Loss of inflection in IE languages

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Epilio, Apr 17, 2009.

  1. Epilio

    Epilio Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain
    Hi :)

    It seems that a common trait amongst Western Indo-European languages is their loss of inflection; their pass from synthetic to analytical languages. The Romance languages, modern English or Scandinavian languages, for instance, have lost the declensions that their predecessors had.

    Why did occur that?, Why Eastern Indo-European languages (I mean Baltic and Slavic) still preserve that trait?, Will the process continue in the future esperanticizing them even more?.

    Greetings! ;)
  2. Fred_C

    Fred_C Senior Member

    Actually, Esperanto has got a declension...:)
    German, a western European language, too.
  3. effeundici Senior Member

    Italian - Tuscany
    I am quite sure Romanian has inflection as well.

    I vaguely remember Spital Bucurest(i) ==> Hospital of Bucurest

    Latin genitive perfectly preserved after 2000 years
  4. Wilma_Sweden

    Wilma_Sweden Moderatös

    Lund, Sweden
    Swedish (Scania)
    This is not entirely true. Scandinavian languages still retain some declensions, particularly Icelandic. On the whole, however, it is true that Danish, Norwegian and Swedish have moved further towards analytical than Icelandic, but not as far as English.

    It's hard to predict what will happen in the future. These changes have occurred gradually over hundreds of years. I can only guess that Icelandic hasn't changed as much as the other Scandinavian languages because it has had fewer languages affecting it and/or there have been conscious efforts to preserve it.

  5. robbie_SWE

    robbie_SWE Senior Member

    Trilingual: Swedish, Romanian & English
    I'm sorry but Bucureşti is the actual name. The "i" is not inflection.

    As to the subject, Romanian does have inflection.

    :) robbie
  6. effeundici Senior Member

    Italian - Tuscany
    Ouch, shame on me!! :eek:
  7. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    This topic seems to pop up every couple of months or so, there are quite some related threads (evolution of language, analytic/synthetic, language change, most complex grammar, and some more I'm sure).

    But as you ask specifically about Indoeuropean languages - yes, it is true that in many IE languages inflection was lost to a degree, more in some languages, less in others.
    If you look at it more closely you'll realise that languages which have remained isolated (like Icelandic, or Baltic languages), or which have been for the most part unaffected by language contact till the Middle Ages (like Slavic languages) retained quite some inflection.

    And that those exposed to many influences, like English and Farsi, have lost a great deal of inflection.
    There have been claims that there's a "natural tendency" towards simplifying but it is highly doubtful that language change happens only along these lines - because how then could you explain Icelandic, Baltic and Slavic languages. :)

    So I would say it is basically down to the following: if there is a factor triggering change (like language contact, or socioeconomic/political factors) then simplification along the lines of natural phonology and morphology might (!) happen.
    And I'd say that to explain why change happens, or why it doesn't, you really would have to investigate a particular case more closely.
  8. Diaspora Senior Member

    Serbocroatian, English
    I can only speculate as to why we see a general loss of inflection across the IE family, as Sokol said most languages that have lost inflection have been exposed (such as colonial powers) while insular languages have retained them. Some claim that there is a tendency toward simplification and that analytic languages are easier but I think "difficulty" is a relative concept, I have two native languages (English and Serbo-Croatian) and both of them seem very easy and natural even though one is analytic and one synthetic!

    From what I know the last language to lose case endings was Dutch (case endings were dropped from schools in 1934).

    French, Italian and most Slavic languages have simplified their verb inflections (ex. disuse of Past Anterior, Past Subjunctive, Simple Past etc.) However, Slavic languages in turn developed a "complicated" aspect system.

    In Serbo-Croatian some case endings began to merge however in some dialects those case endings are now distinguished by tonality/accent. A strange feature for an IE language.
  9. trance0 Senior Member

    Although a fairly recent innovation, i.e. not originating directly from Proto-Slavic(in the case of BCS), this accent/tonal distinction of some cases is by no means a strange feature for an IE language, at least not for a Slavic one. Slovene also uses accent to distinguish cases in certain declension types(this 'feature' has its historic roots in the Common Slavic) and the same is true for Russian. ;)
  10. Epilio

    Epilio Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain
    Thanks for answering :)

    I don't know if analytic languages are easier than synthetic ones. Easy or difficult is, perhaps, something complicated to define. Nonetheless it may be regarded that, for instance, Latin was much less rigid than her "daughters". Romance languages compel to utilize a complex range of prepositions and articles which limit the expression. IMHO the Latin morphology gave more freedom to make up clauses eloquently than Romance Languages. The evolution of Colloquial Latin into Romance Languages meant to substitute the old case system to a highly developed prepositional system. In addition to this, it was developed a new verbal system with a copula and conjugations that never existed in Latin (f.e in Spanish; subjunctive future).

    Greetings! ;)
  11. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    They're so easy that a kid can learn them.
    But, as indicated before, this is off topic.
    This thread is about the loss of inflection in (certain) IE languages.
    Ponderings and ideas about whether or not analytic/synthetic languages are easier to learn can be posted here.

    moderator EHL
  12. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    In the case of Latin, a change in the "accent" (pitch, loudness, rhythm modulations) of the language as a whole created new regularities and irregularities at the ends of words, including loss of final m and often other consonants too, confusion between e and i and between o and u, etc., thus necessitating the development of new ways to express things.

    For example, prepositions frequently had to be used to distinguish what had been porta with a short a, porta with a long a, and portam with either a final m or perhaps a nasal a, which had all come to sound something like "poorta" or "puorta" with a lengthened vowel or diphthong for the original short o and a short a.

    Inflection of verbs is preserved fairly well in most Romance languages, the ending changes mostly causing different verb classes to follow more uniform patterns. There is more confusion of verb endings in French, where the vowels of the last syllable and final s tended to disappear and personal pronouns had to be used more extensively.
  13. smot_y_ci New Member

    Lithuanian (father), Welsh (mother), English (mother)
    I agree with everyone here - it seems that languages that are in contact with many other languages have a tendency to move towards analysis. I think one of the biggest reasons for English becoming so analytical was because of the huge amount of foreign words (i.e Latin and French) that were borrowed during the Norman invasion. French verbs and nouns (which constitute more than 50% of the English vocab) didn't fit the English inflectional paradigms and so had to be used analytically - you can't apply an Old English declension to a Norman French noun! Because so many words were being imported the inflections were almost lost completely as well as the loss of inflection that was already happening (e.g the merging of the nominative and accusative).

    Also languages seem to retain their inflections better when they're not written down. I think when a languages is written, the gaps between words are constantly emphasized and particles don't merge with nouns and verbs, and then infelctions are lost without the creation of new ones. When a language is spoken thoughtlessly by people without writing, it seems to be more dynamic - prepositions/postpositions get swallowed into the noun turning into case inflections which then continue to be swallowed and eroded away at with new prepositions/postpositions taking their place which in turn get swallowed into the word - almost as if writing tips the balance.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2009
  14. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Do you have any evidence at all to support this claim? How do you measure the intensity of language contact, and what sorts of contact exactly count? How would you even begin to prove the thesis that e.g. Slavic or Baltic languages experienced less language contact than, say, English or Scandinavian languages?

    (You're also very wrong to assume that "everyone here" agrees with whay you wrote.)

    This is completely false. To take an example from a related language, German speakers have no problem applying their declension to French, or any other loanwords: der Ingenieur - des Ingenieurs - den Ingenieuren. Why do you think it was a much greater problem for speakers of Old English?

    I'm also sure that you can easily think of numerous Lithuanian nouns loaned from various other languages that take the usual Lithuanian declensions.

    Again, can you present any data to back up this theory?
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2009
  15. Epilio

    Epilio Senior Member

    Spanish - Spain
    For example the Basque language has borrowed many lexicon from Latin, but its morphology has been preserved very well despite of the contact with other languages throughout the history.

    I guess, as it has been pointed out, that (socio) economic factors are a powerful influence, but they aren't decisive.
  16. smot_y_ci New Member

    Lithuanian (father), Welsh (mother), English (mother)
    I’m not assuming that everyone here agrees with my post, I was just saying that I myself agree with what people have written so far.

    German has borrowed far less extensively from Latin than English. As far as languages are concerned English is a special case – England was under Norman rule for three centuries and during this time the language imported huge amount of French words. The Normans didn’t force the English speakers to learn French; Norman Lords addressed them in Anglo-Norman and didn’t bother themselves with person conjugations or case endings (I’ll find a source for this). Another point is that the Old English declension was far more complex and irregular than that of Modern German (most of the case information is stored in the adjectives and articles in German but in OE it hit the noun itself and was far more irregular) and so it was harder to apply the inflections to French nouns. Also the importation of Latin words into German happened far more gradually and to a much lesser extent. English on the other hand was barely even written down during Norman rule, there were dozens of dialects and no-one to control, decide or standardize how the imported words were to be treated.

    This is true – normally imported words are fitted into existing declension groups and there is a regulating body that decides how they’re declined (though some words are used analytically like “taksi” meaning “taxi”). But then again this is a different case to Old English which didn’t have a regulating body deciding how to apply declensions and conjugations to imported words. Also the scale at which words were being imported into English is incomparable – about 75% of English words are borrowed.

    No I can’t – I don’t think a lot of research has been done on this but it’s my own theory – it may be true, it may not be.

    I'm not saying that contact is the only force behind morphological simplification but I think it's definitely a contributing factor. Of course most Indo-European languages have become more analytical and English was well on its way to analysis when it was brought to the British Isles (the nominative and accusative were already merging).
  17. stultus New Member

    Hebrew, English
    I can also suggest that, at least for the Romance languages, the Latin spoken by the the different peoples conquered by the Romans was not as completely declensed as the classical Latin of Roman laws and poetry (written Latin). That is to say, putting aside the small majority of educated persons who could read and write the adopted language, the majority of the people who learned Latin were already learning it in a vulgar fashion. I may be wrong, but I don't think there was ever a time when the rustic people of Iberia and Italy spoke Latin like Cicero. And from the Vulgar Latin, the "ironing out" and fixing in place of the different regional articles of grammar to a fixed system seems almost necessary.
  18. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I'm not so sure that you can say that, Sokol. I've noticed that when people talk about "inflection" they tend to assume noun inflection, perhaps because it's the one that they find less familiar, or because it's what strikes them the most about classical languages like Latin, ancient Greek, or Old Church Slavonic.

    But what about verbal inflection? My impression is that Romance languages generally have much more intricate conjugations than Slavic languages, for example. This table suggests that there has been a progressive reduction of verbal inflections in several Slavic languages.

    If Larry Trask's description is any guide, I wouldn't be sure of that, either. Several of the verb tenses and moods in Basque seem suspiciously parallel to those of neighbouring Romance languages (such as Spanish). A tendency towards analysis, with compound tenses replacing simple tenses, is also noticeable in his description of Basque grammar.

    My impression is that, while generally speaking Indo-European languages have been getting less inflected, the loss of inflection was very uneven, with different language groups tending to reduce different aspects of inflection, while preserving or sometimes even extending inflection in other domains.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2009
  19. phosphore Senior Member


    I must say that that table is not entirely true.
  20. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Please tell us more... :)
  21. phosphore Senior Member

    I can say only what is wrong about Serbian: I am not sure what "resultative participle" and "past active participle" in that table should mean, but the forms corresponding to those listed as Old Church Slavonic do exist in Serbian.

    However, it is true that a Romance language, like French, has more verbal forms than a Slavic language, like Serbian. In French there are présent, passé simple, passé composé, imparfait, plus-que-parfait, passé antérieur, futur simple, futur antérieur de l'indicatif, présent, passé, imparfait, plus-que-parfait du subjonctif, conditionnel présent and passé, impératif présent and passé, participe présent and passé, infinitif présent and passé, gérondif présent and passé; 22 in total. In Serbian there are prezent, aorist, perfekat, imperfekat, pluskvamperfekat, futur I, futur II, potencijal, imperativ, infinitiv, glagolski pridev radni and trpni, glagolski prilog sadašnji and prošli; 14 in total.
  22. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Yes, although many of those are compound. The simple verbal forms in French are only 11: présent, passé simple, imparfait, futur simple de l'indicatif, présent, imparfait du subjonctif, conditionnel présent, impératif présent, participe présent, infinitif présent and gérondif présent.
  23. smot_y_ci New Member

    Lithuanian (father), Welsh (mother), English (mother)
    I agree, and out of all the Indo-European languages I think the Romance languages have the most intricate verbal system - espcecially Spanish and Portuguese. Although in French half the person conjugations aren't pronounced:

    je fasse, tu fasses, il fasse, elle fasse, ils fassent, elle fassent - are pronounced the same, it's just nous fassions, and vous fassiez that conjugate even though the orthography pretends otherwise.
  24. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Anglo-Norman was a French dialect. Why should ME have lost inflectional suffixes because of the way the Nobility spoke French? And why should the members of the nobility omit case endings of their own French mother-tongue?

    That is a misleading comparison. You would have to compare OE with OHG to build up your argument. The OHG inflection system was very similar to that of OE and certainly not less complex. The simplifications during the MHG period were sufficient to allow German to assimilate a large quantity of Romance words. The question then is: Why didn’t English end up with an inflection system similar to that of modern German?
  25. trance0 Senior Member

    That is a good question, berndf. Why was English so much more ruthless at discarding its inflexion than German and even all the other Germanic languages?
  26. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    I'd definitely like to see this source; to be honest, what you write sounds to me like unwarranted speculation.

    However, in any case, what you write is true for countless other countries and peoples that were similarly ruled by foreign-speaking elites and whose vernacular language absorbed many loanwords from the language of the elite. Some of these vernaculars changed into a more analytic language, others didn't. That's why your theory lacks any predictive power -- in each individual case, you have to invent ad hoc arguments for why this did or did not happen.

    Again, you're just producing impromptu arguments to explain away any contrary evidence. First you claim that English lost its cases (partly) because Old English speakers couldn't apply their declensions to French loanwords. Then, faced with the fact that Germans have no problem declining loanwords, you claim that this is so because their declension system is much simpler than Old English. But then how come Lithuanians have no problem declining loanwords either, what with their unbelievably complex declension system that makes Latin look simple in comparison? Oh, that's because they have a language academy to make sure they don't slack off with declensions. A theory requiring such an infinity of ad hoc arguments to explain away the problematic counterexamples is completely unfalsifiable.

    By the way, there were plenty of Latin loanwords in Old English long before the Norman Conquest, many of them borrowed even before the Saxons set sail for England. See e.g. here for some examples:
  27. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    That depends on what you mean by "intricate". Romance languages definitely have far more verbal inflectional forms (tenses, moods, and aspects) than Slavic ones (with the significant exception of Bulgarian and Macedonian). Generally speaking, there has been a broad trend of dropping synthetic tenses and participles in Slavic languages, and even Common Slavic had already dropped lots of PIE verbal morphology (e.g. the synthetic future tense and the subjunctive mood).

    However, my impression is that the irregularity and complexity of Slavic verbal inflections is nevertheless far greater. My Spanish grammar book covers the entire inflectional morphology of Spanish verbs in about 80 pages -- and this includes the full conjugation tables for all classes of irregular verbs, all with long commentaries and detailed explanations. Compared to Russian or Croatian, this seems miraculously regular, even though these languages have little beyond present tense conjugations in terms of verbal inflections. There is also the issue of verbal prefixes, which, strictly speaking, don't constitute inflections, but they are required to express many things that are handled using inflections in other IE languages. It's a total nightmare even if you already speak a Slavic language -- as a Croatian speaker, I've certainly found Spanish verbs far easier to handle than Russian.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2009
  28. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    There are a great many irregularities with Slavic words - both morphological (formation prefixes for aspect, for example) and inflection. I agree with Athaulf that Slavic verbs are surely much more irregular and difficult to learn than Spanish verbs.

    Sure, most Slavic languages have lost Aorist and Imperfect, so this counts as loss of inflectional endings, and Bulgarian and Macedonian have even radically reduced inflection - but in most Slavic languages the verb still is a very complex chapter of grammar. (It is also for BG+MK, but for different reasons - the existence of Imperfect/Aorist combined with the aspect system; which is another topic however.)
  29. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Having learned both Spanish and Russian I am not sure I would agree. The thing about Russian verbs was the unpredictability of what the imperfective form would be. It was really a case of having to learn two words. Conjugating them was not a problem. I cannot recall anything in Russian that matches conjugating a radical changing verb like sentir.
  30. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    peči > participle pekel (Slovenian)
    As Spanish "sentir - siento" is quite a regular pattern the same is true for those consonant shifts in all Slavic languages. I never found those irregularities very difficult in Spanish, I am used to worse from my native German. :)

    Anyway, there is no point to turn this into a discussion which language has the most complex conjugation. The point really is that inflection overall is much more complex in Slavic languages than in any Romance language; with verbs one could argue that loss of imperfect and aorist in Slavic is balanced by the Slavic aspect system, but that is morphology rather than inflection.

    With adjectives and substantives it is however clear that all Slavic languages except Macedonian and Bulgarian are way more complex than Romance languages.
  31. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    But there's also sintió, sintieron, sintiendo, sintiese (and the rest of the subjunctive), sintiera (and the rest) and sintiere (and the rest). :)
  32. Erick404 Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Portuguese - Brazil
    What about simplicity? I mean, using less words to express some meaning.
    For example, many West European languages use some composed perfect tense when refering to the past, even if they have a synthetic past time form.
    I can't understand why this became so common, since usually 2 or 3 extra syllables must be pronounced. I'm glad that Portuguese retained its Pretérito Perfeito.
    There are many others examples in which going for simplicity sounds rather formal or literary. Of course some constructions are quite artificial, but most came from what people spoke centuries ago.
    It seems like a very illogical collective unconscious.
  33. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Well, yes, but it's still a fairly large class of verbs that behave identically, and their characteristic irregularities can be described in a fairly simple way: e > ie in the present tense and imperative when the stem is stressed, and e > i in gerund and 3rd person preterite. This is sufficient, since the usual rules for subjunctives start from the 1sg present and 3pl preterite forms anyway. Aside from a few such vowel-alternating conjugations, Spanish has only a handful of truly irregular verbs.

    In comparison, Slavic languages tend to have much more numerous and oddly irregular conjugation classes, and in East and South Slavic languages, things are further complicated by the lexical stress, which can also vary in extremely irregular and surprising ways.

    Personally, I've found Spanish conjugations almost Esperanto-like in their regularity compared to Russian. Furthermore, in BCS, the verb system can be problematic even for native speakers, since there are many subtle differences in conjugations between the standard language and regional dialects (using a non-standard conjugation can make you sound uneducated or rustic, even if it sounds totally "logical" to you at the moment).
  34. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    But why stop there with your surprise? Why should any tenses exist at all? Many languages work just fine without them. If it's really important to specify that something refers to the past, present, or future, and it's not clear from the context, you can always use an adverbial phrase to convey that information.
  35. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Fair enough, but we were not talking about irregularity, or difficulty in learning, or complexity in general, were we? This thread is about inflection...
  36. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Right you are, and we should try and stick to that topic. :) We obviously got carried away by the discussion.

    Concerning inflection loss one should also take into account paradigmatic levelling: this has happened to quite some degree in Slovenian - the first person singular of verbs has ending /-m/ which was actually а rare pattern in Old Slavonic but used with frequent verbs (like "to eat" - Russian "есть - ем" while else in Russian ending "-y" is much more frequent).

    Such levelling of paradigm also is a kind of "loss" of inflection; Russian has had little while Slovenian had quite some (also with dual forms).
    A reason (not the only reason) for those many irregularities retained in Russian might have been the strong influence of Church Slavonic on Russian standard language which was not present in Slovenian.

    This probably helps to show that any explanations for inflection loss in IE languages should operate on more levels - there isn't a single "correct" explanation, language change usually is a very complex process triggered by more than one cause.
  37. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Okay, so explain to me why for ofender it's yo ofendo, but for defender it's yo defiendo. :)
  38. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Usually, but not always: estoy - que yo esté, soy - que yo sea, sé - que yo sepa, voy - que yo vaya and a few more.
  39. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Yes, it's indeed very arbitrary (I'd guess that in this case, the former word is a Latinism that was reintroduced into the literary language in its classical form). You do have to memorize which verbs change their stem vowels and which don't. My point was just that the total number of verb paradigms is relatively low, and each one is fairly easy to describe and memorize. I honestly find Slavic paradigms much more chaotic, irregular, and difficult to memorize.

    I had such verbs in mind when I mentioned the "truly irregular" ones above.
  40. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    I don't, and I have experience with some five Romance languages and four Slavic languages. I think nothing beats our verbs. :D
  41. trance0 Senior Member

    Well, even if one would assume that Romance verb morphology beats Slavic verbs, I still wouldn't say nothing beats Romance languages' verbs in complexity. Take Greek for example.
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2009
  42. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Ancient or Modern?
  43. trance0 Senior Member

    Well, Ancient no doubt, while Modern is significantly simplified in comparison, but the same could be said for Romance languages if we compare them with Latin. For example, Modern Greek has retained synthetic mediopassive voice, while the synthetic passive(the mediopassive never existed in Latin!) from Latin has been lost in Romance languages. This is just one example, but all in all they are probably equal in complexity. Then there is Arabic which also has a relatively rich verb morphology, if we continue to Hungarian, there are some original complications there as well which may contribute to more complexity than in Romance languages.

    Here`s a link to Modern Greek verb morphology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Greek_grammar#The_verb

    Here`s something about Hungarian verbs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_verbs

    Here`s something on Arabic verbs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_grammar#Verb .
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2009
  44. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Neither the Greek nor the Hungarian system (I'm familiar with both) scares me, but you may have a point with the Arabic one.
  45. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    In a sense, but Portuguese and Spanish have future subjunctive (even though Spanish doesn't use it much), which didn't exist in Latin. Portuguese is sui generis for having a personal infinitive, something very unusual around the world languages (the closest I've found to it among the languages I'm familiar with is the Turkish infinitive, but it's still not the same as the Portuguese one).
  46. trance0 Senior Member

    I agree that the Portuguese verbal system is a complicated one, probably the most complicated amongst the Romance languages. But surely there are languages with more complex verbal systems, I have heard that Korean has a complex system, plus I find Basque verbs very complex too, look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_verbs.
  47. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Moderator note:

    The topic of this thread is "Loss of inflection in IE languages". The discussion has gone considerably off topic. Please stay focused. Further off topic post will be deleted, especially ones discussing relative complexity of grammars without explaining how knowing this should matter to the topic of the thread.
  48. jHarris4104 New Member

    As a native speaker of English who translates Russian and Chinese, I have long been fascinated, and puzzled, by the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, and particularly by the wholesale loss of most inflections in English. In this respect, English is as far as I know by far the most radical of the Indoeuropean languages. My guess is that this loss was associated with geographical isolation and with the English, ever practical, coming to realize that the old inflections weren't earning their keep, so to speak, so into the pot they go for dinner. To attribute the loss to linguistic pressure from French, Norse, etc., makes no sense, as these languages never discarded their inflectional apparatus.
    There is a larger question. Is there a theoretical explanation for the complex morphology of certain (but not all) ancient languages such as Latin and Greek, and for its retention to a greater or lesser degree in many living languages? We can be confident that the most complex forms were virtually never spoken and rarely written since even literacy was uncommon, but how did these ancient forms come about?
    The synthetic approach seems counterintuitive because it imposes a constant burden of complexity as compared with the fleeter analytic approach, and people are lazy. Even today in Russian, for example, the ordinal system is so complex that natives tend to avoid the oblique cases. On the other hand, to me even as a non-native speaker of Russian, the complex morphology retained by that language has a certain emotional appeal. Although redundant, its presence is still reassuring as a bulwark against chaos. Both English and Chinese can be undisciplined and chaotic in a way that is not possible in highly synthetic languages.
    The historical trend seems to be toward syntactic simplification and a more analytic approach. Can anyone cite an instance going the other way? I wonder what the future of languages like Russian will be. Now that the world is smaller and linguistic pressures are more intense, will highly synthetic languages be unrecognizable in another 100 years?
  49. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Hi, JHarris. I don't personally think the simplification of English grammar, was a conscious choice, but rather something that happened. Modern Scandinavian languages, except Icelandic, perhaps, and Fareose, have quite simple grammar as well -- fewer inflectional forms compared to Old Norse. As for Baltic and Slavic languages, I don't think anything much will change over the next 50 years, or even a hundred. Inflectional forms are a part of the phonological make-up of those languages -- a part of their phonetic harmony. If you change the forms, the language swill not sound the same. Some simplification is possible but, nothing significant will happen, I think. The inflectional forms are a part of the language as a whole, so they are tightly bound with the whole phonetic system. By changing the forms you may destroy the harmony of the language. In Baltic and Slavic languages almost everything is inflected -- the most basic forms, not just redundant, fancy constructions. These languages have always been this way, and this is how they will stay for a very long time, in my opinion.
  50. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I think there is some difficult in comparing the verbal complexity of agglutinative and fusional languages. This is because what may be regarded as separate words or clitics in fusional languages may be regarded as affixes in agglutinative languages. I have never studied an agglutinative language, but I understand that the use of verbal affixes tends to be quite regular. If the language has a large number of affixes capable of being used in combination it is not difficult to set out pages of paradigms that will make a beginner want to go and lie in a darkened room. However, with a different approach, the use of the affixes will not be seen to be a complication. In Spanish pronouns follow an infinitive and are written as one word. No Spanish grammar sets out all the possible combinations which students are required to memorise - just the rules of how they combine.

    I have only studied a few IE languages. Comparing Latin and Spanish, Latin has more verbal forms. However, Latin has few irregular verbs, whilst Spanish has many. My Spanish grammar lists 65 different verbal paradigms (admittedly some are predictable from the rules of orthography). Latin has four paradigms and one mixed paradigm and, excluding compounds, my Latin grammar lists eight irregular verbs. Which language has the more complex verbal system? All I can say is that after two years of learning Latin I had complete control of its verbal system, but that after three years of learning Spanish I was still getting some forms wrong.

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