what it deals with.

(3) Chomsky's name is associated with specific flavors of transformational
grammar.  The model elaborated over the last few years is called GB
(government and binding) theory; however, Chomsky's 1995 book on Minimalism
contains significant departures from earlier work in GB.

(4) Some people think Chomsky is the source of the idea that grammar ought
to be viewed with mathematical precision.  (Thus there are occasional
vehement anti-Chomsky polemics such as THE NEW GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL, which
are really polemics against grammar per se.)

Although Chomsky contributed some valuable techniques, grammarians have
_always_ believed that grammar was a precise, mechanical thing.  They
are highly divided, however, on the nature and function of those mechanisms!
===============================================================================
12. What is a dialect?
                                                              [--M.C. + M.R.]
A dialect is any variety of a language spoken by a specific community of
people. Most languages have many dialects.

Everyone speaks a dialect.  In fact everyone speaks an _idiolect_, i.e.,
a personal language.  (Your English language is not quite the same as
my English language, though they are probably very, very close.)

A group of people with very similar idiolects are considered to be
speaking the same dialect.  Some dialects, such as Standard American
English, are taught in schools and used widely around the world.
Others are very localized.  

Localized or uneducated dialects are _not_ merely failed attempts to speak
the standard language.  William Labov and others have demonstrated, for
example, that the speech of inner-city blacks has its own intricate
grammar, quite different in some ways from that of Standard English.

It should be emphasized that linguists do not consider some dialects 
superior to others-- though speakers of the language may do so;
and linguists do study people's attitudes toward language, since 
these have a strong effect on the development of language.

Linguists call varieties of language "dialects" if the speakers can
understand each other and "languages" if they can't.  For example,
Irish English and Southern American English are dialects of English,
but English and German are different languages (though related).

This criterion is not always as easy to apply as it sounds.
Intelligibility may vary with familiarity and interest, or may depend
on the subject.  A more serious problem is the _dialect continuum_: a
chain of dialects such that any two adjoining dialects are mutually
intelligible, but the dialects at the ends are not.  Speakers of
Belgian Dutch, for instance, can't understand Swiss German, but
between them there lies a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects.

Sometimes the use of the terms "language" or "dialect" is politically
motivated.  Norwegian and Danish (being mutually intelligible) are
dialects of the same language, but are considered separate languages
because of their political independence.  By contrast, Mandarin and
Cantonese, which are mutually unintelligible, are often referred to
as "dialects" of Chinese, due to the political and cultural unity of
China, and because they share a common _written_ language.

At this point we usually quote Max Weinreich: "A language is a dialect 
with an army and a navy."

Because of such problems, some linguists reject the mutual
intelligibility criterion; but they do not propose to return to
arguments on political and cultural grounds.  Instead, they prefer
not to speak of dialects and languages at all, but only of different
varieties, with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.
===============================================================================
13. Are all languages equally complex, or are some more primitive than others?
                                                              [--M.C. + M.R.]
Before the 1900s many people believed that so-called "primitive 
peoples" would have primitive languages, and that Latin and Greek--
or their own languages-- were inherently superior to other tongues.

In fact, however, there is no correlation between type or complexity of
culture and any measure of language complexity.  Peoples of very simple
material culture, such as the Australian Aborigines, are often found to 
speak very complex languages.

Obviously, the size of the vocabulary and the variety and sophistication of
literary forms will depend on the culture.  The _grammar_ of all languages,
however, tends to be about equally complex-- although the complexity may 
be found in different places.  Latin, for instance, has a much richer
system of inflections than English, but a less complicated syntax.

As David Crystal puts it, "All languages meet the social and psychological
needs of their speakers, are equally deserving of scientific study, and can
provide us with valuable information about human nature and society."

There are only two case of really simple languages:

* _Pidgins_, which result when speakers of different languages come to live 
and work together.  Vocabulary is drawn from one or both languages, and a 
very forgiving grammar devised.  Grammars of pidgins from around the world 
have interesting similarities (e.g. they are likely to use repetition to 
express plurals).  

A pidgin becomes a _creole_ when children acquire it as a native language;
as it evolves to meet the needs of a primary language, its vocabulary and
grammar become much richer.  If a pidgin is used over a long period (for
example, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea), it may similarly develop into a 
more complex language known as an _extended pidgin_.

* _Language death_, what happens when a language falls out of use-- an
alarmingly widespread phenomenon, which has been studied in detail by
linguists.  The process typically takes several generations, and involves
an increasingly simplified grammar and impoverished lexicon.
===============================================================================
14. What about artificial languages, such as Esperanto?          [--markrose]

Hundreds of constructed languages have been devised in the last few centuries.
Early proposals, such as those of Lodwick (1647), Wilkins, or Leibniz, were 
attempts to devise an ideal language based on philosophical classification 
of concepts, and used wholly invented words.  Most were too complex to learn,
but one, Jean Francois Sudre's Solresol, achieved some popularity in the last
century; its entire vocabulary was built from the names of the notes of 
the musical scale, and could be sung as well as spoken.

Later the focus shifted to languages based on existing languages, with a 
polyglot (usually European) vocabulary and a simplified grammar, whose purpose
was to facilitate international communication.  Johann Schleyer's Volapu"k 
(1880) was the first to achieve success; its name is based on English 

Section 1 of 3 - Prev - Next
All sections - 1 - 2 - 3

Back to category Science - Use Smart Search
Home - Smart Search - About the project - Feedback

© allanswers.org | Terms of use

LiveInternet