The sci.lang FAQ: 30


30 Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex?

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[--markrose]

This question starts with an observation: the classical Indo-European languages, such as Latin, Greek, Old English, and Sanskrit, were highly inflected, while their modern descendants are not. For instance, French nouns have entirely lost the Latin case system, and French verbs have lost entire classes of forms, such as the passive voice.

It's natural to ask: how did the classical languages get so complex in the first place? Why are there inflecting languages at all; why don't they all become isolating, like Chinese?

The answer is that there are also complicating tendencies in language. Habitual idioms can become particles, which can become inflections-- a process called grammaticalization.

For instance, the future and conditional tenses in Romance languages don't derive from classical Latin, but the infinitive plus forms of 'to have'. French has rather complicated verb clusters (je ne le lui ai pas donné) which are perhaps best analyzed as single verbs showing both subject and object agreement.

Another example is the plethora of cases in Finnish, many of which derive from postpositions. Roger Lass has pointed out a cycle in Germanic languages where perfectives are developed, merge with the imperfect, and are developed anew.

Chinese is not immune from this phenomenon-- Mandarin already has verbal particles like perfective le, or nominal particles like the possessive/adjectivizing de. The diminutive -r even merges with the preceding syllable; e.g. diân + -r --> diâr 'a bit'.


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