Not How Kids Speak.

I like John McWhorter, really I do. He’s well-informed about his specialty of creole languages and he’s genial and writes well; I once called him “a favorite here at LH.” But just this past January I said “I have often expressed a combination of irritation and admiration when it comes to John H. McWhorter”; like so many men accustomed to a bully pulpit, he loses sight of what he actually knows and blathers about whatever pops into his head as if he were an expert on everything. For this reason, I was pleased to see Carrie Gillon and Megan Figueroa (aka the Vocal Fries) take him down briskly and entertainingly for his thoughts on “kidspeak”:

Both of us, but especially Megan, who is a literal scholar of literal kid speak, take extreme issue with McWhorter’s notion of “kidspeak” in his article Why Grown-Ups Keep Talking Like Little Kids in The Atlantic. Kidspeak is a thing — as we’ll get to — but what he describes is not that.

But before all that, we do want to point out the points where he is right. He correctly notes that –y is used to create adjectives. He also points out that women tend to be on the forefront of language change and that language change is a natural part of language existing. And he’s right that playful language of the “pilly” type is a way of softening the message. But none of these things have anything to do with how children speak.

He claims — based on exactly nothing — that “pilly” is “wonderfully childish”. Can you imagine a child using that word in the way McWhorter describes (as a particularly debauched time of life)? We can’t. He mentions things that kids do, in fact, do, but none of them are anything like the –y that creates adjectives. For example, kidspeak involves omitting words, yes. However, omitting words is not for any rhetorical effect, as it is with adults. Children omit words because they haven’t got the system down yet. They can’t speak in full sentences yet (for various linguistic and cognitive reasons). They also “over-regularize” rules — as in his “feets” example, where the -s gets used on a noun that (for most speakers) has an irregular plural form (“feet”). […]

Another thing that he gets completely wrong is “because X”. “Because X” (e.g., We’re writing this because anger) is not an example of kidspeak — you have to be a fairly sophisticated speaker of English to be able to use this construction. He argues it’s kidspeak because it’s like a child not giving an answer, but that is absolutely, 100% incorrect. “Because X” gives you an answer. (Anger. Anger is the answer!)

The things he lumps together as kidspeak are mostly sophisticated adult uses of language that are playful and have particular rhetorical effects. […] If adults were really trying to sound like kids, then they would trade in all of their “r” sounds for “w”s (e.g. “ride” becomes “wide”), omit the unstressed syllables in words with two or more syllables (e.g. “banana” becomes “nana”), and call all animals with four legs “doggie”. […]

The idea that 20 year olds (or 40+ year olds — Carrie uses all of the things he discusses and has for quite some time) would copy 5 year olds is laughable. And harmful. When we plead for journalists (and others) to #AskALinguist, we mostly mean linguists who actually know what they are talking about. Embarrassingly, McWhorter does not understand how kids or adults actually speak.

Harsh but fair. Stop blathering, men with megaphones! And keep giving ’em hell, Vocal Fries! (A tip o’ the LanguageHat hat to bulbul for the link.)

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    McW’s article is unfortunate. I think that he is on to something, but he’s picked a highly misleading name for it (and thence contrived to mislead himself.) It’s not ‘kidspeak’, but the adults deploying it do probably imagine themselves as using childish forms, insofar as they think about it at all. It’s just that they’re wrong.

    It seems a pity to deploy the locution “harness the confidence of a mediocre white man” in the context of criticism of John McWhorter. I’m sure this was supposed to be some generic confident mediocre white man, but a kindly editor might have pointed out the double infelicity.

  2. Nonsense, they’re not talking about him at all. The full sentence: “And as tempting as it is to fake-it-til-you-make-it or harness the confidence of a mediocre white man, we refuse to speak authoritatively about a subject when we don’t have the authority to do so.” They’re talking about themselves and the temptations they reject, and they do so with verve and accuracy. The world is full of mediocre white men who need to shut up.

  3. The idea that 20 year olds (or 40+ year olds — Carrie uses all of the things he discusses and has for quite some time) would copy 5 year olds is laughable.

    There are people of this age who do that all the time.

    They are called parents.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    When I said I was sure that it was a generic mediocre white man that they meant, I meant just that. I have no doubt that they would be horrified at any other (patently foolish) interpretation.

    It still strikes me as unfortunate in context.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    Now if JMcW had only been talking about the tendency for adults to dress like children, that would have been impossible to take exception to … surely …?

    Kidgarb.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Surely the power of the internet ought to make it easier for mediocre people of all sexes and races to blather on about things they don’t actually understand? The notion that some white dude doing so is somehow necessarily doing so at the expense of some more “diverse” potential blatherer seems to unconciously presume the scarcity-of-bandwidth constraint that our marvelous modern technology has supposedly overcome.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB:

    I find your comment both true and … liberating.

  8. John Cowan says:

    Scarcity of bandwidth is scarcely unknown, and attention remains as scarce as it ever was.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps attention remains as scarce as it ever was (although it can perhaps flit more quickly and frictionlessly from shiny object A to shiny object B than was possible before?), but as old-timey “gatekeeping” institutions are disintermediated or destroyed, it becomes harder to blame them for X unjustly getting more attention than Y. So we are compelled to blame vaguer and more amorphous forces. Perhaps sinister foreigners? Now obviously the old gatekeepers are not completely gone, and it is presumably advantageous for Prof. McWhorter to have his writing on the Atlantic’s website rather than on http://www.somedudeshoutingintothevoid.com.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW on the separate topic of criticizing Prof. McWhorter, I think there have been other instances of him trying to come up with a catchy or at least would-be catchy non-technical-sounding moniker for a linguistic phenomenon in a way that perhaps in practice obscured more than it illuminated. Perhaps that’s a hazard of self-consciously trying to reach out to a popular audience?

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    sinister foreigners

    It’s what I aspire to be. Unfortunately the power that I was assured I would wield seems … elusive. I blame the sinister indigenes.

  12. Don’t look at me, I’m dexterous.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Unfortunately the sinister-foreigner threat posed by the denizens of Wales has not been taken seriously in the fearful popular imagination in recent centuries, as the Earl of Northumberland’s conspiracy with Owen Glendower continues to fade from memory. Perhaps Plaid Cymru ought to get working on that, in hopes of attaining for its constituents the prominence in fear-of-the-Other circles currently enjoyed by e.g. the Israelis and the Russians.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    Is it not enough that my eyes are too close together?
    Did I grow this moustache in vain? Has all my twirling practice been for nothing?

  15. “Her English is too good,” he said, “which clearly indicates that she is foreign.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bummer.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    Talking of English-lexifier Atlantic creoles (we were, you know, you just didn’t notice), a kind person got me Kofi Yakpo’s A Grammar of Pichi for my birthday. [Fernando Po creole.] Best account I’ve yet come across of one of those languages. At 500+ entirely unpadded pages, it’s a sort of counterargument in itself to John McWhorter’s standing views about creole exceptionalism. It’s got lexical tone! It’s got a distinct narrative perfective! What more could you want? (Well, exuberant polysynthesis, obviously, but non omnia possumus omnes.)

    It’s a weird thing to see the examples happily code-switching not between creole and English but creole and Spanish.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    It’s got lexical tone!

    I once ran across a paper saying that plenty of English-based creoles have lexical tone, but no French-based ones do, because French doesn’t have any trace of lexical stress that could be reinterpreted.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Did I grow this moustache in vain?

    “I published a response arguing that Higginbotham was entirely wrong about the facts, and he replied indignantly … that I was completely wrong about him being wrong, and naturally I believe that he is completely wrong about me being wrong about him being wrong. (These things tend to drag on; in future work, Higginbotham will argue that my eyes are too close together, and I will argue that, on the contrary, his head is too round.)” —Geoffrey Pullum (citations omitted)

    Perhaps Plaid Cymru ought to get working on that

    Burninate the English! Meibion Glyndŵr am byth!

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think burning the unoccupied holiday homes of the English was eventually found to be an ineffectual way of inspiring terror. Or achieving much of anything, really. I doubt whether Glendower himself would have been impressed by his factitious progeny. At all.

    My own feeling is that singing in Welsh is much more likely to produce the dread we seek to inspire. Especially the way I myself do it.

  21. Surely the power of the internet ought to make it easier for mediocre people of all sexes and races to blather on about things they don’t actually understand?

    Works in my case. But I suspect it only shifts the burden from my relatives and acquaintances to strangers.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s OK, D.O. We’re all volunteers here. We knew what we were getiing into when we signed up.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    I regret to say that this recent piece makes singing in Welsh come off as all cuddly and approachable and inclusive and not at all evocative of dread. I do somewhere have a CD anthology of the ’80’s indiepop stylings of Ffa Coffi Pawb, but they probably could have used a more aggressive guitar sound.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/12/welsh-language-party-spotify-culture

  24. SFReader says:

    Bless the Internet, without it, I wouldn’t have strong convictions about so many things!

  25. What makes McWhorter’s blathering incredibly dangerous is that he also believes, for example, that the people currently pointing out that racism exists in America are also all literally acting like children, and isn’t afraid to use his soapbox to point this nonsensical observation out in a pseudo-academic way (see “Notably, however, the approved methodology of persuasion is based on the impulses of the child….” from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/why-third-wave-anti-racism-dead-end/578764/).

    Infantilizing anyone you don’t agree with plays right into all the current Fox News talking points about college campuses being full of “SJWs”, “snowflakes”, people needing “safe spaces”, and so on. The point behind all those talking points, of course, is that those currently in power or benefiting from current power structures should not be challenged in any way – that anyone who challenges or questions things in any way, or protests for any sort of change to the status quo, is simply being a whiny infant.

    This mindset is poison, and it’s directly leading to the creation of a generation of sociopathic (mostly) white (mostly) males being brainwashed to become refugee-despising MAGA trolls, incels, white nationalists, anti-feminists, “alpha males”, and, well, eventually mass murderers, via rabbit-holes of youtube recommendations for the likes of “Intellectual Dark Web” figures like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.

    McWhorter is not Jordan Peterson in terms of pseudo-academic poisoning of public discourse, but he’s not far off. Maybe somewhere between Pinker and Peterson.

  26. Stu Clayton says:

    Urbandictionary has this definition of “vocal fry”:

    # The artificial, gravelly, voice-lowering way to speak that makes you sound like a ditz. The opposite of upspeak, but having the same negative effect on others. #

    and also this one:

    # A purring or rasp in the lower register of the voice, particularly at the trailing end of a word or sentence. Vocal fry had been around for a long time without attracting criticism (go listen to Billie Holiday), until someone decided there were too many women’s voices in the media, and needed some excuse to criticize them without appearing sexist. Now vocal fry is one of the most egregious of sins. Men can have vocal fry too, but will never be called out on it. #

    I am not often in a position to hear women speak English (in contrast to reading the English they write), so I’m uncertain if this is what I have heard from some youngish American women – a sentence-final sound as if choking on something sticky.

  27. The world is full of mediocre white men who need to shut up.

    That’s not a respectful thing to say about any group of people.

  28. Stu Clayton says:

    Aidan, what you say is a respectful way of saying “shut up!”. One could almost believe that morals make manners, if one didn’t know already that it works the other way around as well.

  29. @ aidan until, for example, this stops happening, I think it’s an acceptable hyperbole:

    https://hbr.org/2017/04/female-supreme-court-justices-are-interrupted-more-by-male-justices-and-advocates

  30. @JWB: I just registered that domain for the blog I’ll never get around to making. Thanks.

  31. Anatoly says:

    If group identity posturing must be present, I strongly prefer that the authors lead with it, to let the reader know the lay of the land, so to speak. Thus it’s good of the Vocal Fries to open with the “mediocre white man” jab, to signal that the piece is not for me and I can stop reading.

  32. AJP Crown says:

    The world is full of mediocre white men who need to shut up.

    If they needed to shut up, there wouldn’t be a problem.

  33. Stu Clayton says:

    Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries are good about up-fronting their agenda. They usually appear in pairs. The Mormons wear blue suits, and the Witnesses are clutching pamphlets. Both knock on your door at times when reasonable people are already down the pub.

    It’s equally easy to recognize secular group identity posturing. Words such as “hegemonic”, and phrases such as “I am concerned that” and “it’s high time that”, give the game away.

  34. Stu Clayton says:

    Crown: If they needed to shut up, there wouldn’t be a problem.

    Trouble is, they don’t always get what they need.

    Yes, I’m aware that the Stones said the opposite. I find my equanimity undisturbed by being in disagreement with the Stones.

  35. John Cowan says:

    I have a great more respect for those who say “I have a concern” than for those who say “I am concerned that” (though I have been one of the latter on occasion).

  36. Stu Clayton says:

    I know that upspeak has been discussed here, but this “vocal fry” (possibly under another name) ?

  37. Thus it’s good of the Vocal Fries to open with the “mediocre white man” jab, to signal that the piece is not for me and I can stop reading.

    Glad to see someone taking a strong stand in favor of the poor mediocre white guys, who have so little representation!

  38. Roman Hruska: “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

  39. I agree with Anatoly – that kind of identitarian point-scoring is bad taste regardless of the target, and bad for discourse in general.

  40. Anatoly says:

    @Hat: On the contrary, I’d like to think I’m contributing to diversity by not emburdening Vocal Fries with one more mediocre white man as a reader. Surely they have too many already.

    I wish them every success in conquering the market of language punditry that comes seasoned with group identity jabs. It’s simply too pungent a taste for my unrefined palate, that’s all.

  41. John Cowan says:

    Especially the way I myself [sing in Welsh]

    I fear that in this modern age, when the weird is more likely interesting or amusing than frightening (pace Lovecraft), a bunch of people singing “My hen laid a haddock, one hand oiled a flea, Glad farts and centurions threw dogs in the sea” is simply not going to be productive of terror. (There are many folk-process variants including “on top of a tree” in the first line, but I believe this is the Ur-Nigel text.)

    “In the first selection [from E.R. Eddison] the speakers are a little crazy, and in the second [from Kenneth Morris] they are not only crazy but Welsh.” I have always admired that thoroughly Le Guinian superlative.

  42. I agree with Anatoly – that kind of identitarian point-scoring is bad taste regardless of the target, and bad for discourse in general.

    And I agree with the “social justice warriors” that insisting on good taste and polite discourse in practice inevitably favors the status quo and entrenched power structures. Women, blacks, gay people, and others have always been told to speak quietly and politely and wait their turn, and somehow nothing ever happens until they get loud and impolite and start blocking traffic. I may be a mediocre white man who is in general in favor of polite discourse, but I applaud all such cheerful point-scoring, bad taste or no bad taste.

  43. We mediocre white men have all the representation we need, and I don’t see that changing soon. I have no problems with occasionally being overridden by other voices. However, just because a lot of mediocre white men have a certain opinion it is not automatically wrong — I see too much of that sort of ad hominem argumentation from so-called SJWs, and I don’t like being defined as wrong because of who I am. (But that was no different when I was on the sidelines of the right-thinking almost-revolutionary left forty years ago — never trust anybody over thirty and all that). What is different now, I think, it that the more identity conscious groupings repel much larger numbers of potential allies by taking very oppositional stances, and I hope they realize that that’s what they are doing.

    Some of my friends have been viciously attacked and deeply hurt when they were trying to engage on the side of good, solely because they were seen as the wrong kind. I’m sure the pendulum will swing and that will all have been sorted by the time my grandchildren are grown — in the meantime there are lots of sick and starving children in the world that need my donations and my happiness does not depend on helping people who don’t want my help.

  44. Yes, I know what you’re talking about, and I’ve stopped participating at MetaFilter because of what I call “puritanical progressivism.” I remember the ’60s, when my fellow antiwar protestors were often far too willing to demonize all US soldiers and idolize the Viet Cong and Uncle Ho. I was perfectly aware that Vietnam was going to suffer under Communist rule, but the US had no business trying to bring its vision of world order to other countries, and you can’t be too picky about your comrades if you want to be effective. The war was wrong, rule by mediocre white men is wrong, and one has to keep those basic points as lodestars and just deal with the fact that people, even one’s allies, are imperfect and sometimes appalling.

  45. And really, anyone who can’t handle the genial snarking of the Vocal Fries is way too sensitive. Try Valerie Solanas sometime:

    “Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.

    Now, there’s some bracing social justice warring!

  46. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “mediocre white man” line is in parallel with the non-race-or-sex-specific “fake it til you make it,” which I think is understood to be a tactical approach to success that can be and is used by ambitious persons of various races and sexes. Perhaps what they are saying (trying as an intellectual exercise to read them as charitably as possible) is that faking it ’til you make it is easier if you are not unduly plagued by self-doubt and to the contrary have a degree of self-confidence that is perhaps excessive given your objective mediocrity. And perhaps for various historical/cultural reasons that tactically-useful degree of excess self-confidence is not evenly distributed among sexes and races. That’s obviously an empirical claim that could be true or false (and won’t necessarily be stable over time) but it’s not crazy-sounding. But where do you go with that? If on average members of certain historically marginalized or underrepresented groups have more difficulty achieving certain kinds of success because they on average have less self-confidence, aggression, or risk-tolerance, do you try to teach the ambitious of all demographic groups how to develop those traits, or do you just indulge in utopian daydreams about an alternative society where none of that would matter? Or (there are usually more than two options) do you stop treating someone else’s metric of worldly success (whether money, fame, power, or some combination thereof) as the sole objectively valid one against which you ought to compare your own life, find it wanting, and thus find society in dire need of structural reform?

  47. Yeah, these are difficult issues and there are no easy answers. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

  48. John Cowan says:

    Well, I’ll settle for a definition of “worldly success” that includes an absence of human sacrifice, witch-smelling, slavery, war, and other forms of violence, as well as the lack of legal inequality and oppression and having to believe that “not being persecuted by the police is a privilege”.

  49. SFReader says:

    I marvel how fast “mediocre white man” racial slur (but what else is it?) was embraced by posters.

    Reminds me of the “deplorables” meme which won Trump the presidency.

  50. It’s not a racial slur (nobody’s saying all white men are mediocre), it’s a description of a vast number of people who have had unwarranted influence over public affairs for many generations. You’re welcome to disagree, but I will assume in that case that you simply haven’t been paying enough attention.

  51. John Cowan says:

    Ooops, bad mistake there: for “right” read “privilege”. Hattic powers to the rescue?

  52. Done!

  53. SFReader says:

    I am pretty sure it would be a racial slur if they called McWhorter “mediocre black man”

  54. people needing “safe spaces”

    This is an actual thing, and trying to frame it as a fiction invented by Fox News is, uh, mildly put, uncharitable. The original version is simply about physical safety, which people do need and deserve; several of the generalizations to safety-from-slurs etc. are quite defensible as well.

    For that matter, “Social Justice Warrior” was originally coined among social justice activists with a specific meaning: for overzealous all-form-no-substance just-here-to-pick-fights people … of whom AG’s unprompted vitriol is making at least a strong impression of tbh.

    (For that matter, also SJWs sensu strictu are indeed fairly often mediocre white men. Or, as might be more relevant depending on the topic, e.g. mediocre cishets or mediocre middle-class Anglos.)

  55. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m all for rudeness. There’s plenty to be rude about. And I personally have far too little insight to realise that I am mediocre, so I am quite untroubled by this particular example.

    However, to be effective, rudeness needs to be properly targeted. Otherwise you pointlessly alienate people who are in fact your potential allies.

    If you don’t think you need allies, great. Hegemony is already yours. In fact you are presumably The Man. You can be as rude as you like about us peasants. Nothing we can do about it.

    If you don’t care about being effective, fire away. But if you’re not interested in making things better, what’s the point of being rude?

  56. Stu Clayton says:

    To keep impertinent pussies at bay, is one point of being rude. You conflate “being effective” and “making things better” for no reason that I can see.

    This is no grand The Man thing. It’s more effective to swat a fly than to spend hours trying to usher it out the door in due dignity.

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    McWhorter is not Jordan Peterson in terms of pseudo-academic poisoning of public discourse, but he’s not far off.

    Come on. There’s rhetorical hyperbole, and there’s stark nonsense. “Not far off”, indeed!

  58. J.W. Brewer says:

    I assume David Eddyshaw’s last question was a purely rhetorical one, since surely he does not have so naive a view of human nature to be surprised that humans often have agendas other than effectiveness in pursuing some stated and laudable-sounding goal?

  59. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Stu:

    I had foolishly omitted the consideration that plenty of people wish to be effective in making things worse. My bad.

    @JWB:

    Indeed, yes. Posturing is indeed popular, and both cheaper and safer than effective action.

    The “you” I was addressing was a fine person like ourselves, interested above all in the deployment of rudeness as part of our greater Cause.

  60. SFReader says:

    Is there a safe space for mediocre white men?

  61. Stu Clayton says:

    @David:

    All is forgiven. Every day, in every way, we strive to stop loopholes in the logic.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    Is there a safe space for mediocre white men?

    Circumspice.

  63. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s Whites without the membership qualifications.

  64. This is an actual thing, and trying to frame it as a fiction invented by Fox News is, uh, mildly put, uncharitable. […] overzealous all-form-no-substance just-here-to-pick-fights people … of whom AG’s unprompted vitriol is making at least a strong impression of tbh.

    I think it is you who are being uncharitable; AG is not in the least “trying to frame it as a fiction invented by Fox News” but pointing out that Fox uses it as a frequent talking point/slur, which is obviously true. I’m flabbergasted that you could read AG’s entire comment and come away with the idea that he is some sort of Fox News acolyte.

  65. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s Whites without the membership qualifications.

    No damned nonsense of merit about it!

  66. I am pretty sure it would be a racial slur if they called McWhorter “mediocre black man”

    Of course it wouldn’t; it would be a straightforward description, accurate or not depending on how you judge the level of McWhorter’s mediocrity. If you’re implying that some people would mistakenly assert it was a racial slur, well sure, just as some people are mistakenly asserting something similar about the Vocal Fries’ harmless snark. Some people love to take offense.

  67. Stu Clayton says:

    They take what they can get.

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    it would be a straightforward description

    In a better world, or indeed a logical world, a straightforward description could not be a slur, but in the one we inhabit, I think this is unfortunately not the case. Can you imagine the Vocal Fries actually saying it (as opposed to just “mediocre man”)?

    The introduction of an irrelevant characterisation into a negative description, even if true, can make all the difference, by implying that the negative trait is linked with that characterisation. This is just plain semantics, not SJW hypersensitivity. Some of my forebears were (no doubt) thieves. I would be foolish to be offended by their being called thieves if this was demonstrably so. I would feel offended to hear them described as thieving Welshmen (however accurate the description might have been.)

  69. Trond Engen says:

    Of course it wouldn’t; it would be a straightforward description, accurate or not depending on how you judge the level of McWhorter’s mediocrity.

    I don’t agree. It would be a slur by gricean implication, since ‘black man’ would be uncalled for in the context unless his blackness would in any way be relevant to his (theoretical) mediocricity. What makes ‘mediocre white men’ a non-slur is that within a larger discourse of systemic privilege it’s a pointed description of a certain outlook, and the gricean implication would be that their whiteness is relevant for their point of view being heard rather than their mediocrity as such. That is not to say that it’s very helpful, since it can obviously be alienating to those who do fit the description ‘white men’ and are unprivileged for other, though inherently related, reasons. Ref. the debate (or maybe rather non-debate) over white privilege vs. rich privilege vs. cultural privilege vs. educated privilege.

  70. David Eddyshaw says:

    Or you could put it like that. Curse you and your well-informed and persuasive clarity, Trond Engen!

  71. Stu Clayton says:

    Another deplorable facet of Trond is that his English puns are always wittier than mine, which rarely rise above the facetious.

  72. It would be a slur by gricean implication, since ‘black man’ would be uncalled for in the context

    Good point. Curse you and your well-informed and persuasive clarity, Trond Engen!

  73. SFReader says:

    I never understood SJW logic.

    OK, whites oppressed blacks and men oppressed women in the past, but if now blacks start oppressing whites and women oppressing men, how can it be a social justice?

    To me it just seems adding more injustice.

  74. Nobody’s oppressing whites or men, for heaven’s sake. Asking for respect and decent treatment is not oppression.

  75. David Eddyshaw says:

    if now blacks start oppressing whites and women oppressing men, how can it be a social justice?

    I don’t think one needs to be fearful of this coming about any time soon.

    Unless one means “oppression” in the sense that US Christians like to imagine that they are oppressed. As one who used to live in a city where churches got burnt down at fairly frequent intervals, this is not a sense of the word that I have great sympathy for.

  76. J.W. Brewer says:

    So all that is necessary to make it a non-slur is a “larger discourse” within which blackness (or whateverness) is indeed relevant to mediocrity? Those larger discourses already exist in the world. Most of their proponents may not have read enough Foucault to phrase them in that sort of way, but that could be remedied.

    I would say that a better description of slurness is probably needed anyway, because as an empirical matter there seem to be all sorts of applicable social conventions and taboos that mean in practice that “that can’t be a slur because it’s arguably relevant and thus not gratuitous” will sometimes be accepted as a complete defense but other times not.

  77. David Eddyshaw says:

    there seem to be all sorts of applicable social conventions and taboos that mean in practice that “that can’t be a slur because it’s arguably relevant and thus not gratuitous” will sometimes be accepted as a complete defense but other times not.

    I think that is, generally speaking, not a bug but a feature. God preserve us from waking up one day to find ourselves in a society where the criterion of whether something is a slur or not has been firmly fixed from on high regardless of the context and the participants in the conversation.

    It is a good argument for not being too free with well-meaning legislation in such matters. Primum non nocere.

  78. Yes, I agree with David Eddyshaw.

  79. SFReader says:

    I don’t know, these things tend to happen very quickly.

    Soviet Union was big on social justice in 1920s and as part of that there was an officially declared policy of oppression of the “formerly privileged classes and nationalities”.

    Ten years later, many of these “formerly privileged” were simply rounded up and shot.

    So this kind of rhetoric should make people nervous.

  80. I never read McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. That title is such a condensed caricature of Old Man vs. Damn Kids that I didn’t feel the need to read past the front cover.

    (I gather that it is about how the Beatles—I mean, Hip Hop—is just noise, and why using “ain’t”—I mean, using “like”—is the beginning of the end of everything.)

  81. Stu Clayton says:

    It happens that I’m reading La Volonté de Savoir just now for the second time, the first being in 1993. Again I wonder how the people that squabbled over Foucault back then could have read the same editions as I, given the squabbling. I surmise that they were derailed by the cod-political metaphors, the “lines of penetration” fluff. I would like to think that reading only this one volume would be “reading enough Foucault” to understand the discourse idea, but it rarely works out like that.

  82. David Eddyshaw says:

    these things tend to happen very quickly.

    I’m keeping on my daughter’s good side just in case. When the firing squad comes, I’m hoping she’ll intercede with the sisters.

  83. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve seen people proudly call themselves SJWs often enough that I’ve had a discussion about the culture shock the word warrior gives me.

    I’m flabbergasted that you could read AG’s entire comment and come away with the idea that he is some sort of Fox News acolyte.

    …Nobody claimed or implied he’s any sort of Faux Noise acolyte.

  84. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m reading La Volonté de Savoir

    I’d be interested in your views. Wikipedia tells me that the ineffable Roger Scruton doesn’t like it, which is a strong recommendation in my book.

    The Seventh Function of Language made me wonder if there might be more to Foucault than I had assumed in my smug philistine nation-of-shopkeepers-ness. (OK, perhaps not a deep reason …)

  85. I think it would be pretty comical if and when mediocre white men will be advised to stop blathering lest their conduct will reflect poorly on their race and gender.

    In my blathering opinion, if you are trying to make a specific point (“adults do not speak like children when they use innovative, simplified, or playful language”) it is better to steer clear of generalized swipes at large groups of bystanders and when your are trying to make a general statement about shutting up the whole classes of people, it is better not to focus exclusively on a single mistake by a single dude. But it’s just my analytical mediocrity speaking. The true heights of invective masterfully blend both.

  86. DM, why the word warrior shocks you? It is sorta normal American word. For example, today’s headline from your favorite vulperian news source “Liz Harrington: Biden is no working class warrior”

  87. And I agree with the “social justice warriors” that insisting on good taste and polite discourse in practice inevitably favors the status quo and entrenched power structures.

    Eh, I think fighting effectively – and even fighting hard – is somewhat orthogonal to fighting dirty. Take things like the sit-ins or lie-ins of the 60s, which were disruptive in the best ways, yet surprisingly polite (or better, dignified) in all but the most legalistic senses. Petty rhetorical potshots are entirely the reverse, serving only to alienate potential allies and roughen the discourse without accomplishing anything of substance – i.e. all heat, no light.

    To elaborate a bit, I would say that good advocacy requires both sticks and carrots, and if you want to persuade your opponents to abide by generalizable norms of good behavior, it helps to offer some shows of good faith that you’re willing to abide by these norms yourself, that you aren’t just using this advocacy as a cover for your own gratification, and that there will be a place for everyone in the world you’re fighting for. There are defenses to be made of demographically coded insults directed “up” – about how they don’t sting nearly as much, they’re a justifiable expression of resistance under the circumstances, etc. – but these tend to go over very poorly with their targets and can very easily look like excuses for hypocrisy (and with good reason, because we’re all human). Which leads me to one further point, which is that resentment in itself is bad. Hatred is harmful to our mental health and corrosive to the human spirit, and it doesn’t always dissipate so easily after the fight is won. Although some degree of it may be inevitable in liberation struggles, I think it’s a bad idea to cultivate it by choice.

  88. J.W. Brewer says:

    @David E. My point about slurness being more complicated than Trond’s description seemed at face value to suggest was not intended to say that was either a bug or a feature. I was just being descriptive. I suppose if one wanted to go deeper into the bug/feature notion one could wax pop-Foucauldian about how neither of those are actually neutral labels with some objective validity but instead are part of the hegemonic discourse of whoever is exercising power in the situation, inevitably aimed at creating some sort of deceptive scrim of legitimacy disguising raw political power. (I say pop-Foucauldian because whether an actual reading of Foucault by a sufficiently sophisticated reader will reveal a different thinker than what he is taken by his mediocre acolytes to be is neither here nor there.)

    @SFR: The more precise Soviet parallel might be the wild swoops in language policy during the Stalin era where various non-Russian regional/minority languages were first actively encouraged and then after the winds shifted the enthusiastic young scholars and experts who had helped to promote them were sometimes determined to be counterrevolutionary saboteurs and shot. A warning to linguistics enthusiasts to be careful about signing up with a revolutionary regime which as of today appears to be in harmony with their own enthusiasms.

  89. Yeah, these are difficult issues and there are no easy answers. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

    There are simple but maybe not easy answers. Treat people with respect!

    I have my third attempt at a professional exam pending at the end of this month. The body examining me would have been, thirty years ago, predominantly men. It now has a slight predominance of women, a more pronounced predominance in the non-coal-face, predictable, self-regulatory positions, including the examiners. Any interaction (application for posts, professional exams) with the body I have had where my sex was evident, and especially, where my hairline, as a bald man unremarkable in his appearance otherwise, has been unrewarding and negative, where less-competent female colleagues sail through. Any interaction where these things have been concealed has been friction-free and positive. Anyone who deals with me at any length in my profession has no issue with my competence and interaction; the same female colleagues who sail through are honestly surprised I don’t progress.

    All circumstantial, and I am a capable man who can bore you at length with reason to believe in me, I will manage this. But if you want to disrespect large groups of people on the basis of their race or their sex, go fuck yourself.

  90. Maybe we can get back to the sins of McWhorter? I think the topic of the cheeky little aside by the Vocal Fries (which is not even quoted in my post) has pretty much exhausted itself and us.

  91. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB:

    I may have missed your point (which would not be unparalleled); however, I really do think that we do not want a better definition of slurness. I think it is an intrinsically protean thing, and attempts to pin it down too closely would not only misrepresent it but are liable to have harmful real-world consequences. In incompetent hands, such attempts actually empower the bigots, who can quite plausibly misrepresent themselves as victims. It is unfortunately not necessary to give examples (except to those of us who have followed Teju Cole’s wholesome counsel to make Language Hat a substitute for the daily news.)

  92. David Eddyshaw says:

    OK, Hat. (I think it was actually all my fault. Sorry.)

    Creole exceptionalism?! No way!
    (I’m kind of hoping somebody like Etienne, who actually knows about such things, will be motivated to intervene at this point.)

  93. J.W. Brewer says:

    The specific McWhorter piece is not very impressive. One oddity is that he could probably have made his overall thesis work just as well if the claim were that new slang expressions that have come into vogue among grownups make them sound like teenagers rather than like toddlers. That would have been much harder to contradict, especially if your claim to expertise involves child language acquisition. The vogue for coining vaguely playful words in -y goes back some years: here’s a 2012 piece defending it w/o much theorizing about where it might come from. Which I found via another piece decrying it or at least a particular application of it.

    http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/internet-suffixes-2012-4/

  94. David Eddyshaw says:

    In all seriousness, I’ve been thinking about this [creole exceptionalism], largely because academia.edu has lately taken to recommending me strings of the aforesaid JMcW’s papers on this very topic (a considerable improvement on its recent habit of recommending papers on Mormon geography; no idea how I provoked that.)

    So far, this has provoked the reflections:

    (a) JMcW writes like he is valiantly defending a minority view
    (b) his papers are all a pleasure to read and his case seems entirely plausible
    (c) I don’t really know anything about this

    The idea is basically that creoles (limiting the term to cases where there is actual historical evidence that they originated as creoles, so not e.g. English) share enough characteristics with one another regardless of their progenitor languages that they can meaningfully be thought of as a coherent group of languages of their own, sharing things like lacking flexion or lexical tone (with some fudges) and being significantly simpler syntactically.

    The Yakpo book made me wonder to what extent the syntactic simplicity thing is really an artefact of underdescription. PIchi seems pretty unsimple.

    The issue is obviously (unfortunately) somewhat politicised.

  95. David Eddyshaw says:

    To me personally the highly productive use of -y immediately suggests Buffyspeak.

    (I recall reading somewhere an account of someone saying that he considered that not only do actual teenagers not talk like that but nobody else does either – until he met Joss Wheedon.)

    Life imitating art?

  96. David Marjanović says:

    Here’s a paper by McWhorter on how radically isolating languages only seem to occur in West Africa and East-Southeast Asia. Concluding that that’s not normal, he ascribes both to contact phenomena (like English and Afrikaans, only of course more so). In the African case, it all seems nicely plausible to me. In the Asian case, however, he’s impressed by how isolating Old Chinese seems, and concludes that Proto-Sino-Tibetan must have been a creole. In the last few decades, a lot of derivational morphology has come to light in Old Chinese, complete with cognates elsewhere, and there’s evidence that parts of the polysynthetic morphology of Rgyalrongic and Kiranti – wherever they fit in the tree, though they’re definitely not closely related – are cognate.

    It is sorta normal American word.

    Exactly. 🙂

  97. John Cowan says:

    Nubi, though a creole in historical terms, is full of stuff that Creoles Aren’t Supposed To Have, like noun plurals (four declensions for Arabic-derived words plus noun-prefixing for Bantu borrowings), adjective-noun agreement for some adjectives, and the full Arabic complement of prefixes, suffixes, and compounding strategies. Yet it is much simpler than either MSA or its non-creole ancestor Sudanese Arabic. I begin to wonder if creoles simplify not radically but only relatively to their lexifiers.

    my daughter’s good side

    People will point me out, as I creep, bald and yellow and supported by discreet corsetry, into the nightclubs of my great-grandchildren, and they’ll say, ‘Look, darling! that’s the wicked Lord Peter, celebrated for never having spoken a reasonable word for the last ninety-six years. He was the only aristocrat who escape the guillotine in the revolution of 1960. We keep him as a pet for the children.’ And I shall wag my head and display my up-to-date dentures and say, ‘Ah, ha! They don’t have the fun we used to have in my young days, the poor, well-regulated creatures. —Strong Poison

  98. As a couple people noted, my vitriol in an earlier comment was a bit over-the-top. I had just listened to a particularly thought-provoking podcast about how young people are being radicalized by YouTube recommendations, (https://theoryofeverythingpodcast.com/2019/04/bad-recommendations/ if you’re curious), and I was unusually fired up.

    McWhorter (like Chomsky, actually) brings out a certain rage in me because I really don’t appreciate when linguists misuse their “powers” to set themselves up as political pundits.

  99. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David M:

    That is an interesting paper (I suspect you recognised it as classic Eddyshaw-bait.)
    There is an awful lot wrong with his treatment of the African stuff.

    There are two fundamental problems:

    One:
    He assumes that Proto-Niger-Congo was pretty much the same as Proto-Bantu structurally. I fulminated on this tail-wagging-the-dog delusion just the other day. I note that he happily presses Kordofanian and Atlantic in to support this: this is not legitimate, as even the most enthusiastic lumpers would agree that their relationship to Bantu is much more remote that that of “Kwa.” There is (sometimes) a great typological resemblance to Volta-Congo but very little in the way of matching of form and function in morphology (or in lexicon.)

    He has no actual knowledge of Gur, which gets a mention in passing in one paragraph. What he does say is based on obsolete sources and very inaccurate.

    This matters quite a bit, because the Gur languages do the whole Niger-Congo noun class thing just as enthusiatically as Bantu but with noun class suffixes, with clear cognates among the affixes (which tend to come in matched pairs.) The traditional Bantu-centric approach has been to hand-wave all this away by supposing that Gur suffixes are secondary “articles” that have fused with their nouns, while the original prefixes have worn away (or something.) There is no actual evidence for these lost prefixes: it’s just that they must once have been there because other branches of Volta-Congo have them.

    It is true that Gur class suffixes are fairly loosely attached at some level even synchronically (see my Kusaal grammar, for example.) So, however, are Bantu prefixes. The obvious conclusion is that in both cases one is dealing not with Proto-Niger-Congo flexions but with clitic “articles” which have subsequently undergone fusion: the big division in Niger-Congo NPs was word order, with the Eastern languages putting the “articles” first, and the Western languages putting them second.

    The exuberant verb derivational suffixes of Bantu are very striking. Projecting them back to Proto-Niger-Congo is highly suspect. Attempts to compare them with West Atlantic are models of methodological fudging, glossing over the fact that matches of form and function are very hard to demonstrate. The most elaborate attempt I’ve seen cites exactly one Gur language, Mooré, in Gaston Canu’s frankly unreliable grammar. Canu creates several spurious derivational suffixes by dividing CVC roots CV+C; one such suffix plays a starring role in the comparisons.

    The “Kwa” languages are indeed very stripped down morphologically. It’s worth pointing out that Yoruba and Gbe have in fact not lost their class prefixes, though they have lost the corresponding agreement system. (So have Mooré and Kusaal, which are not a bit creole-like.) The prefixes have undergone quite a lot of phonological attrition. So have the stems. It seems exceptionally unlikely that the Kwa languages are descended from languages with the morphological complexity of (typical) Bantu, either “normally” or by creolisation. There never was such a previous stage: the Bantu languages have innovated morphological complexity by agglutination of formerly independent pronouns and particles.

    Two:
    The whole argument is just a sustained petitio principii. The only way we can think of that “Kwa” languages could have lost this putative elaborate morphology is by creolisation: ergo, they underwent extensive creolisation. Their morphological simplicity proves that creolisation happened, because that’s exactly what happens in creolisation.

    (Yoruba has the devil’s own system of lexical and grammatical tone, by the way. Pretty impressive for a creole, what with creole exceptionalism and all.)

  100. David Eddyshaw: Primum non nocere

    ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν

    My one remaining linguistic peeve is quoting in Latin things that are originally from Greek. This particular case is further simplified (or maybe complicated) by the fact that the usual Latin version is not even a real quote from the Latin-translated Hippocratic Oath.

    EDIT: petitio principii

    τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς αἰτεῖν,

    @Stu Clayton: The central ideas of Foucault’s work seems to very well thought out and pretty hard to disagree with. I have always assumed that the heated disagreements must have been related to more abstruse secondary topics, of limited interest to anyone besides professional philosophers, although I have not delved into the details to see if I am right. I suppose I am assuming that the character of the disputes mirrors that in other areas of philosophy that I have studied in more detail. For example, Popper and the avowed Positivists were certain that they were on opposite sides of important philosophical disputes, but the real differences between them were practically meaningless, and probably of less significance than their common patterns of error.

  101. As I read it, McWhorter’s “Creole Prototype” is a list of the common features of all the languages defined as creoles at the time when he formulated it. The prototype had to change when more languages were added to the list. It is not supported by any theoretical backbone, beyond the general observation that incomplete learning will simplify grammars.

    I find much of the the polemics for and against creole exceptionalism too politicized and unpleasant to read. On the one hand, writers like Mufwene and DeGraff play the leftists who see imperialist bias everywhere. On the other hand, McWhorter plays the conservative who takes joy in sticking it to the lefties. Neither makes for enlightening reading.

    That said, McWhorter’s paper “What Happened to English?” is deep and important.

  102. What I would love to hear about is a creole involving unrelated isolating, tonal languages. Surely that must have come to be at some point in the history of South East Asia? What would it look like? How would it differ typologically from its lexifier?

  103. David Eddyshaw says:

    the usual Latin version is not even a real quote

    Indeed not: I discovered this myself when it occurred to me to wonder what the original Greek was. There wasn’t any. (Hippocrates would never have said anything so daft, anyway. I have yet to hear the principle cited in a medical context where the speaker had actually thought through the implications of what he was saying. In the meaning usually given to it, it would bring the practice of all of surgery and most of medicine to a complete halt.)

  104. J.W. Brewer says:

    To AG’s point, I don’t think McWhorter really “leveraged” his linguistics fame into more freefloating political pontificating the way Chomsky did because I don’t think outsiders took him to have the same Iconic Transformative Genius/Guru/Charlatan status within the linguistics discipline as Chomsky did, and quite rightly so. I think he could have slid over into political stuff just as well if he’d been an associate professor of pretty much anything. Having a Ph.D. in *something* and having taught that *something* at high-brand-value universities was probably helpful in setting up McWhorter as what’s dubiously called a public intellectual, but the exact nature of the *something* was pretty irrelevant. Obviously some people agree with his politics and others don’t (and I suppose still others might even agree with him sometimes but not other times). To the extent some of those who come to him via his political writing find him engaging enough to look at his linguistics writing (which seems likely to be a larger group than those going in the other direction), it seems plausible, even if this particular article isn’t a good example, that they will end up being better-informed than they would be if they instead relied on who-know-what-other popularizing writer on linguistic subjects. Even on things he’s probably wrong about (i.e. his tendency to see creolization lurking in the deep historical background of languages not thought by most others to have ever been creoles), someone who actually follows his wrong argument through to its conclusion will probably pick up more non-wrong info about linguistics than 99% of the supposedly-educated general public possesses.

    As I may have previously mentioned I have a weird sense of personal connection-yet-distance with McWhorter. We are the same age and grew up probably less than 30 miles apart from each other. (I certainly never crossed paths with him growing up but I do have various friends I met in different contexts later in life who did know him as a teenager.) 40 springs ago when I was in 8th grade I wrote a little research paper assignment on the varieties of language extant in Surinam (as we then spelt it), which was the sort of crazy obscure topic that one might safely assume I would be the only 8th grader in North America eccentric enough to hit upon. And lo and behold, McWhorter grew up to be an actual scholar of language use in Suriname (as it had become), and got paid cash money to go down there, do fieldwork, and publish the results, whereas I was not quite crazy enough to pursue grad school after acquiring a linguistics B.A. and instead took a boringly bourgeois career track. I didn’t even figure out the Eddyshaw approach of splitting the baby by acquiring a marketable professional skill in reasonably high demand in affluent bourgeois societies but also quite useful and helpful to the indigenes of exotic foreign lands with interesting local languages, thus justifying spending time in such a locale.

  105. John Cowan says:

    The traditional Bantu-centric approach has been to hand-wave all this away by supposing that Gur suffixes are secondary “articles” that have fused with their nouns, while the original prefixes have worn away (or something.)

    Or as my Essentialist Explanations page has it, “Gur languages are essentially typical Niger-Congo languages, only with the nouns spoken backwards.” It’s attributed to me, which means that I saw it somewhere but have no clue where.

    I think [McWhorter] could have slid over into political stuff just as well if he’d been an associate professor of pretty much anything.

    The same is true of Chomsky, at least according to Chomsky, though it’s not likely he could ever have been a successful vulgarisateur of linguistics.

  106. David Eddyshaw says:

    You could argue (though I don’t accept the premise of McWhorter toxicity) that JMcW is a worse leverager than NC because he prays linguistics in aid of his pontificating, whereas NC’s political views seem entirely orthogonal to his linguistics. One can imagine a parallel universe with a right-wing Chomsky who had just the same stance on grammar.
    (A dystopian SF novel beckons …)

  107. John Cowan says:

    One can imagine a parallel universe with a right-wing Chomsky who had just the same stance on grammar.

    Or indeed one in which Chomsky has exactly the same politics but is an algebraic topologist (as he himself has said). Given the known facts of the Noamster’s early life, this seems more likely to me.

    It has been pointed out many times that Chomsky’s technical metaphors reek of authoritarianism: c-command, control, binding, etc.

  108. SFReader says:

    I can imagine a parallel universe with

    For a second I thought you were trying to imagine a parallel universe with J.W. Brewer and McWhorter exchanged….

  109. Stu Clayton says:

    It has been pointed out many times that Chomsky’s technical metaphors reek of authoritarianism: c-command, control, binding, etc.

    Then the number of dumb clucks out there is many times greater than the sample I usually encounter.

    “Command” and “control” are merely notions from procedural programming. Wasn’t much else around back then. Will you join the pointers-out by claiming that “head” and “rest” in Lisp are authoritarian? (cons and cdr for the old folks)

    Is Chomsky to blame for not advocating “reactive streams”, as all IT is abuzz about at the moment ? Whatever technology is à la mode, it must be monitorable and controllable, otherwise no company that expects to survive will invest a penny in it.

    Thank god for capitalism and balance sheets, they will save us from the crazies.

  110. Stu Clayton says:

    And a “binding” is not a game of shackles, but an explicitly defined correspondance between two whatyamacallits – language and abstract spec, frinstance. A binding is a set of translation rules.

  111. I think you’re succumbing to Specialist Disease — you’re so used to the technical usage that you’re missing the obvious. To the average English speaker, “binding” does not mean an explicitly defined correspondence between language and API. The point is not that he pulled those words out of his posterior, it’s that his fondness for them in toto might suggest something about his psychology.

  112. Stu Clayton says:

    Is Chomsky overly “fond” of everyday technical notions that every technician in his field uses, not just him ? What words would you prefer ? Perhaps you have succumbed to Non-Specialist Disease – everything means what *you* think it does without further ado. Maybe we can trade cough drops.

  113. Stu Clayton says:

    The Nijma Gambit.

  114. Mind you, I’m not suggesting the “metaphors reek of authoritarianism” argument is correct (however much it might appeal to me), just that it’s not obviously invalid on the grounds you adduce.

  115. AJP Crown says:

    Norris & Horace McWhirter, the right-wing twins who wrote the Guinness Book of Records, were born on Winchmore Hill within walking distance of where I was born. Whatever the spelling it’s from Gaelic ‘Mac an Chruiteir’, meaning son of the harpist or fiddler (but not the cellist, because..?), according to Wiki.

  116. John Cowan says:

    I don’t use it to condemn Chomsky, I just think it’s funny.

  117. J.W. Brewer says:

    Per the 2010 census MCWHORTER is the 3801st-most-common surname in the US and more common than alternative spellings like MCWHIRTER and MCWHERTER. 13.26% of the bearers of MCWHORTER are black, which is a notably higher percentage than for those other two spelling variants. That aspect of the MCWHORTER demographics fwiw is pretty close to the US demographics for bearers of, e.g., BREWER (12.64% black) and DODSON (12.31% black).

  118. Stu Clayton says:

    My use of the term “dumb clucks” was a hedge, just in case the accusations were not to be taken seriously. I clutch my credulity tightly, as an old woman on the bus does with her purse to ward off hegemonic robbers.

  119. David Eddyshaw says:

    If others had not been foolish, we should be so.

  120. Stu Clayton says:

    There’s a loophole in that too. Blake did not consider that foolishness sets an example to emulate as well as to shun.

    I would be more cautious: if others had not been foolish, we could have pleaded ignorance.

  121. AJP Crown says:

    The geographer who’s in charge of the demographics of names found in the US Census is Joshua Comenetz. His wife is Wanderleia Comenetz.

  122. Stu Clayton says:

    Then he can damn well explain the demographics of his for a start. I can’t find information on Comenetz because Comenetz keeps popping up with his statistics about Rodriguez and Martinez.

    Is this a clue ?:

    # The word Kamenets (or its variants Kamenec, Kamieniec, Kamyanets or Kamianets) is a common Slavic toponym with the root kamen meaning “stone” and the suffix -ets. It usually denotes a rocky mountain or stony embankment of a river or stream. #

  123. Etienne says:

    David Eddyshaw (and others who may be interested in the issue): Okay, a day late, but still, here’s my take:

    Creole exceptionalism is a very real phenomenon.

    The blunt fact of the matter is that creoles whose lexifiers are (for instance) Romance or Germanic exhibit features which are utterly alien to any known non-creole L1 Romance or Germanic variety, spoken today or in the past, including -crucially!- varieties in intense language contact situations. The statement “L1 Romance or Germanic” is important, as creoles share most of these features with pidgins. Importantly, these pidgin and creole commonalities are not only shared between pidgins and creoles, they are also found in various pidgins and creoles, *no matter whether the substate language(s) had these features or not*.

    Hence, creole exceptionalism to me is a straightforward consequence of the fact that a creole is a nativized pidgin, unlike any other Romance or Germanic variety (whether said variety is in contact with (an)other language(s) or not).

    And I think you are a little unfair to McWhorter when it comes to African historical linguistics: one of his sources on the diachrony of Kwa, Good (2012), quite explicitly acknowledges that Bantu has indeed become morphologically more complex over the course of its separation from Benue-Congo (see page 28 here: https://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jcgood/jcgood-KwaNoun.pdf). Which does not prevent him from claiming that the analyticity of Kwa languages is an anomaly in need of an explanation. Which is exactly what McWhorter seeks to provide.

  124. J.W. Brewer says:

    COMENETZ, like CHOMSKY, is an extremely rare surname in the US, i.e. it is not in the dataset of the surnames (a bit over 162,000 different ones) that turn up at least 100 times in the 2010 census. But on the other hand the bearers of “extremely rare” (by that metric) surnames add up to almost 10% of the population, so it’s not that surprising in any individual case. (That dataset does have various plausibly-related surnames such as KAMENETSKY.)

    In general names of identifiably Central-or-East-European origin (whether traditionally borne by Ashkenazim or goyim) skew heavily white and have few if any black bearers, but there are exceptions, such as the redoubtable https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_A._Hrabowski_III.

  125. Etienne: …creoles whose lexifiers are (for instance) Romance or Germanic exhibit features which are utterly alien to any known non-creole L1 Romance or Germanic variety, spoken today or in the past, including -crucially!- varieties in intense language contact situations.

    Could you please elaborate a bit? What such features do you consider essentially creole?

  126. Etienne says:

    Y: The features in question relate to losses, not gains. Also, creoles whose genesis involved prolonged, intimate contact with the lexifier will exhibit these features to an attenuated degree.

    To answer your question in more detail, pidgins and creoles in general exhibit 1-A reduction or loss in the number of bound morphemes, and 2-A reduction in the number of lexical morphemes. Crucially, in the case of those creoles which had early on lost contact with their lexifier, this is quite blatant: in the English-based creoles of Surinam, for instance, the total number of productively used English bound morphemes is…zero. As for the inherited English lexical element, it boils down to circa 700 items. This is utterly alien to any L1 variety of English or indeed Germanic.

    In the case of creoles which have arisen in contexts where contact with the lexifier played a major role, we typically find a much larger number of lexemes and some morphology, typically derivational. Yet even such a creole (for example, Haitian) remains typologically unlike its lexifier: Haitian is not just un-French-like, but blatantly un-Romance-like, in (for example) lacking nominal grammatical gender, showing no number agreement of any kind, in having a verb which has preserved no (productively-used) bound morpheme from the lexifier when marking tense/aspect, in not having preserved any form of case marking in its personal pronoun system. Crucially, the above list is typical of Romance creole languages (The un-Romance features just listed apply INTER ALIA to Lesser Antillean French Creole, Mauritian French Creole, Guyanese French Creole, Cape Verdean Portuguese Creole, the Gulf of Guinea Portuguese Creoles, Papiamentu, Phillippines Creole Spanish, to name just a few: please note, incidentally, that several of these creoles have substrates (Bantu, Philippine Austronesian…) which are morphologically MORE complex than their lexifier’s) and, to repeat myself, it is utterly alien to ANY present-day, historically attested or reconstructed variety of L1 Romance. Now, considering how thoroughly Romance has been studied, I think it fair to say that the absence of any attested creole-like variety of non-creole L1 Romance is unlikely to be a mere historical accident.

    This is even truer when one considers that these Romance features absent from pidgins and creoles go back not just to Latin but (most of them) to Proto-Indo-European. It is thus disingenuous or ignorant (to put it mildly) to claim (as some “scholars” have) that (Romance) creoles are unexceptional instances of language contact.

    (Except for the first feature, it is noteworthy that all of the above features separate Germanic creoles from ALL Germanic L1 varieties, too. Equally noteworthy is the fact that in Germanic these features go back to Proto-Germanic and indeed most go back to Proto-Indo-European, and thus Germanic creoles, unlike non-creole Germanic contact varieties BUT LIKE ROMANCE CREOLES are anything BUT “business as usual” as an outcome of language change, be it contact-induced or not).

    Now, it is important to stress that a language needn’t have a pidgin past just because its structure is pidgin-like: but in the case of Romance or Germanic creoles, we are dealing with a pidgin-like structure that is quite utterly alien to the lexifier language and to the language family they belong to (Romance or Germanic), and thus I have no hesitation in claiming that these creoles are nativized pidgins. In the case of alleged creoles whose lexifiers were very creole-like, typologically, to begin with, it may well prove impossible ever to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that these alleged creoles indeed are nativized pidgins. But in the case of Romance and Germanic creoles, the case for their being nativized pidgins is to my mind airtight.

    So, Y, I hope the above answers your question.

  127. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Etienne:

    Thanks! I was hoping to conjure you up!

    Thanks for the Good paper, too. I think it introduces some interesting points, but suffers from some of the same question-begging as Good’s colleague McWhorter’s paper on Kwa.

    The two Gur languages referred to in the paper are in fact part of the same dialect continuum; the language is closely related to Kusaal, but differs in showing a considerable degree of lenition of word-internal consonants after vowels and a lot of vowel harmony, somewhat obscuring what is going on with flexion. (I once came across a very stupid paper which made a big deal of the fact that some Dagaare plural suffixes have the same form as some singular suffixes, and concocted an elaborate semantic theory to explain it all; the author evidently knew nothing at all about Western Oti-Volta and had no idea that the form of the suffixes had fallen together through entirely regular sound changes.)

    Good’s description of examples in (9) as noun class suffix “loss” is peculiar. What the examples show is compounding: just like Kusaal, Dagaare constantly uses bare-stem “combining forms” either as heads before an adjective or dependent pronoun, or (less often) as non-referential dependents. Tonal considerations confirm that this is compounding, and such combining forms are obligatorily bound to the right. (I bang on at length about these issues in my magnum opus on Kusaal.) No suffixes have been lost: they were never there in the first place. What this does illustrate is that in the Oti-Volta languages even synchronically the attachment of class suffixes is “loose.” All the languages constantly use compounds in NPs where most languages have multi-word NPs.

    An analogous case to Good’s 9d in Kusaal is

    na’ab la wief zʋʋr “the chief’s horse’s tail” vs
    na’ab la wɩdzʋʋr “the chief’s horsetail” (he may not own a horse at all)

    where wief is the sg (pl widi) and wɩd the combing form for “horse.” “Black horse” is wɩdsabilig, pl wɩdsabila; “this horse” is wɩdkaŋa, pl wɩdbamma etc.

    The natural interpretation of all this is surely not in terms of affix “loss”, but that you just need to scratch the surface of Oti-Volta compounds to get NPs of the form

    head noun + determiner agreeing with head
    head noun + adjective +determiner agreeing with head
    dependent noun + head noun + determiner agreeing with head

    and so forth, where nouns as such are uninflected, with number and gender shown by the agreeing determiner. In the contemporary languages the “determiner” has got so denatured that it now only marks the noun as “potentially referential.”

  128. David Eddyshaw says:

    To contradict myself (so that I can be quite sure of being shown to be right in the end), there seems to be a tendency in the reappraisal of The-Language-Group-Formerly-Known-as-Kwa to think that at least the more easterly bits are fairly close genetically to the group of which Bantu is a mighty twig. That would strengthen the case for at least those parts to have suffered a Grand Pruning of morphology.

    At the least it’s undeniable that TLGFKAK belongs to the class-affix-first eastern wing of Volta-Congo, not the affix-second western part.

  129. David Marjanović says:

    It has been pointed out many times that Chomsky’s technical metaphors reek of authoritarianism: c-command, control, binding, etc.

    Too bad all the background and all the background info of /r/bædlɪngʊɪstɪx seem to have disappeared. The rules used to be introduced with: “We govern by the rules; you are bound by the parameters.”

    I’m sure these all started as authoritarian metaphors, just not consciously by Chomsky, but unconsciously in the field Chomsky took them from. Back in the same long-gone age, a common German expression for “without a microscope” was mit dem unbewaffneten Auge, “with the unarmed eye”.

    Except for the first feature, it is noteworthy that all of the above features separate Germanic creoles from ALL Germanic L1 varieties, too.

    English and Afrikaans are the two that have lost grammatical gender – and repurposed the gendered pronouns to agree with social gender instead of, as might have been expected, losing the distinctions between them altogether.

    Oti-Volta compounds

    German, too, makes compounds (nouns, adjectives/adverbs, verbs) by turning nouns into prefixes whose form is sometimes unpredictable, and has outsourced most gender (and case) marking and much number marking from nouns to articles. Everything else is still different, though. 🙂

  130. David Eddyshaw says:

    And there’s no denying that “Kwa” languages are pretty morphology-lite compared with … well, the great majority of languages. To when-all-you’ve-got-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail McWhorter inevitably this is going to look like creolisation, though that doesn’t of course make him wrong.

    I’d always thought of this primarily as a consequence of phonological attrition. Yoruba is the only one of these languages I know much about, and it is abundantly clear that Yoruba has suffered a lot of wear and tear in that regard.

    I think the thing that would need to be sharpened up considerably to make the case more rigorous would be a better demonstration of why this couldn’t all have been driven by phonological processes leading to the falling together of forms and a consequent driving of analytic substitutes (hardly an unparalleled development.)

    McWhorter’s assertion that this can’t be right because the great cycle of being should have led to a new round of agglutination strikes me as empty. There actually aren’t that many languages where we can follow that cycle through, so we really don’t know what’s probable and what isn’t. Moreover, at what period during the development of “Kwa” is all this supposed to have been going on? Accepting that radical simplification might result from creolisation, what process prevented subsequent redevelopment of morphology? Did the languages just keep on getting creolised again? How would that come about?

    On a related note, Yoruba (as I said above) has a strikingly complex phonology not at all like what is supposed to be typical for creoles. If some process retarded the redevelopment of uncreole-like morphology, why didn’t it retard the development of uncreole-like phonology too?

    On the supposed syntactic simplicity side:

    (a) Yoruba is not particularly simple syntactically
    (b) I wonder to what extent the supposed simplicity of creoles is an artefact of underdescription?
    (c) The most extensive account I’m aware of of a Gbe language (the Mouton Grammar Library volume on Fongbe) is by creolists committed to the (I gather) unpopular idea that the English-lexifier Atlantic creoles are more-or-less relexified Gbe (and the treatment of Fongbe looks to me suspiciously like it’s written in service of this project primarily.) Could there be some circularity creeping in?

  131. David Marjanović says:

    Did the languages just keep on getting creolised again? How would that come about?

    The paper postulates that the most isolating languages indeed went through several rounds of contact-induced morphology destruction as they spread from north to south, and notes the presence of the Ijoid languages, which may not even belong to Niger-Congo, on the coast (though not directly adjacent to any extremely isolating languages).

  132. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David M:

    I should read with more attention … thanks.

    I suppose if one episode of (unverifiable) creolisation can explain a lot, several rounds might explain everything. Or anything.

    This theory strikes me as essentially unfalsifiable. That doesn’t mean it’s false. It’s a nice story too; I personally would quite like it to be true.

  133. <Don't look at me. I'm dexterous.

    Odd. I had heard you were gauche.

  134. The sixties curdled and died when too many people got rude and started blocking traffic. That is really only reasonable when you don’t have the vote.

    Forget reasonable. It is only useful …

    Protest culture has been a widespread failure in almost every other context.

  135. Stu Clayton says:

    David E: Uncertainty and epistemic attrition can often be observed as arguments go south. But discourses are forever, like diamonds. They form the great Chain-letter of Being. I find this reassuring. There is no resource depletion to fear.

  136. John Cowan says:

    In the English-based creoles of Surinam, for instance, the total number of productively used English bound morphemes is…zero. As for the inherited English lexical element, it boils down to circa 700 items.

    On the other hand, the inherited English lexical element in English is only about twice as big by my count, And on the gripping hand, the Northern Songhay languages, which have indeed been in intense language contact situations but are not creoles, have retained according to Lameen only about half that many surviving Songhay roots. What is more, they have not only acquired new morphology from Berber and Arabic, they have lost much of their native morphology.

    So while creoles may share typologically unusual properties (but there’s still Nubi, see above), there are non-creoles that are very similar to them. I just don’t think there is any firewall between creoles and non-creoles except their historical origins.

  137. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Stu:

    Of course. That goes without saying.

  138. “Norris & Horace McWhirter” — Norris & Ross, but you knew that.

    Early Guinness Book editions infamously listed records like “World’s Most Primitive Language” [Aranda]

    Mostly no doubt simple imperialism-racism, but I wonder if there wasn’t a good dose of Cunningham’s Law avant la lettre.

  139. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC:

    It has been seriously suggested by Robert Nicolaï (a major serious scholar of the group) that Songhay as a whole started as a Mande-based Tamashek-lexifier creole. Jeffrey Heath is (very) politely dismissive of the idea.

    The Northern Songhay languages are indeed fascinating demonstrations that Things Just Aren’t That Simple. Almost up there with Copper Island Aleut and Michif.

    Heath in his nice grammar of Timbuktu Songhay talks about how his initial interest was sparked by the notion that it was a creolised version of Gao Songhay resulting from the expansion to those parts of the Songhay Empire. Then he discovered some evidently old retentions in the western Songhay languages and realised that (again) Things Couldn’t Be That Simple.

  140. John Cowan says:

    Protest culture has been a widespread failure in almost every other context.

    It worked rather well in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union around 1989. Then there’s the Boston Tea Party, the Bonus Army, the LGBTQ march on Washington, the women’s suffrage movement, the Salt March, the 95 Theses, the sit-down strikes at GM, the Tree Sitters, the Lusty Lady strike, the Singing Revolution, the Lactivists, the p-xylene protests in China, the Longest Walk, the …

    Oh, and the storming of the Bastille.

    Of course. That goes without saying.

    But it goes even better when said!

  141. Stu Clayton says:

    Of course. That goes without saying.

    You had circumspectly solicited my views on Foucault. That was them (the oh-là-là negativity trimmed away, and with an added dash of Luhmann). Sorry to disappoint !

  142. SFReader says:

    Loss of grammatical gender and case is typical of the L2 Russian speech acquired by speakers of Turkic (or Altaic in general) languages.

    But in modern Russia, where all children go to school, second generation speaks normal Russian and no creole can form. Even in remote places, various mixed groups tended to switch to standard Russian very quickly.

  143. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Stu:

    On the contrary, I am most grateful; however, as you will be aware, I am a committed Wittgensteinian, and I felt it necessary to reiterate the party line on all transcental truth.

  144. David Eddyshaw says:

    To say nothing of transcendental truth.

  145. Stu Clayton says:

    I feel your pain, I too would say nothing about such a thing.

  146. David Eddyshaw says:

    In other words, best to say Foucault about it.

  147. Stu Clayton says:

    I feel your pain, I too would say nothing about such a thing if I can help it.

  148. Stu Clayton says:

    I salute your extension of the domain of discourse – there’s Foucault I can object to about it.

  149. David Marjanović says:

    (My comment at 5:57 yesterday has come out of moderation, just in case it’s been overlooked. There’s nothing earth-shaking in it, though.)

  150. Etienne: “Yet even such a creole (for example, Haitian) remains typologically unlike its lexifier: Haitian is not just un-French-like, but blatantly un-Romance-like, in (for example) lacking nominal grammatical gender, showing no number agreement of any kind, in having a verb which has preserved no (productively-used) bound morpheme from the lexifier when marking tense/aspect, in not having preserved any form of case marking in its personal pronoun system. ”

    By the same criteria, we would have to assume that quite a few Chadic languages are in fact creoles.

    Which may well be defensible, but would bring us almost full circle back to the days of contrasting “Chado-Hamitic” with “Chadic” proper – only inverting the direction of external influence…

  151. Etienne, thanks very much for your summmary. You have amply made the case, based on these examples, that French-based creoles are typologically special, within the spectrum of French varieties. I think using those, or indeed all other presently known creoles, to make a general statement about how to distinguish creoles from non-creoles, is unjustified; that is what McWhorter does.

  152. Etienne says:

    Y: I am a little puzzled by your summary: I would say I have made a case for the typological distinctiveness of Romance- and Germanic-based creoles, not just French ones.

    Lameen: I am really not sure I understand your point about Chadic languages being creoles on the basis of these criteria. Do you mean that some (in the transition from Proto-Hamito-Semitic to Modern Chadic languages) have lost those same features which have not survived in the transition from Romance to Romance creole? If that is what you mean, then I disagree with your interpretation: the temporal horizon between Proto-Hamito-Semitic and Modern Chadic languages is such that it is by no means impossible that some creole-looking Chadic languages owe these features to normal language change/language contact. And if indeed, as David Eddyshaw has recently stated, Mande (a family of very creole-like languages) is genetically unrelated to Niger-Congo, a non-creole scenario accounting for the isolating structure of many West African languages (including Chadic ones) could involve Mande influence upon its neighbors.

    John Cowan: the inherited English element in English is radically different from the inherited English element in the Surinamese creoles inasmuch as, in the latter, the 700 English lexemes make up most of the vocabulary of the language (It has been demonstrated that the Portuguese element in Saramaccan was borrowed at a later date), whereas in English, the “loss” of the inherited lexical element is due to large-scale borrowing of foreign vocabulary (French, Latin and Old Norse mostly) which replaced inherited English words. Northern Songhay is similar to English, inasmuch as the reduction in the number of inherited lexemes was due to massive borrowing (from Berber, in this case).

    Combined with the total loss of all bound morphemes, I would maintain that creolization on the one hand and heavy borrowing on the other are separate phenomena: please note in this connection that in English a large number of productively-used bound morphemes have also been borrowed, whereas in the Surinamese creoles there are no bound morphemes of English origin, but more crucially, no bound morphemes whatsoever. English, by contrast, has at no point in its history lacked bound morphemes (Lameen: I believe the same is true of Northern Songhay; can you confirm or deny?).

  153. Etienne, sorry, so you did. Let me say that more generally, I can see how creoles could be typologically distinct from non-creoles within a given family. I am skeptical that you could identify, say, a Thai-substrate Mandarin-lexifier creole based on what we know about French, English, etc. based creoles.

  154. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mande (a family of very creole-like languages)

    All the Mande languages I know of have lexical tone, often with complex tone sandhi (Bisa has three tones), some (admittedly usually pretty transparent) derivational morphology, and syntax which can’t really be described as unusually simple. The southwestern group have grammatically-determined initial consonant mutations just like the language of Heaven (if a bit simpler.) Mandinka has some productive noun incorporation.

    The only thing that strikes me as creole-like about them is that a lot of them have fairly simple syllable structure (though even that is far from universal) and that none of the ones I know of has much if any flexional morphology in nouns: they do in the verbal system.

  155. David Eddyshaw says:

    The geography is against very much against Mande influence on Chadic; although there are stray Mande languages as far east as Nigeria, the great bulk of the family is a long way from the Chadic area. Hausa is the westernmost Chadic language, and although there are diaspora native speakers and second-language speakers everywhere in West Africa (and beyond), actual Hausaland proper ends before you reach Niamey. Moreover, Hausa has evidently expanded to its current extent relatively recently: it shows remarkably little dialect variation considering its geographical extent (less than Kusaal!)

    Gwandara, uncontroversially the closest relative of Hausa, actually is generally thought to have originated as a Hausa creole, by the way:

    https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/21201/Tone%20Splitting_Gwandara%20ethnohistory.pdf?sequence=1

  156. David Eddyshaw says:

    It occurs to me that the Polynesian languages display many of these supposed stigmata of creolisation. For the life of me, I can’t think of a scenario where actual creolisation could have played any role in their development, given that the Polynesians were the first ever inhabitants of their islands.

  157. SFReader says:

    We discussed this before.

    The fast boat of Polynesian expansion moved into Island Melanesia which was already inhabited by Melanesians, spent some time there, got a little genetic mixture (and presumably had extensive language contact) and then resumed their march into the Pacific.

    500 years they spent in Melanesia should be enough for any creolisation

  158. SFReader says:

    Also, I am sure someone must have already studied this, but wouldn’t widespread practice of Polynesians of tabooing many perfectly ordinary words every now and then (because they sounded like the name of their deceased chief, for example) cause some non-trivial language change?

  159. David Eddyshaw says:

    500 years they spent in Melanesia should be enough for any creolisation

    The language changes I’m talking about postdate that. Compare Fijian (the closest non-Polynesian relative of the Polynesian languages) with Polynesian.

    The tabooing of vocabulary wouldn’t explain loss of morphology and syntactic changes. Come to that, that process is well-known to be highly important in the Eskimo languages, but has not resulted in the Eskimo languages becoming even a tiny bit creole-like. Likewise in Australia.

  160. David Eddyshaw says:

    Actually, Fijian isn’t vastly different typologically from (say) Tongan, apart from some loss of nominal morphology, so I should really concede your point there.

    I still would maintain that once you start declaring that the mere fact that a language is isolating is prima facie “evidence” that its history includes creolisation, there’s no end to it: how often are we ever going to be in a position to falsify this by proving that creolisation absolutely cannot have happened? Outside the charmed circle of language groups with a deep recorded history this is impossible: accordingly this “explanation” can be applied to virtually every case, and ends up having no predictive value of any kind. It’s just a Just So Story: it may be entertaining, but it can never be science.

  161. Cowan, the majority of your examples fit my predicate–interfering with public thoroughfares is considered legitimate when you don’t have a more appropriate mechanism, like the vote. I’m not sure most of the rest were successful. The rosy future where porn would be stamped with a union label seems to have receded.

  162. Bathrobe says:

    Someone else who disagrees with McWhorter:

    https://dlc.hypotheses.org/660

    Mainly questioning his ideas on what parts of language are “necessary” (and thus part of Universal Grammar) those “not necessary”. Refers to his work on creole.

  163. An interesting read, thanks.

  164. David Marjanović says:

    Make sure to read the comments.

  165. Thanks, I didn’t notice them the first time around.

  166. Etienne says:

    1-Bathrobe, Hat: I disagree with the linked article. The statement-

    “Words are no more or less necessary than inflectional marking or any other type of construction”

    -is to my mind disproved by the fact that, while words are a language universal, inflectional marking is not.

    2-Y: Actually, I am quite certain that a Mandarin dialect having arisen through Thai influence on the one hand and a nativized Mandarin pidgin (AKA a creole) created by native speakers of Thai on the other would differ from one another quite starkly, enough to make it quite easy to identify the creole versus the non-creole contact variety. One example: I would predict that the non-creole variety would make productive use of classifiers, and that the creole variety would lack classifiers altogether.

    3-David Eddyshaw: your statement-

    “I still would maintain that once you start declaring that the mere fact that a language is isolating is prima facie “evidence” that its history includes creolisation, there’s no end to it: how often are we ever going to be in a position to falsify this by proving that creolisation absolutely cannot have happened?”

    -is one I agree with. If I may quote myself, from my May 2 comment at 2:49:

    “Now, it is important to stress that a language needn’t have a pidgin past just because its structure is pidgin-like: but in the case of Romance or Germanic creoles, we are dealing with a pidgin-like structure that is quite utterly alien to the lexifier language and to the language family they belong to (Romance or Germanic), and thus I have no hesitation in claiming that these creoles are nativized pidgins.”

  167. Etienne: Proto-Chadic certainly had gender, a reasonably complex system of number marking, at least one suffixed/infixed morpheme for aspect marking, and relict traces of case marking in its personal pronoun system. Lots of the more southerly Chadic languages (eg Goemai) have lost gender; many have lost number marking on nouns and verbs as well (eg Geji); some (like Bura) seem to have lost any kind of bound morpheme marking of tense/aspect. I’m not sure if any have entirely leveled out the personal pronoun system, but the situation seems pretty clear: intense contact has carried southerly Chadic languages in the same direction as European-lexifier creoles, without implying any directly parallel catastrophic creolization event. As David noted, the substrata would not be Mande, but rather various Benue-Congo languages.

    Among bound morphemes, Northern Songhay has definitely always retained at least the adjective formant -ow and the adjective nominaliser a-; there is some evidence that participial -nte might also have survived, and causative -nda was probably already suffixal by proto-Northern Songhay. The list is rather meager though; most Songhay morphology got lost.

  168. David Eddyshaw says:

    Something else bearing on these questions occurred to me just now as my gaze idly wandered across my bookshelves:

    Even if you can actually demonstrate (as opposed to airily assume) that the prehistory of an isolating language involved intensive language contact, it does not logically follow that said language contact is actually responsible for the supposedly creole-like nature of the language. This is because intensive contact need not result in such an outcome at all: nobody would describe Amharic or Akkadian as creole-like (or English, either, really, unless you are looking with the eyes of John McWhorter.) Intensive contact is therefore a necessary condition for such a process, but not a sufficient condition.

    Real honest-to-God creolisation, properly so called, surely implies an abnormal interruption of the usual transmission of language between generations; really quite a different animal from even very intensive contact. And “abnormal” is likely to entail “uncommon.” I wonder if there isn’t a somewhat unfortunate assumption about African prehistory lurking in the idea that it might formerly have been a lot more common in Africa than (say) Europe.

    (This is by not to espouse DeGraff-type politically based objections to McWhortery ideas of creole origins: there you’re talking about cases where disruption of normal language transmission is scarcely a far-fetched hypothesis, and the burden of proof is surely on those who would dispute it. But the age of European aggression and world conquest is obviously a very abnormal one linguistically, compared with previous eras.)

  169. John Cowan says:

    in the [creoles of Surinam], the 700 English lexemes make up most of the vocabulary of the language

    The SIL Sranan-English dictionary has 3862 lexical entries, of which 895 are idiomatic phrases and 253 are homonym disambiguations, leaving 2744 unique entries — a far cry from 700.

    words are a language universal

    Martin Haspelmath denies that morphosyntactic wordhood is a cross-linguistically valid concept. Indeed, the most difficult thing to learn about writing Chinese in Hanyu Pinyin is to know where to insert the spaces.

  170. David Eddyshaw says:

    Having just said that (and having run out of time to edit it) it occurs to me that one potential set of important differences between Europe and Africa in the relevant periods which needn’t invoke dark suspicions of unconscious bias is to do with language diversity.

    If there are a lot of very small languages about, language death by small populations giving up their own languages in favour of one which the speakers (alas) find more useful is obviously going to be a whole lot commoner than if the language ecology is a lot less diverse; moreover, this process can be driven by all sorts of things, not just wars or enslavement. (At the present day, Hausa is continuing to gobble up surrounding languages without a shot fired.)

    Even now, Africa has orders of magnitude more linguistic diversity than Europe, and Europe has been fairly low on the diversity scale at least since the Romans, even if not to the extent seen now.

    So I repent of my unjust imputation.

    High linguistic diversity evidently does not automatically lead to a high rate of language replacement, however: New Guinea and the Caucasus immediately spring to mind as counterexamples. Hmmm …

  171. David Eddyshaw says:

    High linguistic diversity and no mountains causes loss of morphology …

    Actually, that could be potentially testable … if it’s false (and I suspect it is, even with “mountains” standing metaphorically for all kinds of major barriers to communication) if would mean either

    (a) language diversity is not an adequate explanation in itself for high rates of language replacement

    or

    (b) a high rate of language replacement does not in itself create lots of languages without much morphology

    or

    (c) my logic is faulty

  172. Actually, even McWhorter doesn’t call English a Creole. He says, “While there are no grounds for treating English as a ‘creole’, the evidence strongly suggests that extensive second-language acquisition by Scandinavians from the eighth century onwards simplified English grammar to a considerable extent.” (In “What happened to English?”, Diachronica 19, 217, 2002).

    I am open to saying that there is such a thing as a diachronic “creole prototype”, that is, a set of processes characteristic of creolization, which can be discerned through comparison of the language in question with other related languages. I think all of Etienne’s examples are of that type of explanation.

    I don’t think a synchronic “creole prototype” has been demonstrated, where a language can be recognized as a creole or the descendant of such, without comparison to related languages (if any are known).

  173. David Eddyshaw says:

    without comparison to related languages

    To be fair, that is what McWhorter is doing with the “Kwa” languages, so to that extent his argument is legitimate; though as we are a long way off being able to reconstruct proto-Volta-Congo (even), the comparison is very much less rigorous than he implies (or supposes.) My problem with it is that (a) the languages really aren’t like his creole prototype once you start looking at them in any other respect than their lack of much morphology, and (b) he hasn’t adequately considered other perfectly plausible ways that the languages could have ended up looking the way they do.

    There are possible answers to these points, but they seem to lead either to circularity or to lack adequate supporting evidence. They have the whiff not of explaining, but of explaining away. And I’m afraid that his arguments are irrefutable – in the bad sense that his theory is so constructed as to remain compatible with any evidence.

    It might be interesting to look at parts of the world where isolating languages are not common (like the Americas or Australia) and to think about how the cultures and societies differed from West Africa; if no differences come to light which have a bearing on the frequency of creolisation, it might then be reasonable to conclude that the prevalence of isolating languages in parts of West Africa and Asia is simply due to areal factors or is just plain contingent.

  174. David Eddyshaw says:

    (That should be “parts of the world where there is great linguistic diversity but isolating languages are not common”)

    Having reminded myself of the existence of America, and really just out of curiosity:

    How creole-like (by McWhorter’s criteria) is Chinook Jargon?
    Anybody (not you, JC, I know you do) know anything about Mobilian Jargon?

  175. David Eddyshaw says:

    My impression (knowing nothing about it) is that in the Americas (and Australia, come to that) the known creoles derive from pidgins engendered by contact with Europeans (like Nheengatu, which incidentally is not very McWhorter-compliant.) If this is the case (it may not be), why didn’t the same rampant creolisation occur previously as it supposedly did in parts of West Africa and Asia?

    Incidentally, here’s a creole that really isn’t a bit McWhortery (I was thinking about Lingala, but this is a better example):

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kituba_language

  176. John Cowan says:

    I know absolutely jack about Mobilian Jargon except what WP says. It’s interesting, though, that it went from a contact language to a language of federated identity in what is now Louisiana: if you could speak it, you were a local, whatever your ethnicity. (One thing you weren’t was a Mobilian, however.)

    American multi-ethnicity in more modern times.

  177. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Amazonian language Kukama-Kukamiria

    https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/36685770.pdf

    may be a Tupi-Guarani creole, but as far as I can make out the argument is again the circular one that it has Tupi-Guarani lexicon but not much flexional morphology (for a Tupi-Guarani language): ergo it must be a creole. It’s not remotely like JMcW’s prototype.

  178. This presentation, “Proto-Omagua-Kukama, a pre-Columbian Amazonian creole language”, might be of interest.

  179. David Eddyshaw says:

    might be of interest

    Absolutely. Looks like I was very wrong: the argument for a creole origin is far from circular in this case.

    (Also, there is an actual language whose canonical abbreviation is OMG. Way cool!)

    So not only does intensive language contact not necessarily lead to creolisation, but actual creolisation can produce languages quite unlike McWhorter’s prototype.

  180. David Marjanović says:

    Europe has been fairly low on the diversity scale at least since the Romans

    Just before the Romans, there was Celtic spoken from Galicia to Galicia and from sea to shining sea.

    How creole-like (by McWhorter’s criteria) is Chinook Jargon?

    Oh, very. No bound morphology, totally unlike all languages of the region.

    Anybody (not you, JC, I know you do) know anything about Mobilian Jargon?

    O(S)V word order, retained from Proto-Muskogean but not found in documented Muskogean languages.

  181. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thinking about it a bit more, I suppose a McWhorterian rejoinder might me that cases like Kukama, Kituba or Gwandara don’t represent creolisation in the sense he has in mind: they arise by large-scale imperfect learning, but without a radical break in transmission between generations.

    The DeGraff school says this is true of Haïtian too, as I understand it, so in that sense even if he conceded they were right, McWhorter might still maintain the validity of his prototype for the English-lexifier Atlantic creoles. But you might end up with too homogeneous a sample to justify sweeping generalisations.

  182. David Eddyshaw says:

    The other thing about the paper Y linked to is that it does in fact posit a creole eventually rebuilding morphology with clitics and agglutination.

    The more I think about it, the more the most arbitrary assumption of McWhorter’s paper is that this hasn’t happened in “Kwa” because of repeated creolisation over a wide geographical area. This seems to be an a priori unlikely phenomenon, and I find it hard to resist the impression that it has been posited simply to save the phenomena.

    It also surely fails to account for the fact that the “Kwa” languages deviate spectacularly from his prototype in phonology. Why would phonology be spared when morphology was repeatedly nuked by yet more creolisation?

  183. Stu Clayton says:

    Any sweeping generalization can be brushed aside by another. New brooms may sweep clean, but old brooms still bristle when consigned to the dust-heap.

  184. David Eddyshaw says:

    Why would phonology be spared when morphology was repeatedly nuked by yet more creolisation?

    Actually, I just thought of a reason: it was tone that I mainly had in mind, and if your imperfect learners speak tone languages (and who doesn’t?) they are not going to fail to reproduce the tones of the lexifier, though they may reinterpret them, as Paul Newman’s Gwandara paper suggests.

    However, it would mean that the tonal part of McWhorter’s prototype should be withdrawn, because it’s just a contingent effect of the particular languages involved (someone above pointed out that it even depends on whether the lexifier is English or French.)

    I still think the whole repeated-creolisation scenario is implausible (and evidence-free.)

  185. SFReader says:

    Creolisation of Saramaccan required plantation slavery economy, mass importation of African slaves speaking different languages across the Atlantic, imperfect learning of the slaveowners’ languages (English, Dutch, Portuguese), several escapes of the slaves into the jungles of Suriname, creation of free maroon settlements and formation of the Saramaka people.

    Pretty unique circumstances which hardly could have occurred frequently elsewhere.

  186. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sango, undoubtedly a creole, does in fact fit most of the McWhorter criteria, apart from having three tones.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sango_language

  187. David Eddyshaw says:

    It certainly seems to be the case that most of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade would have been native speakers of languages which were pretty isolating.

    Therefore, given that in the case of tone, whether your creole ends up with tone depends on the nature of the lexifier and the substrate, without going full Lefebvre you could similarly argue that the isolating nature of Atlantic creoles is not from any prototype but a contingent result of the nature of the substrate languages. (And that projecting creolisation back into the formation of those very substrates is consequently putting the cart before the horse.)

    Anybody know anything about the Pacific English-lexifier creoles, though?

  188. SFReader says:

    However, there were some situations of extreme language contact similar to what happened in Suriname and some of the languages found there could have been result of creolisation.

    I would like to point out languages of the Gansu-Qinghai-Ningxia region in China.

    Here we have the so called South Mongolic languages, spoken by people who are as unlike Mongols as humanly possible – of partially European genetic heritage and appearance, Sunni Muslims by religion and settled agriculturalists to boot.

    These languages appeared in the region following the 13th century Mongol conquest (accompanied by genocide of the local Tangut population), historical sources mention slavery and importation of foreign slaves by Mongol princes from Central Asia and beyond to settle the land.

    Historical context strongly suggests that the speakers of South Mongolic languages must be descendants of Mongol slaves from settled areas of Muslim Central Asia who imperfectly learned Mongolian (and then came into close contact with speakers of Tibetan and Chinese, moving even further afar from the mainstream Mongolian).

    South Mongolic languages are not typically regarded as creoles, but maybe because something is wrong with the criteria of creole languages.

    Historically, these languages are the closest match to Suriname creoles you can get – imported slaves from afar, imperfectly learned masters’ language, gaining freedom after fall of the Mongol rule and centuries of relative independence.

  189. SFReader says:

    Anybody know anything about the Pacific English-lexifier creoles, though?

    English vocabulary, Oceanic grammar.

    Yumi save plante wok i stap,
    Long ol aelan blong yumi,
    God i helpem yumi evriwan,
    Hem i papa blong yum

    We know there is much work to be done
    On all our islands.
    God helps all of us,
    He is our father

  190. David Eddyshaw says:

    More specifically, what do experts in these languages make of the debate about (to put it crudely) prototypes versus simple relexification?

    I haven’t seen the Pacific creoles mentioned much in this context, though that may just be because insofar as I come to read about such things at all it’s because of my interest in West Africa.

    From the standpoint of someone starting with indigenous West African languages, incidentally, the immediately striking thing about (say) Nigerian Pidgin is that it fits right in among them. My first impression of that language was that it was basically Yoruba using English vocabulary. I was wrong, but there was a reason for that impression. Tok Pisin, on the other hand, would stick out like a sore thumb in Africa.

    [I’ve just decided that A Sore Thumb in Africa will be the title of the relevant volume of my autobiography.]

  191. John Cowan says:

    As long as McWhorter just says his three items constitute a prototype, counterexamples are no problem: the prototypical bird can obviously fly, and the existence of ostriches and just-hatched fluffballs don’t matter. It’s when he erects them into an actual criterion for creolehood that he goes off the rails. It reminds me of Abbott Thayer, who discovered the existence of disruptive camouflage in animals whose spots or stripes make their outlines difficult to see. Leopards, yes; giraffes, probably (especially as calves, when they are most vulnerable); flamingos, resoundingly no. Their pink color does not make them less conspicuous against a pink sunset, nor is a peacock concealed against the blue sky! The mental trap involves is in assuming that a pattern which explains a good deal can be made to explain everything.

  192. David Marjanović says:

    The more I think about it, the more the most arbitrary assumption of McWhorter’s paper is that this hasn’t happened in “Kwa” because of repeated creolisation over a wide geographical area.

    Not creolization, just second-language learning by huge amounts of people, much as what happened to English and (more so) Afrikaans.

    Tok Pisin, on the other hand, would stick out like a sore thumb in Africa.

    A language with a first person inclusive trial pronoun will stick out in most places.

  193. SFReader says:

    I noticed recently that for some reason, American presidents start their speeches in Tok Pisin.

    – Mipela Americans…

  194. David Eddyshaw says:

    English and (more so) Afrikaans

    Neither English nor Afrikaans is isolating in sense of radically lacking all flexional or derivational morphology – far from it. I do not believe that such a process would suffice to explain the fact that “Kwa” languages have failed to regrow any morphology, as McWhorter asserts (unconvincingly) they would inevitably have done if the loss were driven by phonological changes. In fact, I can’t think of a single case not involving radical disruption to normal language transmission where historically confirmed large-scale second-language learning has resulted in the total abandonment of morphology: not English, not French, not Russian, not Spanish, not Nahuatl … and Mandarin has been doing the opposite.

    Incidentally, I recall reading that there are European Dutch dialects which do the invariant-verb thing that’s so striking in Afrikaans. Do you know if that’s so?

  195. John Cowan says:

    English and (more so) Afrikaans

    Also Bengali (I read once that 90% of Bengali-speakers have recent ancestors who spoke something Tibeto-Burman or Munda, though I can’t trace this now) and Cham. Graham Thurgood’s article on Cham transparency demonstrates how it has eliminated almost all its inherited Austronesian morphology and how little grammaticalization the new grammatical markers have undergone, almost all still being in use as ordinary content words. For example, the indirect-discourse marker is ‘say’, the reflexive marker is ‘self’, the experiencer marker is ‘receive’, the locative markers mean ‘top, bottom, back’ etc, the directional markers are ‘go’ and ‘come’. The syntax is rigidly SVO without case markings, even in questions (though left dislocation is possible). Only subjects can be relativized, and the relative clause is unmarked except for lacking an over subject; this is the same syntax used for serial verbs, which have obvious semantics.

    Yet there is no evidence that Cham is descended from a pidgin. Thurgood’s explanation is two millennia of intense contact with speakers of Mon-Khmer languages, many waves of whom shifted to Cham over the centuries, blocking normal grammaticalization and maintaining it in a pseudo-creole state.

  196. SFReader says:

    Assamese is even likelier – the speakers are racially Asian, to start with.

    By the way, that might be a fast way to preliminary identify languages descended from creoles – if it’s descended from another language, but its speakers belong to a different race, then it’s likely a creole.

    This criteria fits every case.

  197. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC:

    Bengali certainly isn’t isolating … I think I can fairly add it to my list of counterexamples, along with Latin and Lingala. I’m not denying at all that large-scale second-language learning can lead to morphological simplification (someone should tell the Russians, so they can get with the [bio]program), just denying that it could lead to a language becoming (or remaining) radically isolating à la “Kwa.”

    Thanks for the Cham paper: very much to the point.
    However, the conclusion seems to be that, as Cham is morphologically transparent, this must reflect intensive contact. Can’t a language remain morphologically transparent for any other reason?

    I mentioned elsewhere that Tom Güldemann argues that the very transparency of Bantu verb flexion in most of those languages argues against the notion that it is simply inherited from Proto-Niger-Congo: phonological changes should have impaired its transparency by now if it were that old (as indeed they have in some languages.) The counterargument is that the system is continually being remodelled by analogy to maintain its transparency for language-internal reasons.

    (Mind you, as a very, very general rule, with the Bantu languages the farther you get from West Africa into their zone of more recent rapid expansion, the more transparent they are morphologically, so I can also see a way of making them support the thesis. I propose to ignore this difficulty … and in any case, the transparency does not throw up lots of isolating Bantu languages. Or any.)

    Interestingly, the paper argues that learnability (via transparency) confers a benefit in the struggle of languages to survive in a multilingual environment: this might well be true for Cham specifically, but if it were a strong tendency in general you might expect to see areas of high linguistic diversity characterised by above-average language simplicity. This does not seem to be the case … or maybe we’ve just arrived too early, before the unfit languages have all lost the struggle.

  198. John Cowan says:

    Bengali certainly isn’t isolating

    No, indeed. But its grammar of verbs is pretty straightforward nevertheless: effectively only one verb declension (the inherited declensions nowadays differ only in the stem vowel) except for a few relics, number agreement lost, few irregular verbs (modulo a bit of umlaut), only the indicative and the imperative survive.

    The counterargument is that the system is continually being remodelled by analogy to maintain its transparency for language-internal reasons.

    That doesn’t make much sense to me: what are the language-internal reasons? English has remodelled all its noun inflections except for about thirty native words that retain irregular plurals, but L2 learning by Scandinavian, Norman, and French speakers obviously has a whole lot to do with that.

  199. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hausa is another case in point, come to think of it: L2 Hausa consistently shows a whole range of phonological and morphological simplifications, but nowhere near Kwa-style morphological deprivation.

    And Arabic. The various spoken Arabics are not as morphologically complex as Classical Arabic (what is?) and clearly influenced by substrates; none is anything like a creole, except where there has actually been real, interrupting-of-normal-service, true-blue creolisation.

    what are the language-internal reasons?

    Maintenance of the communicative function of the language? If phonological change has worn away your infix meaning “him/her” in certain contexts, for example, surely it’s a natural enough development to regularise the paradigm on the basis of contexts where that hasn’t occurred and put it back again? No foreign learners need apply …

  200. Etienne says:

    1-Y: I think we are in agreement. Once pidgins nativize and become creoles, they indeed show a distinctive typological profile. INITIALLY. Given time, they will inevitably (through language contact, language-internal change, or both) drift further and further away from said profile. HOWEVER…I believe that in many instances it may prove possible to deduce/demonstrate instances of early/prehistoric creolization.

    In this context, let us imagine a language family with five daughter languages: let’s call them A B C D and E. We will suppose that all five are typologically close and that none has been heavily influenced by a neighboring language. Suppose that on the basis of the sound changes separating the five languages no clear evidence for subgrouping emerges. Suppose, however, that the inflectional morphemes of languages A, B, C, and D, for the most part, can be traced back to the Proto-language, but that in language E *none of them* can be traced back to the Proto-language. Total loss of inflectional morphology being a clear legacy of creolization, I would say that it would be legitimate to explore the theory that language E emerged as a creole.

    2-Tok Pisin versus West African Pidgin English: While each has been influenced by (a) different language(s), it is noticeable that in both instances what the substrate modified was NOT English, but instead a language lacking English bound morphemes and only having a fraction of English lexemes (I.e.. An English pidgin in both instances). Let’s take the Tok Pisin first person non-singular pronouns: why do we find no reflex of English “we” or “us”? This is especially puzzling, since in Tolai (one of the major substratum languages of Tok Pisin), the first person singular pronoun IAU is not found in first-person non-singular pronouns, so that in this respect Tok Pisin differs from English and its Tolai substrate alike, Why is it that, for the dual, the TU + PELA combination is used, rather than a reflex of English “both”? Why is it that Tok Pisin personal pronouns have preserved none of the case distinctions of English pronouns?

    All of the above questions can be answered, rather easily, if we assume that the starting point of Tok Pisin (and of West African pidgin, of the Surinamese creoles…) was an English pidgin, and not some variety of English.

    3-David Eddyshaw, on your question about Afrikaans versus (dialectal) Dutch regarding (lack of) verb agreement: assuming for the moment that such dialects exist and had already lost subject-verb agreement at the time of Dutch colonization in South Africa, their existence would still leave unexplained how such dialects could have had such an overwhelming influence upon the genesis of Afrikaans, since it has been clearly shown that Afrikaans, like other varieties of overseas Dutch, derives from Amsterdam dialect, a variety which certainly did have subject-verb agreement at the time South Africa was settled from The Netherlands. Moreover, Afrikaans has lost linguistic features which have otherwise been preserved in *all* non-creole + non-Ingveonic West Germanic varieties: grammatical gender is a good example. I thus agree with the mainstream that Afrikaans deserves its “semi-creole” classification.

  201. David Marjanović says:

    Incidentally, I recall reading that there are European Dutch dialects which do the invariant-verb thing that’s so striking in Afrikaans. Do you know if that’s so?

    I have no idea. Maybe you mean invariant in the plural (like in Old English)? That’s a feature of much of Low German (and Alemannic).

    morphological simplification (someone should tell the Russians, so they can get with the [bio]program)

    They have dropped the vocative (except of “God” and “Father”) and two whole past tenses. The feminine nom./acc. pl. ending has merged into the masculine one, and a whole bunch of analogical levelling has happened in various noun paradigms, merging a few declension classes in the process (so that now there are basically just four left). I suppose that’s a start.

  202. David Eddyshaw says:

    I agree that the Russians do appear to be making some effort.

    Maybe you mean invariant in the plural

    No, invariant altogether, not only for person but everything (apart from sticking ge- on the front of past participles), as in Afrikaans. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read this; it struck me as unlikely, but it’s not a thing I know anything about.

    I’m sure that there is often a fair bit of wishful thinking in all of this, as with Haitian; people readily grab at suggestions that their own language isn’t really a creole, but just got a bit simplified in the natural course of events. A pity; I agree with Kofi Yakpo:

    The lingering colonialist perspective on Pichi and its sister languages in West Africa and across the Atlantic stands in stark contrast to the fact that these languages epitomise the achievements of African and African-descended peoples who, in resisting and adapting to the ignominious system of European slavery and colonialism, carved out in Africa and the Americas one of the largest, and today most vibrant cultural and linguistic zones of the world.

    John McWhorter himself expresses similar sentiments himself somewhere, pointing out that creolisation basically represents the acme of human linguistic creativity.

  203. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me of a rooinek South African I once knew, who illustrated the allegedly poor grasp of English by back-country Africaners with a shouted comment to an insufficiently vigilant umpire he claimed to have overheard at a cricket match:

    Shook your head, your eyes is stuck!

  204. Bathrobe says:

    @ John Cowan

    The definition of the word (as discussed by Haspelmath) is rather too obsessed with what Chomsky uncharitably called “discovery procedures”. Discovery procedures partly evolved to prevent preconceived (Latin or Western) notions from influencing the analysis. But there is no way that a single criterion or even one or two criteria are going to capture the way that language is broken into useful blocks. That does not mean that such blocks don’t exist. It’s important not to let rigid criteria get in the way of building a complete picture.

    You could, of course, try to build a description of language based solely on morphemes, but even if you did, you would have to set up an intermediate level between morphemes and sentences such that certain morphemes adhered together as single units of some kind. Grammar depends on describing how those ‘blocks’ work together. Without them description dissolves into chaos.

  205. David Eddyshaw says:

    Schütz’s Fijian grammar denies that Fijian has words, and copes; this works better in Fijian than it would in general, partly because there is quite a mismatch between phonological and grammatical “words.”

    RMW Dixon in his own grammar says of Schütz’s work:

    Schütz’s grammatical analysis is original to the extent that, for him, Fijian has no unit word, no adjectives, no subject/predicate division, no prepositions, and no passive … this last following on from a paper […] in which criteria for “what a passive is” were not stated.

    Ooh, burn! (as my daughter would say.)

  206. David Eddyshaw says:

    There is a justly famous paper by Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky arguing that English n’t (as in don’t is not a clitic but a flexion.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/413900

    This is a particularly difficult question in Kusaal, as it happens: ultimately, the criteria for wordhood simply don’t all line up neatly, and you end up just having to decide where the words are by decree: harmless, so long as you explain what you’re up to properly, so your reader can chop up sentences according to her own predilections instead if she prefers.

  207. David Eddyshaw says:

    McWhorter is at is again here:

    https://www.academia.edu/26566146/The_radically_isolating_languages_of_Flores_a_challenge_to_diachronic_theory

    One of the things that strikes me about this paper is how ready he is to cite controversial assertions as if they were already widely accepted, e.g.

    [English famously has very little Celtic vocabulary despite] having been grammatically transformed by Celtic speakers.

    He seems to believe in this paper that languages can in fact remain radically isolating pretty much indefinitely without further episodes of either creolisation or widespread learning as a second language (section 11): all he asserts is that there is only one possible way they can get like that to begin with. And assert it he most definitely does: he believes the evidence must surely follow …

    His comments on Brythonic strongly suggest he’s never actually looked at a Welsh grammar: Welsh nouns, of course, though indeed caseless, have complex and unpredictable plural formation (which I would say comes under “flexion”) but Welsh has had only a single regular verb conjugation since Middle Welsh times: pretty much the opposite of what he asserts. It’s not an isolated piece of carelessness.

    (His comments on how English VP structure shows Celtic influence elsewhere similarly make startlingly inaccurate statements about the Welsh system. I suppose if you already know your theory is correct it’s not necessary to be careful with the evidence.)

    Oh, and

    Russian retains its rich inflection despite use as a lingua franca across the former Soviet Union because it spread as a written language taught formally in schools. (Footnote one)

    Otherwise ethnic Russians would have given up their inflection because of the example of Kazakhs’ broken Russian?

  208. Savalonôs says:

    I think that can be read as implying that otherwise you would have ended up with richly inflected forms of Russian in some places/social strata along with de-flexionized registers elsewhere.

  209. SFReader says:

    In many places around the former Soviet Union, Russian is spoken even where there is no ethnic Russian population whatsoever (as a language for communication between different non-Russian ethnic groups).

    Schools, TV and mass media help to keep this Russian spoken by non-Russians more or less close to the standard, otherwise it would have diverged really bad.

  210. David Eddyshaw says:

    Let me adapt JMcW’s argument a fraction:

    Languages with complex morphology cluster in regions where there is great linguistic diversity, and where there is therefore much more likelihood a priori of language loss and replacement.

    The Eskimo languages are an apparent exception, but it is clear from the fact that the Alaskan Eskimo are genetically similar to their Athapaskan neighbours that this has come about by recent extensive acquisition of Eskimo languages by Athapaskans. The relative uniformity of the languages confirms this recent-spread picture.

    The evidence thus clearly shows that extensive imperfect second-language acquisition results in a radical increase in morphological complexity, a process I propose to call anticreolisation.

    While there is not yet firm DNA evidence to support this scenario from other parts of the world, I am confident that it will progressively emerge, as there is no plausible alternative mechanism for the emergence, and a fortiori, the persistence over time of extreme morphological complexity.

    It gives a clear explanation for the first time as to why Russian has evolved a complex case system; its close relative Bulgarian clearly shows that this has been elaborated from a much simpler system.

  211. SFReader says:

    Another essentialist explanation:

    Russian – end result of Baltic and Finno-Ugric speakers switching to Slavic speech.
    Bulgarian – end result of Turkic,Romance and Greek speakers switching to Slavic speech.

  212. John Cowan says:

    I’ve added those to the EE queue.

    the fact that the Alaskan Eskimo are genetically similar to their Athapaskan neighbours

    Well, at least this fact actually is a fact. Given who you’re parodying, I wasn’t too sure.

    I went to look at the WP article “Genetic history of indigenous Americans”, which does confirm the presence of (more recent) Siberian DNA in Athapaskan- and Eskimoan-speakers. It also linked me to “Abstract Profiles of Structural Stability Point to Universal Tendencies, Family-Specific Factors, and Ancient Connections between Languages”, a 2012 paper by Dediu and Levinson (open access, so go read it). I have no idea whether it’s sense or nonsense, so I won’t try to summarize it here, except that the list of supposed highly stable typological traits (from an analysis of WALS) looks fishy to me. Front rounded vowels as second-most-stable trait, really??

    (ObIrrelevant: A journal called CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians has a scary high 2017 (latest) impact factor of 62 as published by SJR. The journal published 137 articles in the three preceding years, and got 16384 cites. Why is that suspicious? Because I instantly recognized that as 2^14. Coincidence??? I think NOT!!!)

  213. David Eddyshaw says:

    @SFReader:

    I think there’s actually an important valid point in that, bearing on what you might expect the result of widespread imperfect second language learning to actually be. McWhorter tends to segue in his argumentation between widespread second language learning on the one hand and actual creolisation (i.e. the creation of a proper language out of a pidgin) on the other. I would imagine that the former process has historically been much commoner than the latter, as you yourself suggested above; creolisation proper requires really very special social circumstances to come about: it’s an abnormal process virtually by definition.

    Now this wouldn’t be an important confusion if the effects of the two processes were pretty much identical. However, the evidence suggests otherwise.

    With creolisation one can easily believe that effectively reconstituting a language from ground zero might very well result not only in radical simplification but in languages that were sui generis, à la Bickerton bioprogram or McWhorter’s Creole Prototype, which seems to be a watered-down version of it; I was under the impression that at least the Bickertonian extreme had been essentially debunked, but Etienne will know much better than me. At any rate, as one (not the only) mechanism to produce extreme morphological simplicity, it looks plausible.

    On the other hand, with widespread imperfect second language learning a lot is likely to depend on the original languages of the learners, especially when only a few languages are involved and above all when those languages are typologically all very similar. Thus, it really is quite plausible that if a lot of your proto-Russian speakers are Finns with umpteen cases but a very simple verbal system, they are not going to baulk at learning a measly six cases: what will happen is not loss of the entire category of case but a lot of regularisation. On the other hand, if you’re a modern Greek with a pathetic three-and-a-bit cases you may well indeed feel that Slavonic is a bit over the top … and if you’re a Finn you may well feel that one past tense is all a body really needs.

    So the characteristic of WISLL (cool acronym, eh?) may well, depending on substrates, be not radical loss but sweeping regularisation of morphology which might remain quite elaborate. Lingala is practically the poster child for this: is I said elsewhere, it’s what Esperanto would look like if Zamenhof had been from the Congo instead of Poland and thought that multiple noun classes and tones were normal features of human language rather than cases and consonant clusters. Lingala has the whole Bantu noun class thing in morphology (though not syntax), and also the whole Bantu exceptionally-free-verbal-derivation-by-suffixes thing: where it differs from the usual Bantu run it’s because it’s very, very regular. The vast majority of people who acquired Lingala as an L2 would have had all of these complex morphological features in their own languages in spades and would probably have created them in Lingala if they hadn’t been there already.

    JC’s example of Bengali, perhaps Kukama, and yes, English also fit this kind of scenario to greater or lesser degrees. Cham, too, possibly, with a somewhat different sociolinguistic background but similar mechanisms driving regularity, not sweeping loss of entire morphological categories.

    I can see no compelling independent evidence that the rare process of creolisation proper has been significantly commoner in the parts of West Africa and Asia where isolating languages are common, apart from the circular argument that it must be so because that is the only way languages can get to be isolating. Presumably it is just complete coincidence that in both these areas the languages are known to have undergone very significant phonological attrition (and not just of affixes, as JMcW claims, but whole stems) compared with their less analytic relatives.

    I’d speculate further that the very properties which McWhorter declares to be typical of (and indeed diagnostic of) creolisation may at least in part have arisen from the historical accident that the unfortunate victims of the slave trade happened to speak radically isolating languages (which had got that way by perfectly ordinary language developments.) As a consequence, their imperfect learning of European languages was particularly prone to produce morphologically stripped down languages like their mother tongues, which were largely typologically similar to one another already.

    By the way, it seems to be generally accepted that the Pacific English-lexifier creoles did indeed arise from recreation of a full language starting from a pidgin; as far as I can make out there isn’t any controversy of the DeGraff/McWhorter kind about it.

    [Apologies for reposting – if I have; I got a message “you can no longer edit this post” which has previously been a sign that my post has been lost forever. If I’ve reposted, Hat, feel free to delete one (or both, as you may feel inclined.)]

  214. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC: Dediu and Levinson paper:

    The rates of replacement in the basic vocabulary (or Swadesh list) – the 200 odd wordforms expressing the most stable meanings in language – are relatively well understood, with the frequency of use being suggested as an important explanatory factor in recent work by Pagel and colleagues. These rates seem to be correlated across language families, so that lexical meanings stable in, for example, Indo-European languages also tend to be stable in Bantu or Austronesian languages, as well as across extremely broad geographical regions.

    That’s just the first paragraph of the introduction. I don’t think I can bear to read on. And Table 1 says it all.
    (Tip: if your elaborate statistical method gives you garbage results, you really should take a close look at where your experiment design has gone wrong. You know, rather than publish it.)

  215. David Eddyshaw: “I’d speculate further that the very properties which McWhorter declares to be typical of (and indeed diagnostic of) creolisation may at least in part have arisen from the historical accident that the unfortunate victims of the slave trade happened to speak radically isolating languages (which had got that way by perfectly ordinary language developments.)”

    On that subject, you might like a recent paper demonstrating the importance of substratum effects in creoles: World-Wide Comparative Evidence for Calquing of Valency Patterns in Creoles.

  216. David Eddyshaw says:

    In my view, every theory of pidginization and creolization should base itself on such a fine-grained data-driven study on the world-wide variation of creole languages and non-creole languages to make any significant claims about creole languages in general. Even more so if far-reaching universal and/or cognitive processes are invoked.

    Moreover, many of the Atlantic creoles are historically closely related to each other. Creolists have been misled to infer from this majority of related creoles that their majority pattern, [here the double-object construction], is a universal feature of creoles

    Preach it, Sister!

    And she cites my hero Tom Güldemann ….
    I was (inevitably) translating her examples into Kusaal, which in every case (not suprisingly, I guess) matched her substrate languages for the West Atlantic creoles. Interesting (and again, not surprising) that the Mande languages don’t play along.

    I do indeed like this paper a lot, but then it plays very much into my preconceptions. I’d be interested to hear what Etienne thinks.

  217. Etienne says:

    Lameen, David Eddyshaw: the idea that the better-known creoles of the West Indies might owe their analytical structure to the substrate languages is quite widespread, but to my mind not at all credible.

    First of all, there are creole languages which are fully isolating despite *none* of the languages involved in their genesis being isolating: such is the case for Chinook Jargon (spoken in an area renowned for morphological complexity) or Palenquero Spanish Creole (As isolating as any other creole, despite its substrate language being a Bantu language, Kikongo). McWhorter had an article showing that the structure of Palenquero Spanish Creole is inexplicable if you assume it is a result of Spanish-Kikongo language contact. Both Spanish and Kikongo have grammatical gender involving agreement, as well as number agreement within the NP and with the VP, for instance: why should Palenquero Spanish creole lack grammatical gender, indeed lack agreement of any kind?

    Second of all, even if one were to ignore the first point, the blunt fact is that it is not just the isolating structure of creole languages that needs to be explained, it is the choice of forms. For example, Romance creoles, as a rule, use a single verb stem deriving from the form of the infinitive in the (Romance) lexifier languages. This is puzzling if one assumes that Romance creoles owe their isolating structure to their substrates rather than to pidginization, because outside of Romance pidgins there does not exist *any* known instance of a Romance variety using the infinitive as its sole verb stem: in instances of L2 language acquisition (by speakers of any language, isolating or not) or of the reduction accompanying language death, for instance, Romance varieties will typically make ever-growing use of an invariable/variably inflected verb stem deriving either from the third person singular present indicative or singular imperative (assuming the two are distinct, which is very often not the case).

    It would be quite a coincidence if Romance creoles and Romance pidgins had both just happened to be the only attested Romance varieties (including ALL non-pidgin, non-creole contact varieties) to generalize the infinitive as the sole verb stem. If you assume that Romance creoles are nativized Romance pidgins, of course, then not only is this no coincidence, it is exactly what would be expected. Add to this the fact that in many instances the substrate cannot explain the analytical structure of the creole (see above), and the “creoles-as-nativized pidgins” explanation strikes me as the only credible explanation.

    Third of all, there is a matter of chronology: it is clear that creoles must have emerged very quickly (over a few generations): this is clear both because of the philological and the comparative evidence. Now, a contact explanation excluding that pidginization played any role in creole genesis must contend with the observed reality that large-scale L2 acquisition over centuries needn’t cause any large-scale change in the expanding language, even when a strong typological gap exists between the languages in question. Consider Romance, which has been expanding at the expense of Basque over the past thousand years or so, via language shift; consider Russian, which expanded at the expense of Uralic in Northern Russia during the same (rough) time period; why is it that the total number of Basque- or Uralic influenced varieties of Romance or Russian (respectively) lacking grammatic gender is…zero? EVEN IF one chose to ignore my other two objections (use of the infinitive in Romance creoles, existence of isolating creoles without isolating substrates), there is an amazing contrast between the (alleged) impact of various analytical West African languages upon various Western European languages (basically, well-nigh ALL morphology was lost in a matter of generations in ALL the European languages involved) and the observed impact of substrate languages upon other expanding languages (where over the course of centuries the convergence with the substrate proves partial at best: cf. the Romance and Russian examples above).

    This contrast is noteworthy and needs to be addressed if the “substrate influence, not pidginization” theory is to be taken seriously. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been addressed by anyone, and until it is, and until the other objections I raised above are explained, I simply cannot take any “anti-pidgin” theory of creole seriously. Neither, indeed, should any linguist.

  218. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Etienne (glad to see my invocations working again):

    Seems to me one important moral is to be careful not to throw the terms “creole” and “creolisation” around too carelessly (as it seems to me that McWhorter tends to); it would help if everyone agreed to limit their use strictly to the case of a “pidgin made good.”

    Having said that, pidgins are very far from all the same, and presumably the differences must be greatly determined by the substrate languages; and while I take your point about rapidity of emergence, “rapid” is obviously not “instantaneous”, and the development of full language in creolisation presumably occurred while full speakers of substrate languages were still around (in fact “rapid” would presumably entail that very thing.) The West Atlantic creoles have actual lexicon from West African languages, so presumably nobody actually posits so radical a disruption of transmission as to make it impossible for some syntax to be carried over too. The question would not be “whether?”, but “how much?”

    Is that reasonable?

  219. John Cowan says:

    in instances of L2 language acquisition (by speakers of any language, isolating or not) […] Romance varieties will typically make ever-growing use of an invariable/variably inflected verb stem deriving either from the third person singular present indicative or singular imperative (assuming the two are distinct, which is very often not the case).

    The paper “‘Me want cookie’: foreigner talk as monster talk” points to the use of the infinitive in Romance (as well as German) foreigner talk, the variety of their own language that L1 speakers produce when trying to communicate with foreigners who do not understand it. This is not the stumbling talk of actual foreigners, nor the worldwide practice of talking loudly or slowly to try to be understood; it is a fluently spoken deformation of the speaker’s own L1 that they spontaneously adopt in certain (not all) foreigner-contact situations. If the contact is sustained enough, the foreigners may actually learn it: many American soldiers mastered (if that is the word) Infinitive-Italian during WWII. All of which suggests that the potential for creating a pidgin exists in all L1 Romance speakers.

    (The first sentence of the paper is irresistible: “What do Tarzan, Cookie Monster, African slaves, foreign mercenary soldiers and “guest workers,” Chinese laborers, and other exotic human and non-human fauna have in common in the Romance- and Germanic-speaking world?”)

    How it is that Norfolk English lost the 3sg ending.

  220. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Etienne:

    I was reading about McWhorter’s views on Palanquero in his article Case closed? Testing the feature pool hypothesis; he’s particularly concerned there with undermining Aboh’s Feature Pool approach, and while the example may succeed in that particular narrow objective (or not) it doesn’t seem to me to be very persuasive regarding the larger issue, He points out, for example, that Spanish and Kikongo both have “gender” and gender concord, and asks why Palanquero doesn’t: but the systems of Bantu noun class concord and Romance gender are about as far apart as two systems can be and still be placed under the same general heading in a linguistics textbook. They are only very vaguely “the same thing.”

    The loss of concord strikes me as a particularly weak argument. It’s happened in Lingala, which is far from isolating; it’s happened in Kusaal, but not in two of its closest relatives, Talni and Mampruli. Within Mampruli, it’s happened in some dialects and not others. There is absolutely no reason to think any of these languages is now or ever has been a creole, or that Kusaal has been recently imperfectly learnt by large numbers of people (only by me, and I am not large numbers of people.)

    You pointed out that Haitian etc have generalised the infinitive, and that no Romance dialect has. That certainly proves that Haitian is not a French dialect (no argument there), but I don’t see that it affects the question of whether Haitian isolating structure is the result of Gbe influence. There’s no difference between infinitives and finite forms in an isolating language: if you were going to relexify Gbe with French morphemes, why wouldn’t you do it with infinitives just as well as finite forms, especially as (a) they’re easier to pronounce if your L1 has few or no closed syllables (b) they’re easier to tell apart from one another?

    It also occurs to me that if you ask a Frenchman for the citation form of a verb, he gives you the infinitive, not a finite form.

  221. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC:

    Very interesting paper: supports Etienne’s position, I guess, as presumably pidgins owe a lot of their origin to foreigner talk from the benighted Lexifier Bearers.

    I liked
    the lack of anything other than questionable literary imitations before the late 19th century yields the suspicion that early Lingua Franca may have been as mythically effervescent as the Holy Grail.

  222. David,
    I don’t see what you find so objectionable about the Dediu and Levinson paper. I personally think of them have written some very objectionable papers, but this is not one of them. What’s wrong with the notion that some semantic fields is less prone to vocabulary replacement, or that some grammatical features are more stable than others?

  223. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Y:

    Specifically the implication that lexical replacement rates correlate across language families etc.
    Where this can be checked at all, it turns out to be false.

    The voodoo science of lexicostatistics refuses to stay dead, especially in the context of Africa, where real comparative work has been fruitful in some subfamilies but there isn’t a lot of solidly based large-scale stuff yet and there’s an awful lot of handwaving where it ought to be, instead of the humble silence that there should be (video meliora, proboque …)

    Your implication is valid though. I may have let unreasoning prejudice cloud my judgment.
    I agree with JC, though, that their actual conclusions seem a bit … counterintuitive. What’s your take on it?

  224. How? Body part nouns, say, are more slowly replaced than, say, verbs describing mental states. That’s not a bad generalization for languages everywhere.

  225. Etienne says:

    David Eddyshaw:

    1-“There’s no difference between infinitives and finite forms in an isolating language: if you were going to relexify Gbe with French morphemes, why wouldn’t you do it with infinitives just as well as finite forms”

    -Well, as shown in the article John Cowan linked to above, generalization of the infinitive as a basic verb form is alien to adult L2 acquisition of a Romance language.

    The reason is clear to my mind: infinitives have two strikes against them: 1-In most Romance varieties they are less frequent in everyday speech than present indicative/imperative forms, and 2-They are more marked, morphologically, in most Romance languages: they consist of the verbal stem PLUS a specific morpheme (/e/ in French for verbs of the first group, thematic vowel + /r/ in Spanish/Portuguese or /re/ in Italian…).

    Thus, to a speaker of an isolating language (be it Gbe or Chinese…) heavily exposed to French or any other Romance language, the present indicative/imperative bare stem would seem a much more “basic” form than the infinitive, even if bare stems and infinitives were equally numerous in ordinary speech, which they are not. And that is indeed what happens in language death + L2 language acquisition situations involving a Romance language: a bare verb stem, and not the infinitive, is the basic form.

    2-Regarding Palenquero Creole Spanish: The simple fact of the matter is that the total absence of any gender marking morphology, any agreement, any person- or tense-marking bound morpheme on the verb, is not just alien to either Spanish or to Kinkongo: it is alien to ANY non-creole Romance or Bantu variety. Making it that much less likely that language contact between Spanish and Kikongo just happened to yield a new language variety which A-Is stunningly un-Romance and un-Bantu-like, and B-Just happens to look quite ordinary if one compares it to Spanish pidgins. Right down to the fact that most Palenquero verbs derive from the form of the Spanish infinitive.

    3-Pidgins are indeed distinct from one another, but pidgins to my mind are defined by what they failed to acquire from the lexifier (most lexemes, (nearly) all bound morphemes, many phonemes), not by what they subsequently create/borrow. In this connection it is important to stress that many “substrate” features (vocabulary, structures…) in stable pidgins/creoles are post-formative: that is to say, these features were not present in the pidgin/creole from day 1, but rather entered at a later stage in the history of the pidgin/creole.

  226. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Y:

    Yes, I have no problem with your statement. My allergic reaction was to the sulphurous whiff of lexicostatistics. (Anathema!)

    What I meant by “counterintuitive” was not generalities like that but specifically Table 1.

  227. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Etienne: thanks again.

    I’m not by any means wedded to the idea in fact that the Atlantic creoles aren’t creoles stricto sensu; I do like to see proper arguments deployed (which you do); I think they vary in cogency, but the basic facts don’t seem to be to be very disputable unless one has powerful personal/political reasons for disbelieving them. Thanks for indulging my curiosity.

    I do have a considerable problem with JMcW’s belief that extreme morphological simplicity is diagnostic of past creolisation. I think his argumentation is frankly Bad Science, about which I have strong views probably reflecting my day job. But that is logically separable from his views on actual creoles (and I wish he would perform the logical separation.)

    Your point (3) is particularly interesting (and basically seems to answer “yes” to my question “Is that reasonable?”, which is gratifying.) It gives ample scope (it seems to me) for both a characterisation of the Atlantic creoles as creoles in the proper sense of the term and the observation that (for example) the English-lexifier ones would fit right in as West African languages, and more generally for the sort of work seen in the paper that Lameen linked.

    Presumably the devil would be in the detail: at what stage in the life cycle of these creoles they acquired substrate vocabulary and syntactic features (phonological features, too, come to that.)

  228. David Marjanović says:

    why is it that the total number of Basque- or Uralic influenced varieties of Romance or Russian (respectively) lacking grammatic gender is…zero?

    Admittedly, gender is unusually easy to learn in Romance (except French) and Russian, because most nouns showcase their gender in their ending or lack thereof. You could almost reinterpret it from morphology to phonology (“spread -a from nouns to any nominals that refer to them”) – in stark contrast to Germanic of the last thousand years.

    Still, the fact that this hasn’t been completely regularized in any kind of Romance or Russian that I know of may be significant.

    Chinook Jargon was a pidgin for a long time before it creolized. It seems to have arisen mostly for communication between Chinookan and Salishan speakers (indeed it contains plenty of Salishan vocabulary) – and while the morphologies of these two langage families both happen to be very rich, they’re very different from each other! The lowest common denominator may be close to zero, if I may wreak some havoc upon mathematical metaphors. It may also be relevant that the region had a tradition of using pidgins: before Chinook Jargon, there was a Nootka Jargon (Salishan) and a Haida Jargon.

  229. And mathematicians will go on talking about highest common denominators (if they don’t generalize to lattice infima¹). It’s fine that phrases take on their own life and change their sense outside of specialist usage, but in this case it’s not even the actual concept from arithmetic that’s been adopted, and the popular version runs serious interference against the original in my poor monkey brain. *looks annoyed*

    FWIW Danish has exactly the same, mindste fællesnævner in the media against største fællesnævner in the classroom. And I’m sure David knows what’s what.

    ¹) – An infimum in maths is not the lowest ting in a collection (that’s the minimum); it’s the highest possible thing that’s lower than or equal to all the things in the collection. The lattice in question is the natural numbers with the partial order of divisibility.

  230. Tim May says:

    Nootka Jargon (Salishan)

    Wakashan, surely?

  231. Stu Clayton says:

    That confused “highest/lowest common denominator” talk has annoyed me for years. I don’t try anymore to understand what is meant in terms of fractions (as a side effect, I seem to have forgotten even what “numerator” and “denominator” mean). I just rephrase it mentally as “what they all have in common”.

    In contrast, “lattice infimum” is as clear as a guy could want. Apparently I have grown out of fractions.

  232. J.W. Brewer says:

    Going back to something in the original vocal fries piece blockquoted by hat, I am struck by “Both of us . . . take extreme issue with McWhorter’s notion of” blah blah blah. I will confess that I had maybe not previously considered how one would intensify the stock phrase “take issue with” but “insert ‘extreme’ or other intensifying ADJ before ‘issue'” seems weird to my ear a bit hard to make sense of. “Weird to my ear” doesn’t mean that much, since it’s definitely a thing, as googling reveals, but I’m not sure if I can figure out a broader pattern or rationale that would predict it. I can only google up two hits for “raise[d] extreme hell” is unknown to google but the more modest “raise[d] considerable hell” is better-attested …

  233. Stu Clayton says:

    Take 8 issue with on a scale from 1 to 10.

  234. Yes, they have a chart in doctors’ offices showing 0 as a face nodding in enthusiastic agreement and 10 as a sweaty, open-mouthed face with flecks of spittle flying out in all directions.

  235. It’s funny, I’m usually at least a bit irritated by the syntactic/structural innovations in the way Kids Today talk, but “take extreme issue with” didn’t even get me to 2 on the chart (eyebrows drawn down in a look of mild concern).

  236. J.W. Brewer says:

    Google books reveals a 1903 “dialect humor” story with ‘Well,’ sez I, ‘we kin raise considerable hell once we gits agoin’.’ So if that’s an example of the same pattern it’s not a super-recent innovation that Kids Today deserve the credit or blame for. But maybe “raise hell” and “take issue” aren’t the same construction, especially since it’s “take issue with” and no comparable additional mandatory lexeme comes with raising hell?

  237. Stu Clayton says:

    Raisin’ all hell.

    When I take issue, I give no quarter.

  238. Hell, I don’t even give a dime.

  239. Etienne says:

    David Marjanović: In answer to your remark (“Admittedly, gender is unusually easy to learn in Romance (except French) and Russian, because most nouns showcase their gender in their ending or lack thereof.”), this still leaves unexplained the matter at hand, namely: if one claims that Romance creoles are products of L2 acquisition, and that pidginization played no role in the genesis of Romance creoles, then why did L2 learners (even those whose L1 had gender markers and agreement) so *consistently* fail to acquire Romance gender in the case of all Romance creoles (even those whose lexifier, such as Spanish or Portuguese, has easy-to-learn gender), when no other Romance variety (including those whose genesis involved large-scale L2 learning, by speakers of languages which in many cases -such as Basque- lacked grammatical gender altogether) has lost grammatical gender?

  240. @Stu, I was the one confused between the concepts of ‘highest common divisor’ and ‘lowest common denominator’ — when adding fractions in the classroom, you convert (‘extend’) them all to have the lowest common denominator, which is the lowest common multiple or lattice supremum of the denominators (numbers under the fraction line).

    So actually ‘lowest common denominator’ is used in the classroom, but it’s a number greater than or equal to any of the numbers it’s based on — and this is more or less the opposite of the popular sense of the ‘best possible compromise’ achieved by taking away stuff people don’t like or understand. It would match the mathematical sense better if the compromise was achieved by putting in anything that just one party wants (a.k.a. design by committee), but if reading ‘denominator’ as ‘something that’s true of somebody’ it’s easy to see how ‘common denominator’ gets the ‘fits everybody’ sense, and then ‘lowest’ is handy to show your disdain for the morally weak who pander to the masses.

    As a mathematical operation in number theory (where the naturals under division is the ‘default’ lattice) we in the business fondly call it lcm, spoken least common multiple. It’s the dual of gcd, greatest common divisor. And to return to David M’s mixed metaphors, the lowest possible gcd is actually 1, while the lowest common denominator increases without bound in hopeless cases. (Worst case is the product of all numbers involved, achieved if they are mutually prime, so just add more prime numbers to get to where you want).

    The ‘highest common divisor’ or gcd is used in grade school arithmetic as well, it’s how you find what to factor out when simplifying a fraction. But that only involves two numbers.

  241. J.W. Brewer says:

    For “HCD” or “GCD” there’s also the synonym “GCF” (greatest common factor), which may be the most common one in the dialect spoken by my kids’ math teachers. It may well have likewise been most common in the dialect spoken by my own math teachers 40-odd years ago, but my memory is a bit fuzzy and unreliable. I don’t know if variation in preference among those three options correlates with geography or what. (And googling suggests that the fourth option of HCF is also extant.)

  242. Greatest Common Divisor is the name chosen for the Wikipedia article, FWIW, but it does list GCF and other synonyms. In mathematical articles you are not likely to find anything but gcd, though.

    If you extend from the naturals to the integers you get that everything divides zero, making the lattice complete and the join (another name for the thing we’re discussing) always defined. The lcm (meet) of the empty set is then zero, just as the gcd is one. One of those little counterintuitive things that make sense when you think about them a bit more.

  243. In mathematical articles you are not likely to find anything but gcd, though.

    In mathematical articles you are not likely to find anything that a non-mathematician can understand. Even I, a quondam math major, find my eyes glazing over when I try to read one. I understand that mathematicians hate imprecision and want terms used correctly and ideas presented in completely accurate terms, but the result is hermetic isolation. What would be so terrible about having a short introductory paragraph giving a layman’s explanation, with a warning (perhaps in red) that you need to read the whole article (and probably take several classes in the subject) to truly understand?

  244. Nothing would be wrong with that, but I am not sure that the average mathematician is able to set aside their specialist mindset long enough to write anything that a layman would think of as an improvement.

    And actually there is plenty of leeway in mathematics for imprecise (metaphoric, extended) use of terms as long as your peers can tell what you mean, but that may actually block laymen from following the argument. What doesn’t fly is vagueness. “By factoring the operator space into nilpotent and bijective components” horribly mixes terminology but wouldn’t faze a mathematician reading an article on linear algebra, however trying to follow it without the grounding would be very frustrating because you would have to read up on several different subjects and figure out the correspondences between them so you can understand all the words in a single context.

  245. Nothing would be wrong with that, but I am not sure that the average mathematician is able to set aside their specialist mindset long enough to write anything that a layman would think of as an improvement.

    Right, but my understanding is that people who both understand the math and can write for the general reader have tried to add simplified explanations only to have them deleted. I may be wrong, but it seems plausible.

  246. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s like linguistics discussion in those ways. I still haven’t been able to figure out whether everyone is in agreement on what “creolization” is – and, if they are, whether they disagree merely about which languages are to count as creoles, or, if not, about how acknowledged creoles can or must arise, whether McWhorter is whistling Dixie et cetera.

  247. If we are talking about Wikipedia specifically, I have heard the same thing which is why I have never tried to do so myself. I thought you meant mathematical publication in general.

  248. No no, I meant Wikipedia. That is, after all, where the layperson turns to get a basic idea about stuff.

  249. True. And maths on Wikipedia is painfully stuffy, it’s a shame really. If you want math written for mathematicians go to nCatLab, it will make your eyes glaze over in much fewer lines.

    “As a poset is a special kind of category, a meet is simply a product in that category.” Says everything, really.

  250. John Cowan says:

    “What’s a monad? Why, a monad is just a monoid in the category of endofunctors. What’s the problem?” —James Iry, who fictionally attributes it to Philip Wadler

    To which I reply: “Yes, all very well, but is it windowless?

  251. maths on Wikipedia is painfully stuffy

    And maths on StackOverflow is actively hostile to either ‘imprecise’ questions (i.e. the sort asked by somebody who doesn’t already know the answer) or to understandable answers.

    Youtube, though has some brilliant explanations/recreational math: numberphile, SingingBanana, standupmaths. So mathematicians in general are not stuffy.

  252. A monad is just ‘a’ monoid in a category of endofunctors, true, bearing in mind that endofunctor categories (there is a different one for each underlying weak 2-category) are monoidal and monoidal categories as a generalization of certain structures existing in the category of sets have a default way of implementing the concept of monoid.

    This is actually a good illustration of what I mean — the ‘just a monoid’ part is formally not very precise, there are many kinds of monoids, but if you know the subject there is only one thing it can reasonably mean and nobody will object to the formulation. But just saying ‘the’ category of endofunctors will make people wince because something is missing.

    Wadler’s quote is probably from a context where it is understood that some specific category is the subject, and then it’s fine.

    Also, of course it is, we don’t do windows here.

  253. David Marjanović says:

    Wakashan, surely?

    Uh… oops! Yes.

    this still leaves unexplained the matter at hand, namely: if one claims that Romance creoles are products of L2 acquisition, and that pidginization played no role in the genesis of Romance creoles, then why did L2 learners (even those whose L1 had gender markers and agreement) so *consistently* fail to acquire Romance gender in the case of all Romance creoles

    I agree with you, of course: the Romance creoles are all descended from pidgins. I don’t think McWhorter disagrees; he just places pidginization on a continuum with WISLL.

    I still haven’t been able to figure out whether everyone is in agreement on what “creolization” is –

    I think they’re not. They definitely weren’t 30 years ago.

  254. @AntC: There are two math sites in Stack Exchange, one for amateurs, one for professional mathematicians. You may have tried the wrong one.

  255. John Cowan says:

    Wadler’s quote

    Let me emphasize that this is a joke on Wadler, not a quotation by him. He wouldn’t be so insufferable.

  256. Yeah, the What’s the problem? part is not cool. Let me quote nCatLab again, s.v. endofunctor: “A monoid in this endofunctor category is called a monad on C”. It really is the most concise definition of a monad, and if some alternate universe category theorist had never heard the word monad before, they would just nod and get on with lunch.

  257. Sidenote: this has got to be one of the fastest-growing LH threads so far. At 259 comments (well, 260 after this one) this thread has in just two weeks already beaten such notable long-runners as Urchin (and I think it actually broke 200 within six days). I think I’ve already lost track at least twice of this being in fact the same discussion as it was last going at. (Maybe more, if I were to re-read everything and see what all we’ve covered.)

  258. I know, whenever it crops up in Recent Comments I think “Which thread is that, now? I know it was long but I can’t remember what it was about…”

  259. I had maybe not previously considered how one would intensify the stock phrase “take issue with”

    It’s hard to intesify stock phrases. The commonest way is to add “literal[ly]”, but that (a) makes smoke come out of literal people’s ears and (b) wouldn’t work with “take issue with” and (c) they’ve already used “literal” literally in the same sentence. More generally, I guess it depends on how dead the metaphor is for you. My pet peeve is “take with a huge pinch of salt”.

    What would be so terrible about having a short introductory paragraph giving a layman’s explanation

    Wikipedia has a few “Introduction to …” articles about technical topics; the only mathematical one is Introduction to systolic geometry I can confirm that it is somewhat shorter than the non-introductory “Systolic geometry” article.

  260. …whenever it crops up in Recent Comments I think “Which thread is that, now? I know it was long but I can’t remember what it was about…”

    That often makes me think of the scripts in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

  261. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Matter of McWhorter is inexhaustible.
    It is thought to have originated in Brythonic legend, but has now provided literary inspiration to many nations.

  262. The Vocal Fries briefly review the matter in their latest episode, which focuses on Swahili and zombies and is well worth a listen: https://vocalfriespod.fireside.fm/46

  263. ktschwarz says:

    I liked this intensification of a stock phrase right here by Hat: “so far up my alley it might as well be living in my house.”

  264. Why, thank you! I confess I was pleased with it myself.

  265. Crawdad Tom says:

    As for intensification (or other modification) of the stock phrase “take issue with,” COCA has examples with:

    particular, serious, strong, great, slight, sharp, vociferous, heated, specific, great, real, huge, big, misguided, unyielding–and more.

  266. Stu Clayton says:

    Those COCA examples show that this is not at all about “intensification of a stock phrase”. The adjectives ostensibly attached to “issue” in fact describe the way in which the issue-taker takes issue, the intensity of his/her feelings about the issue etc.

    We’re talking transferred epithet here. Like a pastie relocated onto the nose. Shouldn’t fool anybody.

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