Thank you, Athaulf, fascinating stuff. I looked up 'ablauted' and felt happy, but the dictionary didn't help me with 'morphology' - if you think I need to understand it to help me understand this discussion then would you please explain it to me - sorry!
refers to the part of grammar that deals with the internal structure of words, i.e. how you combine the smallest units of speech that carry some meaning (known as morphemes) into words. For example, you form the word books
by combining the noun stem book
with the plural suffix -s
; both of these units are individual morphemes, since they don't preserve any meaning if divided further ("s" is already a single sound, but "book" also loses all meaning if anything is taken out of it -- it's meaningless to divide it into, say, b + ook
or boo + k
). Or, the past tense verb form discredited
can be broken into three morphemes (negation prefix dis-
+ verb stem credit
+ past tense suffix -ed
). Obviously, each language has a set of rules that determine how morphemes can be used to form valid words, and the "morphology" of a language refers to this set of rules.
Compared to the majority of the other languages of the world, English has a very simple morphology. This is especially true for English inflections
, i.e. the way words are marked for case, tense, person, gender, etc. Compare, for example, what you can do with a verb in English and Spanish. English has the third person suffix -s
, the past tense suffix -ed
, the gerund suffix -ing
, and that's pretty much it, whereas in Spanish, you have to learn dozens upon dozens of suffixes that a verb takes in different persons, tenses, and moods. Similarly, for English nouns you just have the possessive and plural suffix -s
, whereas in e.g. Latin or Russian you have to learn complicated tables of case declensions. Even the irregular verbs and nouns in English are very simple to handle compared to the morphological irregularities found in these other languages. Old English had a much more complicated morphology than Modern English, comparable to modern German.
The problem, however, is that the simple morphology of English often makes people believe that its grammar is overall simpler than many other languages -- but nothing could be further from the truth. The simplicity of the English morphology is balanced by its extremely complicated syntax, i.e. the grammar rules for combining individual words into valid sentences. It is indeed very easy to learn to form single English words correctly, but it's extremely hard -- unless you're a native speaker, of course -- to learn to form valid English sentences. Selecting the correct order of words, choosing the right prepositions, deciding when to use articles... these rules are harder to master than even the most complicated and irregular tables of conjugations and declensions found in other languages. Hence my objection to people who claim that English is "easy" or that its grammar is "simple". Yes, its morphology is simple, but its overall grammar is every bit as complicated and difficult as any other natural human language.
Why do languages either keep or lose their inflections and other grammar thingies, then? You mention Scandinavian and Slavic languages - what are the thoeries that explain why they are different?
I'm afraid that nobody has a reliable answer to these questions. Language change is a very curious process. Linguists nowadays know how to reconstruct
the process of language change beyond the available documentary evidence in a fairy reliable way, and they also know that language change follows certain rules
whenever it happens. However, what exactly triggers
linguistic change is still a complete mystery. Sometimes a language will keep a complicated case or conjugation system almost unchanged for thousands of years, only to lose it completely in just a few centuries without any apparent reason. Sometimes a language closely related to yours, and spoken only a 3-4 hour drive away, will diverge more than another related language spoken a thousand miles away in the same period. Sometimes the language changes so rapidly that a few centuries old documents are totally incomprehensible to a modern speaker without special training, and sometimes it changes so slowly that one can read them almost as easily as yesterday's newspaper.
Now, in each individual case, it's easy to formulate plausible-sounding theories about why a given language has changed drastically or remained relatively stable. The problem is that such theories usually explain everything and nothing. They can't be refuted in the particular cases for which they are tailored, but they also provide no testable predictions, because for any combination of historical circumstances and language change (or lack thereof), you can find some languages that passed through that exact combination. In particular, as I've already mentioned, if you observe a large enough number of examples, you'll see that there is no apparent connection between foreign rule, extensive language contact, and language change, except in the special case of creolization.
Pedro y La Torre, you mention influence from Scandinavian simplifing English - how does this work? Surely there wouldn't be enough people travelling to and fro and talking together for the languages to interact?
Actually, Old English seems to have had more contact with Old Norse than with Norman French (see my above post about this topic).
Coming back to creolisation - what type of grammar things survive this process and why? English verbs like 'sing sang sung', have presumably survived all this time because they are just so common and basic.
Well, the case declensions of basic words were also common and basic, and yet they disappeared completely. My native language has a very complicated case system, and believe me, we feel that choosing the right case for a noun is as basic and fundamental as anything else.
Now, as for the grammar of creoles, you can find some interesting info in, for example, this
article. Generally, creoles have greatly simplified and regularized inflections compared to their parent languages (this of course doesn't mean that this simplification isn't offset by complications in other areas!). If a language such as Old English passed through creolization, it is likely that the ablauted irregular verbs would have been uniformly regularized (sing-singed
, etc. -- assuming that the past tense suffix -ed
wouldn't have disappeared too, and it likely would have!). Some ablauted verbs have indeed been regularized, but hundreds have remained to the present day.
Maybe it was partly this lack of written 'English' that led to it getting simpler as it's the written language that tends to retain the grammatical niceties and spoken language that moves on.
Again, you're falling into a misconception with these "niceties".
Yes, some grammatical niceties get lost as a language changes, but at the same time, new niceties are invented in other areas of the same language (not consciously, of course, but entirely spontaneously, without anyone even being aware of what's going on). And furthermore, the grammar of any exalted written language is merely the invention of the common folk from the time before this language attained its exalted status. The case system of Old English was alive and vigorous at the time when its speakers were illiterate pagan barbarians -- and it was obviously invented even earlier, when its speakers were in an even ruder state -- so it doesn't make sense to assume that a lack of written tradition would cause its disappearance.
It just happened by historical accident that we're living in a time in which Germanic languages, and especially English, have been simplifying their morphology and complicating their syntax for the past thousand years or so. It could have easily been the other way around by sheer chance.
I agree that English picked up lots of French vocabulary (especially for legal terms, posh (!) foods and the like) from this time, but was it a time of rapid grammatical simplification too? Did we lose our word genders then, for example?
Some vestiges of grammatical gender that are now gone were still preserved in Early Middle English (more info here
). There are also good indications that the gender system in the spoken language had already eroded significantly by the time of the Norman Conquest. So, even if the majority of this loss happened during the Norman rule, it can't be concluded reliably that the loss was caused by the contact with Norman French.
Hey, that's cheating!!
If there are other things then you should mention them - it'd be interesting and anyway, how can I ask questions about them if you just hint at strong but secret arguments against the 'creolisation hypothesis' with an 'and so on'!!
Well, I hope you've found some more interesting stuff in this post.
Unfortunately, both time and space are too limited for branching into every area relevant for this fascinating topic...