Language Evolution and Gingerbread

The Great Courses now has streaming, so we’ve been binge watching lectures as we “learn” Spanish. For me the most entertaining lecture series so far has been the Story of Human Language by John McWhorter. I also like the other course, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage, although the first is clearer. But here’s a digested version for those of you who don’t want to spend night after night watching lectures.


Like philosophy, linguistics can be highly contentious, and language complexity is one of those interesting and sometimes politically-motivated issues. Proponents of a strong Saphir-Whorf relativism believe that language determines thought, but if you believe this, and you also believe in the humanistic principle that people everywhere are all fundamentally equal, then you will probably want to prove that all languages are equally complex. Consider the negative or racist views associated with simplification (think Tarzan), whereas on the flip side, complexity is often associated with sophistication, nuance, refinement—there’s something “higher” about it. Of course, linguists aren’t going to be making these value judgements, not overtly, but they must know what people generally think, so it would be tempting to just assume all languages are equal. After all, who would want to imply that some languages, and therefore some cultures, are inferior to others? On the other hand, political correctness is not the same as rigorous scholarship, and if the evidence just doesn’t support this linguistic egalitarianism, then what?

If I were a linguist, I think I’d be quick dump language relativism, certainly the strong version. Clearly language doesn’t determine thought, otherwise how would we translate languages? It’s easier to swallow that language influences thought, but even that makes less sense than saying thought influences language. In other words, I don’t think language prevents us from perceiving reality. When we bumble through existence, we’re less articulate, but when we strive for precision with our words, that helps us pay closer attention to elements of our experience that we might otherwise only dimly perceive. If we don’t attend to the more nuanced aspects of experience, then of course what we say will reflect that crudeness (“Wow, man, this is awesome”), but it’s not impossible to point out distinctions to someone who doesn’t at first notice them: (“This scotch isn’t just awesome, it starts with a malt burn and evolves into smoked meats before lingering in the area of salted nuts and nougat…”) So it’s not that we experience a different reality, but that we experience reality differently. You can photograph the same landscape in countless ways, such as by focusing on one interesting element while leaving others in the background, or you can just take blurry snapshots and leave it at that.

And when you get into grammar specifically, the argument for relativism is even less convincing. Do speakers of languages with gender pronouns really think, consciously or subconsciously, of everything in terms of gender? Do French people really see vaginas as masculine? Well, I seriously doubt pronoun revision will make society less racist or sexist, but you can consider artlicles such as this and decide for yourself. That said, there might be other reasons to use gender-neutral pronouns (“they” seems to have caught on in English, and I prefer it to the ugly, “he/she”).

But back to complexity. So what’s the truth? Are all languages equally complex?

It turns out that complexity is, well, complex. After giving it some thought, I’m not sure I know what language complexity even is. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but keep in mind we’re looking for an objective assessment of complexity, one that doesn’t rely on any particular perspective or language background. It seems pretty clear that grammar is one way to look at it, and of course within grammar there are various elements to be weighed. But grammar’s not the only thing a language has, and a complex grammar might be combined with a very simple vocabulary or phonetic system, or whatever, rendering the total overall complexity a wash. And if finding a universal metric is really as difficult as it seems, it might not be worthwhile to compare the 6,500 some odd languages around the world for minute differences, and it might be more appealing to just assume that languages are all basically the same. It seems this has been the consensus. (I’ve read that Noam Chomsky wouldn’t say it outright, but basically…yeah.)

McWhorter, however, is not in this egalitarian camp. First of all, like most, he rejects linguistic determinism for basically the same reasons I described above. I don’t know precisely what he thinks of subtler forms of relativism, but I’m guessing he’s suspicious of them. He argues:

a) Thoughts can be expressed equally in any language (rejecting the strong SW hypothesis); therefore, we can call a language simple without suggesting anything unseemly about the cognitive capacity of its speakers.

b) As a rule, all else being equal, languages accrete logically unnecessary complexities over time. That’s why the vast majority of languages are what he calls “baroque” or loaded with ornament. Christmas-tree-like. This is an interesting point about complexity: it’s actually saying the opposite of what people have generally supposed, that a language spoken by 6 people in some remote region in isolation from outside influence is not going to be simple or Tarzan-like, but instead incredibly complex. And that’s normal. That’s what languages do.

c) Grammatical complexity is measurable.

d) Some languages are grammatically simpler than others. In particular, creole, which can give us an insight into the evolution of language.

Apparently creole isn’t just a mixture of languages. It derives from what’s called pidgin, a half-learned language—basically what my Korean mother spoke, broken English. When adults try to learn a second language without formal instruction, it’s virtually impossible for them to learn it completely, and what can emerge in subsequent generations and under certain circumstances is a grammatically-simplified and streamlined language in its own right. To be honest, I don’t quite get this process. I think I’ll have to buy one of his books to find out, and for now take his word for it. But anyway, moving right along…creole doesn’t have gender pronouns or inalienable possession—I don’t need to make fine grammatical distinctions about the way I possess my hand vs. the way I possess my computer—and so it’s what you might call user-friendly, at least for adult learners (whereas for children under 16, it doesn’t really matter, a young mind is a sponge that takes in pretty much whatever you throw at it.) Streamlined grammar is extremely unusual in the grand scheme of things, and McWhorter calls creole “born again.” Being a new language, it simply hasn’t had enough time to get convoluted.

He also does an elaborate analysis of historical influences on language, but this blog post is already too long, so I guess I’ll show some restraint for once in my life.

So the point is, we have certain forces pulling language in opposite directions: time complicates, exposure simplifies.

By contrast to most languages, English has been stripped down because it’s been exposed to adults who just couldn’t learn it completely (like the Vikings, so says he). And that exposure—or cosmopolitanism—explains why English is relatively grammatically simple, especially in comparison to other Indo-European languages like German and French. We have no case endings. Hell, we don’t even say “whom” anymore.

What I’ve been describing is the difference between exoteric vs. esoteric language, and these are characterized as follows:

Exoteric: Cosmopolitan, high-contact languages such as English and Spanish. Cultures McWhorter hilariously describes as having “skyscrapers, therapists, and depression.” These tend to have a more streamlined, basic grammar. (But let’s not forget that time has the opposite effect on them, pulling them toward complication. English is not the simplest. If you’re lazy and you have to learn a second language, Indonesian might be more appealing.)

Esoteric: Languages spoken in small isolated communities. Some examples might include click languages and Native American languages such as Navajo, which is notoriously difficult to learn. Esoteric languages tend to be grammatically complex because they’re simply following a natural course without interruption by external forces (namely, adult learners).

Grammar and Vocab

I think we all know that language changes. Certainly words do, and we can see this change occur before our very eyes in our own lifetimes (an “epic” rock concert, for instance…I’m still shaking my head). Grammar hangs on a little longer, but eventually it changes too. For instance, did you know English used to have case endings?

What are case endings? I’m so glad you asked. Let’s look at ancient Greek. Here we have a nominative case to mark the subject, an accusative case to mark the object (in English, snobs who say “whom”), a genitive case to mark possession (“of” or “from”), and a dative case to mark the indirect object. Oh!—let’s not forget the vocative. English, on the other hand, has a subject-verb-object structure to do all that work, and since this structure is obligatory, that means we don’t need case markers to indicate who is doing what to whom. In ancient Greek there’s a great deal more flexibility in the way you can arrange words in a sentence, but if you’re not a native speaker, these cases can be a nightmare to learn, as you can see for yourself in the example below:

χώρᾶ (Country)
Nominative Singular χώρᾱ country
Genitive Singular χώρᾱς of country
Dative Singular χώρᾳ to or for country
Accusative Singular χώρᾱν country
Vocative Singular χώρᾱ O country
Dual Nominative, Accusative, & Vocative χώρᾱ
Dual Genitive & Dative χώραιν
Nominative Plural χῶραι countries
Genitive Plural χωρῶν of countries
Dative Plural χώραις to or for countires
Accusative Plural χώρᾱς countries
Vocative Plural χῶραι O countries

And that’s just one word. Imagine assembling all that in a sentence along with other words that also have case endings. And imagine doing it at the speed of speech. But English used to have this stuff too. For you singular: thee, accusative and thou, nominative. And it included plural forms of you: you, accusative and ye, nominative. Yep. But now we’ve got y’all. And I especially like all y’all.

There are other ways a language can be complex or difficult to acquire, such as speaking, which can present a huge stumbling block for adult learners acquiring a second language. According to this article in the Economist, !Xóõ would not be fun:

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

And I thought the French “u” was hard to pronounce.

What’s interesting is that while esoteric languages tend to have a complex grammar, they also tend to have smaller vocabularies than exoteric languages. Why? One theory is that words can spread more rapidly than grammar concepts because it’s easier to learn new vocab than it is to learn, say, rules for forming double object pronouns. It’s also suggested that larger communities tend to lose fewer words than smaller communities.

Interesting stuff.

All of this makes me wonder what globalization will do to languages around the world. Many are under threat of extinction, and linguists are trying to record them for future study. But once they’re gone, that’s it.

And on the flip side, what will happen with exoteric languages such as ours? McWhorter would disagree with me, but I think something is lost in the streamlining of grammar—for instance, when we lose case endings. I know case endings are a total nightmare. I know. I did try to learn ancient Greek, alas. But I can see how case endings could benefit poets who would want to leverage word order flexibility to add emphasis or nuance. So while I totally agree that case endings are hard to learn, and certainly not necessary for getting by in day-to-day business, I can’t believe that nothing meaningful is lost when they disappear. I imagine the same is true for other grammatical complexities, though I can’t name any other examples at the moment. Maybe I’m just a romantic? I do like ancient things…hm.

What do you think?

And Happy Holidays!


On that note, I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite Holiday Recipes:

Coconut Macaroons from The Silver Palate Cookbook. I didn’t think I really liked coconut macaroons until I tried these. Bonus: they are insanely easy to make. Bonus Bonus: You can dunk these in dark chocolate and they get even better. Bonus bonus bonus: You can freeze them after baking (and after cooling to room temp). But do the chocolate after thawing, not before freezing, otherwise you’ll have chalk-y looking stuff on your macaroon bottoms.

 Gingerbread. This one is good. Wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-to-have-a-bite good. And it seems to last and last, getting better over time, assuming you can wait, which isn’t a fair assumption. Also from the Silver Palate, by the way. I usually double the recipe and bake in a 13 x 9 in. (or thereabouts) dish. Or I double the recipe, then divide the batter into 4 and bake directly in these to give away. The lemon glaze is crucial. Whipped cream is definitely not. I usually love whipped cream, but here I think it detracts, actually.

28 thoughts on “Language Evolution and Gingerbread

      • Apologies Tina, for my as(s)inine comment; I was in something of a pre-Santa present-garnering rush, yet wanting to stop by and read your piece. And coconut macaroons are a firm fave in my house, so much so that I hardly dare risk buying or baking them (in case my ass(inine) gets too big.) Happy New Year!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I didn’t think I cared for coconut macaroons until I tried these. They really are easy to make, and that does make them dangerous. But for me, the gingerbread is probably the most dangerous. I actually woke up very early one morning just to eat a slice—I say “a” slice, haha—then I went back to bed. When I woke up for real, I had it again for breakfast. Talk about ass(inine)!

          Happy New Year to you too!

          Liked by 1 person

  1. You always write such evocative posts! As you might imagine from my handle, language fascinates me! Full disclosure: I think a weak form of Saphir-Whorf makes sense.

    I once heard the strong form framed such that members of a “primitive” Americas society that wasn’t seafaring would fail to even see a huge European sea ship in their bay. I find that hard to credit; I’m sure they’d see something.

    But they might have a hard time describing, let alone discussing, it, especially with regard to its function. Such a society would have no terminology, or concept of, navigating the sea.

    To the extent that thoughts have (inner) voice, one cannot think about a topic without the vocabulary for it.

    The key for me is the concepts the words stand for. How complex are the thoughts a language can express? I see grammar complexity as distinct from conceptual complexity.

    A very complex esoteric language might only have a concept vocabulary for local agrarian and hunting needs. But English, which is relatively simple, handles aviation, science, law, and storytelling. (Plus farming and hunting.)

    “You can photograph the same landscape in countless ways,..”

    I agree modern languages are the same — similar cameras shooting the landscape from different angles — but some languages are inferior cameras. They might be B&W-only, or have terrible lenses, or be the equivalent of a dot-matrix printer.

    A famous example is the tribal language that lacks “right” and “left” — directions are always in terms of compass points. If we were facing each other, my “south” foot would be your “north” foot.

    It would be very difficult, but maybe not impossible, to describe the “left-hand rule” for navigating a maze in such a language. It would definitely be extremely cumbersome.

    But I think the key is this: could a member of that tribe learn the concepts of left and right? I think obviously yes. I imagine they could learn to operate a computer given time and teaching.

    I don’t imagine their brains are any different. Their culture is, and of course their language reflects that.

    “I seriously doubt pronoun revision will make society less racist or sexist,..”

    I have very mixed feelings about identity politics. It’s a whole other discussion… I’m not a fan of “PC” but words do have power. I’ve heard that people with gendered languages do think in terms of gender more than people with neutral languages. But there’s a chicken and an egg…


    I worry about the simplification (the infantilization?) of English in my own way, but like you I worry about the loss of nuance and texture. We’ve grown into a “you knew what I meant, right?” culture that doesn’t regard language as a precision tool anymore. Pity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d agree with an uninteresting, very weak version of SW. Full disclosure: I felt like emphasizing a more controversial point and cutting back on my usual hemming and hawing as much as I could.

      One way it seems likely that language can influence thought would be in how it affects our default way of categorizing. We aren’t likely to create a new category when an existing one works just fine, though other cultures might have other categories. Like the duck/rabbit illusion, if we’re just not prone to seeing ducks, we might not notice the duck. But someone more prone to duck-vision could point out the duck possibility. So I think language can act as a filter or enhancer of thought, but I doubt that everything about language operates in that filtering way, especially since language is so metaphorical and changing. It might be one of those issues we’d have to look at on a case-by-case basis. Anyway, I suspect grammar is less filtering than vocabulary. The Chinese don’t have grammatical tense, but I don’t think that limits their understanding of time. And I can see why vocabulary would be limiting, but not as limiting as we sometimes suppose. I often hear people say things like: “There’s no way to say x in such and such a language.” But what they really mean is, “There’s no single word in such and such a language that corresponds to our single word, x”.

      “A very complex esoteric language might only have a concept vocabulary for local agrarian and hunting needs. But English, which is relatively simple, handles aviation, science, law, and storytelling. (Plus farming and hunting.)”

      I’m not sure whether there’s a relationship between the size of a language’s lexicon and complexity of thought. I imagine linguists would not want to go there. Besides that, I can see why it would be difficult to determine, especially when you think about how many words in the dictionary aren’t really used that often. Which words count, then? And although I suspect vocubulary size and complexity of thought are linked in an individual (maybe only at certain levels), does that link apply on a broader scale to cultures? I don’t know. And perhaps a primitive culture might have more words to describe farming and hunting (or some other such thing) than English? I don’t know.

      However, there is a language which has very little concept of number, and those who speak it apparently cannot be taught to count to ten. But there’s a twist—they might not want to learn:

      “A famous example is the tribal language that lacks “right” and “left” — directions are always in terms of compass points. If we were facing each other, my “south” foot would be your “north” foot.”

      Interesting stuff. Here’s an article about this aboriginal Austrialian language (apparently there are others that are similar):

      “It would be very difficult, but maybe not impossible, to describe the “left-hand rule” for navigating a maze in such a language. It would definitely be extremely cumbersome.”

      Funny you should say this, because I think it would be the opposite. The left hand rule could be demonstrated easily since it’s so subjective. You could show them your hands. Boom. The map is attatched to YOU! But cardinal directions might be tricky to teach, especially in certain contexts. In Vermont, I couldn’t always tell you where north was. Here in Tucson, I just look at the mountains and I know where I am—I love it.

      “I have very mixed feelings about identity politics. It’s a whole other discussion… I’m not a fan of “PC” but words do have power. I’ve heard that people with gendered languages do think in terms of gender more than people with neutral languages. But there’s a chicken and an egg…”

      What about genderless languages such as Persian spoken in Iran and Afghanistan?

      But yeah, it’s chicken and egg. A lot of the arguments I’ve read linking gender equality to gender prounouns don’t factor in cultural elements, or they establish a link, but not a causal one.

      To be honest, I don’t like these attempts to play Big Brother. But maybe that’s a generational attitude I’ve acquired—”Screw you, you can’t tell me what to think!” And yes, I agree that words do have power. But can they change a culture? Maybe, eventually, once a certain segment of the population dies out and resentment is forgotten—I mean, imagine forcing Spanish speakers to give up gender pronouns—but here we are, the chicken and egg, again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I’ll wait until you watch those videos, because some of how I would reply is in reference to points they make. The second one mentions both the ‘no left-right’ society and the ‘no counting’ society. The first one is an interesting treatise on communicating complex ideas with simple words.

        Merry Christmas!!


    • Merry Christmas!

      Thanks for all your interesting comments. “I” don’t necessarily think grammar becomes more complex over time, I’m just regurgitating McWhorter’s opinion here. 🙂 But, as someone who is just encountering the subject of linguistics, I’m impressed by his thesis. When you look at esoteric vs. exoteric and consider general established concepts about how language evolves (grammar being just one of those), this becomes clearer.


  2. I don’t know if language determines thought, but it does enable certain types of thought, or makes them easier to comprehend and communicate. Science and other disciplines evolve specialist jargon. Without it, it’s almost impossible to discuss the subject in any depth. But that in part is because words represent knowledge. For example, an anatomist can describe the human skeleton in terms of the names of all the bones. Unless you know what those words mean, you understand nothing. To explain it to you, the anatomist would need to explain what each bone was, what it looked like, and how it fits together. So words are more than names – they are a shorthand to concepts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think “determines” is too strong a word, but it seems pretty evident to me that language does heavily influence thought. It makes complete sense when you consider what language fundamentally is, a way to convey thoughts, perceptions, actions, essentially conscious experiences. Each word invokes a concept in our mind. Those concepts may be composite ones, or more primal ones. The more primal ones always seem to map to sensory perceptions or actions (real or imagined). So by invoking those concepts with certain frequencies, in certain relations, or certain orders, language definitely influences how we think.

    On the other hand, language itself is heavily influenced by how we think. As a group construction, language is influence by our collective psychology and worldviews, aka our culture. Culture and language influence each other in a continuous and never ending feedback loop. It’s why people who pick up other languages later in life never quite use it the way a native speaker might, at least not without deep immersion in the associated culture for a long time.

    I do think something is lost when languages go extinct, primarily because the associated culture usually goes with it. However, that loss has to be balanced against the increased communication and interaction between the enclaves of humanity. It seems a lot easier to see the humanity in someone if they’re speaking the same language. (Not that it’s guaranteed by any stretch.)

    I love me some ginger bread cookies, but I recently saw the movie ‘Krampus’ and the attack of the ginger bread men, an image that will likely surface for a while every time I eat ginger bread.

    Happy Holidays!

    Liked by 2 people

    • A feedback loop is an interesting way of thinking about it. Maybe one that expands to take in new knowledge?

      From what I learned in the lecture series, it seems that children are especially suited for language, but that mechanism isn’t nearly as powerful as adults. He didn’t go into this much, but it makes sense. If I had kids, I’d probably try to get a few languages in there while the time was ripe.

      Merry Christmas! I’ve never heard of Krampus….should I have?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I actually hadn’t heard of the movie myself until I saw it on TV, although I had heard before of the European mythical character called Krampus, kind of an anti-Santa Claus, a demon that punishes naughty children.
        The movie is a very dark comedy and I enjoyed it, although a friend who hates horror movies found it too intense.

        Anyway, there’s a scene where a boy bites into a gingerbread man, and the gingerbread man comes alive and attacks him. It’s followed later by a scene featuring an attack by a troop of gingerbread men. It’s both funny and disturbing.

        But not disturbing enough to stop me from eating gingerbread 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without hearing about Krampus! I checked out the trailer, but it scared both me and Geordie. Too bad, I like dark comedies, I just don’t care for things jumping out. It’s weird, I used to love horror films as kid, especially the screaming and things jumping out, but now I can’t take it.

          I am intrigued by the gingerbread horror scene, though.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It might help to know (spoiler alert) that it has a happy ending where no one has actually died. (Well, other than gingerbread men and toy monsters.) But for the gingerbread scenes, I recommend Youtube. I’d be stunned if they weren’t there.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post!

    I love John McWhorter. I saw some of his Great Courses and listened to several of his Lexicon Valley Podcasts, and need to read some of his books. He’s fun, informative and practical, and anyone interested in linguistics would do well to look him up.

    How does language relate to thought? I believe in a weaker form of the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis, and some accounts have shown that groups with more words for a concept can recognize/work with that concept slightly faster than others. Anecdotally, I’m bilingual — having learned my second language at an early age — and I can tell I’m thinking about things differently when I speak English than when I speak my second language; it’s like I’m seeing the world and relationships differently.

    If you treat thought as a social process, then language influences thought much more strongly. Think of mathematical notation (is that a language?), the use of words with additional shades of meaning to paint an object with additional attributes and even the use of rhetoric to stir emotions (there’s a connection between emotion and thought).

    There’s also been some research that English has been getting simpler with time — this research used the # of irregular verbs as a metric of complexity. The found that over time, there are fewer irregular verbs, as many irregular verbs get regularized and the new verbs that enter the language are regular.

    The inverse relationship between grammatical complexity and the # of vocabulary words is interesting, and I’m going to have to read more about it!

    Thank you for an interesting, thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh goodie, someone else who’s seen McWhorter in action! Isn’t he an awesome lecturer? I love his sense of humor. I’m gonna need to pick up a book too, but the question is, which one?

      What’s your second language? In what ways do you think differently about things in that language?

      I took a couple years of French, but not enough to be anywhere near fluent. I can get by.

      Interesting point about regular and irregular verbs. I can totally see why high-contact languages would have that sort of simplification. But I wonder why irregular verbs tend to be the major ones that get used all the time? (At least that’s the case in Spanish and French). You would think those would get simplified first, right?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, McWhorter is awesome, a pleasure to listen to and watch. I know of his books, but haven’t read one yet, so sadly can’t recommend any. However, a few books look promising, and I want to check them out when I get the chance. Those books are:

        Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress
        What Language Is: (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be)
        The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language
        Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

        My second language is Arabic, and when I speak Arabic, I find that I’m looking at people’s behaviors, their relationships and even the way I compartamentalize different types of people differently. It’s almost like I see different classes of people existing when I’m thinking/communicating in English than when I’m thinking/communicating in Arabic. There are other ways that I see things differently, but that’s the one that comes most readily to mind.

        My guess about the irregular verbs is that since they’re older words which have survived precisely because they’re used so often. The more often a word is used, the less resistant to change as too many people use it “properly” to allow simplification to do its work. This is pure speculation, and for all I know, I might have read it somewhere, so take it with a grain of salt 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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