February 26, 2007

Stray thoughts on the evolution of language

Monday begins with “Mond? which makes it easy for an English spell checker to guess what is going on and help out. If one asks why a particular word attaches to a particular thing, one might notice that some beginnings are such that it is easy for the listener to finish off the word or even the phrase, and others aren’t. Also, some beginnings are such that people are likely to finish the word or phrase wrong, and some such misunderstandings are dangerous. (We have one such comedy/tragedy with “Help/Hello.?) That is different from a related matter: sounds that sound alike, and so are liable to being confused.

This remark might cluster with many others to form a kind of evolutionary picture of the development of a language. A language with certain deficiencies will die because its speakers will die out, and a language with certain benefits will confer advantages such that, over time and absent nationalism, those whose languages lack such advantages will shift their usage, adopting foreign words or mimicking structures in the more advantageous language. We see that with some interaction between English and German: spelling and sentence structure simplify. (That case is interesting also, because the way it happens is partly that people used to one language learn the other and simplify it in ways that reflect their own comfort. If those simplifications make sense to “the natives,? they spread. Thus, language change could happen a whole lot faster than any natural selection picture would permit – with all sorts of by-ways, obviously.)

Another example – noted with scorn in the Cratylus: the way some words like “sizzle? and “crack? mimic that to which they refer. As a global theory of language, this limps. But a language needs such starting points for learners. And children will invent them, spontaneously. They then get taken up into parents’ speech. In a small community, an engaging word could take over the primary job of referring. This connects to something important. Pointing, the way one imagines early words being learned, is limited because the pointing grammar is so limited: what’s that? That’s a ____. So if one wants people to grasp complex grammar, sentences like, “The tiny, underdone sausages were sizzling on the grill,? there has to be a way for people to pick out bits of meaning within sentences – something more efficient than learning by pointing first and then applying that knowledge to sentences. A language with a good number of sound-alike words sprinkled through it will be importantly more learnable. And parents will have a reason to sprinkle such words through their sentences, and to look for words to sprinkle.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:34 AM