When I saw Lauren Collins’ “personal history” piece “Love in Translation” (“Learning about culture, communication, and intimacy in my husband’s native French”), I was of course intrigued, but when I started it I realized that it presumed more interest in her relationship with her husband than I could muster up, and much of the stuff about the wild and wacky adventures of learning a Foreign Language (the nouns have genders! the pronouns have formality levels!) has been hashed over by a thousand such pieces. But when I got to this passage, I suddenly perked up:
Linguists have attempted to make an objective assessment of the relative difficulty of languages by breaking them down into parts. One factor is the level of inflection, or the amount of information that a language carries on a single word. The languages of large, literate societies usually have larger vocabularies. You might think that their structures are also more elaborate, but the opposite is generally true: the simpler the society, the more baroque its morphology. In Archi, a language spoken in the village of Archib, in southern Dagestan, a single verb—taking into account prefixes and suffixes and other modifications—can occur in 1,502,839 different forms. This makes sense, if you think about it. Because large societies have frequent interaction with outsiders, their languages undergo simplification. Members of relatively homogeneous groups, on the other hand, share a base of common knowledge, enabling them to pile on declensions without confusing one another. Small languages stay spiky. But, amid waves of contact, large languages lose their sharp edges, becoming bevelled as pieces of glass.
Dagestan! Now you’re talking! Fortunately, the same passage caught the eye of Ben Zimmer at the Log, and he did the spadework on Archi morphology so you and I don’t have to; he also traces her thoughts on linguistic simplicity and complexity to the work of John McWhorter. Check it out.