David at It’s Ablaut Time has an excellent and thought-provoking post suggesting that

the role of mistaken inferences in adding diversity to the linguistic pool is essentially analogous to the role of mutations in adding diversity to the genetic pool… In both cases, the mistransmission of a code adds to a pool of choices from which other factors (environmental factors/learnability) differentially select. The take-home message is that even optimizing changes in language are a product of our inability to completely understand one another.

I particularly like this passage: “While languages obviously serve as media of communcation, they are in many ways ill-suited to this task. Grammars are too complex, too byzantine, too intricate, and indeed too beautiful, to be optimal codes for communcation.” Yes, exactly, and for many of us it is precisely the intricate, byzantine bits that are a primary attraction. I’ve never been able to work up any interest in Esperanto and the other simplified languages, despite their theoretical value for easy communication, because they’re too damn boring. If I can’t have irregular verbs, I’d rather grunt and point.


  1. Now THAT is a quote.
    How about pidgins, though?

  2. An exasperating example is the way that (the English example) -s sometimes marks plurals (nouns) and sometimes marks singular (verbs), just as (in German) “der” sometimes distinguishes the object and sometimes the subject. And don’t get me started on the German plurals.
    “It’s really very logical, once you understand it”, the teachers always explain. It’s logical in the epicyclic sense that you can always make up a new logical rule to cover each exception.
    So anyway, I ended up loving Chinese, with its pidgin-like grammar. And I will always blame German noun declensions for Hitler.
    So I guess I disagree.

  3. Zizka makes an interesting point, I think, with his “epicycle” comment, but I don’t believe that the rules that cover exceptions are necessarily made up. There has to be some reason that “sub-regularities” exist. The weird thing, and the thing that fascinates me, is that languages are neither entirely arbitrary nor entirely regular. More thoughts on my updated entry at my blog.

  4. I wonder now (rather idly, I suppose) whether languages in their intricacies share fractal features with other complex natural forms.
    I’ve seen coastlines, tree forms, even the music of Jean Sibelius and the paintings of Jackson Pollock, all linked to the repeating complexities of fractals. But not languages.
    Any mathematically-minded linguists out there?

  5. Yes, David, that’s precisely what fascinates me about language! It’s made by people for people, and it works, but it wasn’t made by anyone in particular — so it has, as Elck suggests, that haunting “orderly chaos” about it that, say, beehives or coral reefs have.

  6. There are some weird things like “irregular verbs” in Esperanto, if you go deep enough into the language. For example, any verb can be used as a noun or an adjective, but if you’ve got “to hammer” does the obvious noun form become “a hammer” or “the act of hammering” — which, once Esperantists got around to looking at this question, it turned out that it was all based on what other natural languages did, and it wasn’t very logical at all. Esperanto is one of the most “natural” artificial languages out there.

  7. Which might explain the perception many people have that languages are actually consciously created, a priori, by a limited set of people. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read stuff about Yiddish that starts, “Yiddish was invented…”)
    That is, languages do seem created. But when you realize that they’re creatures of evolution, your fascination with them only grows.

  8. Mongol has these amazing suffixing systems which turn verbs into nouns, which can in turn be turned back into verbs with different meanings than the original verbs. I don’t think that I’ll live long enough to learn the language well, but the Mongol dictionary is fun to leaf through.
    A vocabulary item I’ve lost is the name of the “stick used to pick the maggots from meat that’s not really fresh”.

  9. Sadly, I am mono-lingual. I did have a little Spanish in high school but I didn’t retain enough to have even a simple conversation. Still, even with what little I know I am fascinated by all the irregularities in English. That’s why I stubbornly resist the anglicizing of certain borrowed words – Italian plurals in particular. English is just too much fun.

  10. oh do grunt and point. it’s *so* refreshing from time to time. either or both.

  11. Ngh.

  12. I’m sorry. I really can’t understand your dialect.

  13. One early Sinologist, perhaps sharing hat’s sick morphology fetish, said that the reason the Chinese was so taciturn (which the servants were; not a general Chinese trait) was that the Chinese language was so defective that it was pretty much useless, so much so that it needed supplementation by hand gestures, with the result that Chinese fell silent in the dark when hand gestures could not be seen.
    This particular Sinologist was a British colonel and his observations were published in a regimental journal or missionary broadsheet, IIRC.

  14. A Sinologist? An Orientalist, rather (see numerous Western jokes about Greeks, Spaniards, Maghrebins, Jews, etc., reduced to silence in cold Winter because they have to keep their hands in their pockets).

  15. I realize this off the main point, but it seems to me that Esperanto is boring not because it is regular, but because it is mainly devoid of culture. No stories, mythos, shared values etc… On the other hand Klingon seems interesting for those same non-linguistic features…

  16. That’s such an interesting point, T Bell. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way before.

  17. regarding verb –> noun –> verbs, I’ve enjoyed watching the verb “to commentate” be born. (The evolution, I take it, being “to comment” –> “commentary” –> “to commentate.”
    I’m sure purists wince and rail at it, but it’s a perfectly good verb, and it means something quite different from “to comment” — it means “to provide a running commentary.”

  18. Doug Sundseth says

    Orient -> Orientation -> Orientate, a very similar evolution, makes my teeth hurt. I much prefer Orientificate for the last term, because it hints at a deeper truth.
    As an even more off-topic aside, I’ve often thought “borealate” a more apposite term for non-Muslims. “Occidentate”, on the other hand, refers to cow teeth.

  19. Lots of interesting Occidentalist literature in Chinese and Japanese.

  20. Michael Farris says

    Esperanto does have something like a culture (spend any time with esperanto speakers and you’ll realize that very quickly) and there are irregularities, especially since many speakers don’t apply the ‘simple’ rules all that well.
    And interlingual communication among speakers of different languages in Esperanto is _very_ different from interlingual communication in english (ime, ymmv).
    I tend to like complex irregularities in grammar in languages with those (like Polish) and bedrock unadorned regularity in languages with that (like Thai) and I’d hate for one to become just like the other. If I have a favorite kind of structure though it would be for more regular morphological intricacy (like Turkish).

  21. The morphology of Turkish of probably very similiar to that of Mongol. Though as I understand the closeness of the relationship between the two languages is disputed.

  22. Dale, I think “commentate” comes from “commentator,” not from “commentary.”
    Does “running commentary” == “commentation”?

  23. Doug Sundseth says

    If “running commentary” == “commentation”, then one who delivers “running commentary” should be a “commentationator”, yes*?
    Doug Sundseth
    *In writing this, I find myself debating whether to use “yes” or “no”. In context, they seem to be synonymous. How odd.

  24. what bothers me about “to orientate” is that it doesn’t mean anything different than “to orient.” Just has more syllables.

  25. There’s a “backwards dictionary” of Mongolian, so that you can see how many similiarly-derived forms there are. My memory from leafing through is that there aren’t a lot; there a large number of suffixes with given functions, but you seldom find, for example, the same three suffixes in a row. (Suffixes are invariant so a dictionary search is meaningful).

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