Victor Mair has a post at the Log about John McWhorter’s Wall Street Journal article “What the World Will Speak in 2115: A century from now, expect fewer but simpler languages on every continent.” After a fair amount of chitchat, the thread gets quite interesting; I agree with the commenters who say that no matter how much global power China accumulates it’s unlikely Mandarin will replace English as the world’s main language. What leads me to post is a brilliant comment by Sally Thomason (January 27, 2015 @ 5:15 pm), which I will take the liberty of reproducing in toto, adding a paragraph break for readability:
The trouble with McWhorter’s scenario about languages getting simpler if they’re learned by non-native speakers is that there’s a lot of evidence against the hypothesis. Modern English morphology (word structure) is simpler than Old English morphology was, but English syntax is hardly simple. Nobody has come up with a satisfactory measure of overall syntactic (sentence structure) complexity for English or any other language — because, for one thing, no complete syntactic description of any language exists. Language contact is a universal of the human condition; simplification under language contact definitely isn’t, and that includes language shift situations, where non-native speakers learn a target language: some such changes do lead to overall simplification, but others don’t. One salient example: Russian (like English) has been learned by many, many non-native speakers over the centuries, and Russian morphology has not gotten simpler as a result of all this second-language learning. Another example: in the aboriginal Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and neighboring Canadian provinces, multilingualism was the norm, much of the language learning was done by non-native speakers of the various target languages, and these languages had and have some of the most complex morphological systems in the world.
And a partial answer to reader_not_academe’s question about family trees vs. sociolinguistics: family tree models have been constructed for a great many language families all over the world, and the results of efforts to reconstruct undocumented prehistoric parent languages have led to a great many successes in the form of testable hypotheses about family-specific language changes. But historical linguists have always known that family trees can tell only part of the story of a language family’s history: the Comparative Method (by which family trees are constructed and parent languages reconstructed) identifies anomalous data, but cannot provide explanations for anomalies — other methods must be used to explain anomalies, most notably methods from contact linguistics. Modern sociolinguistics is providing wonderfully rich insights into processes of language change, but it remains true that the ultimate results of language diversification, in all but a handful of cases, turn out to fit into family trees (with reconstructable parent languages and testable historical hypotheses). The handful of family-tree-less cases include pidgin and creole languages, as well as bilingual mixed languages.
Makes me want to get back into the field, or at least take a class from her.
Update. John McWhorter responds; here’s his take on the Russian issue:
A crucial caveat, though: this kind of acquisition was most impactful before widespread education and literacy. Russian has been used as a second-language quite a bit without being simplified, indeed – but its spread has been reinforced to a large extent by formal education, literacy, and then media. Certainly there have been non-native varieties of Russian spoken in a great many places – but they almost never reach print and will never become the standard. “Broken” English took over in a country where most people were essentially illiterate, there was barely a such thing as school, and then after a long period when only French was written and the old tradition of writing in a high West Saxon Old English became a mere memory, it felt natural to start using “on the ground” English on the page.
Today, it is much harder for non-prescriptive varieties to be reinterpreted as prestigious ones in this way. The “immigrant” Swedish now spoken by children of immigrants will never oust standard Swedish or affect it in any real way, whereas the “immigrant” Norwegian spoken by Low Germans several centuries ago became the Norwegian norm in the area (whereas Scandinavian dialects further north such as the unfortunately obscure Elfdalian retain Old Norse’s three genders, etc.). We moderns perhaps have to strain a bit to imagine worlds where language was primarily oral and our prescriptivist sense of language barely existed.
The whole thing is worth reading (as, of course, are the comments); he addresses many of the issues raised.