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:
|Genitive Singular||χώρᾱς||of country|
|Dative Singular||χώρᾳ||to or for country|
|Vocative Singular||χώρᾱ||O country|
|Dual Nominative, Accusative, & Vocative||χώρᾱ|
|Dual Genitive & Dative||χώραιν|
|Genitive Plural||χωρῶν||of countries|
|Dative Plural||χώραις||to or for countires|
|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.
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.