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DominicX's avatar

Do languages get simpler over time?

Asked by DominicX (28777points) May 31st, 2010

I’ve noticed trends in languages where they seem to get “simpler” both in terms of pronunciation and in terms of grammar.

A lot of people complain that English is “degenerating” and such, and while I don’t necessarily think that, it is true that grammatically the language seems to have simplified. For example, only one verb inflection ending for present tense remains: ”-s” to mean 3rd person singular as in “sings”, “takes”, “wins”, “does”, etc. English used to have more, like “taketh”, “takest”, etc. The subjunctive is also disappearing and words like “whence” and “thither” went away in favor of just “where” and “there” and the word “whom” is disappearing from usage as well. Noun declensions also tend to disappear over time.

Modern Greek took most of its diphthongs like “oi”, “ei”, that were originally pronounced “oh-ee” and “eh-ee” (said quickly) and they are now both pronounced just “ee”. Likewise, the vowel upsilon was pronounced like the French “u” and now it is pronounced “ee”.

How much simpler do you think English will become? Do you have any other examples of languages doing this? Why does this happen? Is it always for convenience? There are some instances where I think such “simplifications” actually make the language more ambiguous.

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42 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

Languages change over time, but generally linguists and sociolinguists prefer not to characterize languages in terms of whether they are simple or complex. After a couple of hundred years of comparative research, this has not been found to be a useful metric. Nor do linguists recognize any hierarchy of language in terms of complexity, except that pidgins during the 1st generation are simplified languages of utility, but once they creolize (in the next generation) they become as complex as any other extant tongue.

DominicX's avatar

@dpworkin

But it is apparent that grammatical forms disappear in favor of less grammatical forms. Less inflections, less noun cases, less vowel sounds, etc.

Is this just a common trend? Some grammatical forms seem to just prove themselves unnecessary over time. For example, the locative case in Latin was largely dropped in favor of the ablative. I just wonder why the locative existed in the first place.

DominicX's avatar

In other words, I’m not saying “simple” and “complex” as in “this language is better than this one”, I’m saying it in terms of the amount of different grammatical forms and phonetic sounds and the trend that many languages seem to have less and less over time.

Fyrius's avatar

Some distinctions are lost in time, and others take their place.
Overall I don’t think the language becomes less complex. People have always been lazy and have always wanted everyone else to understand them, and so the complexity of language has always been as simple as people could get away with. Always taking the path of least resistance, wearing off what takes more effort than strictly necessary.
And I’m pretty sure there’s never been any reason for the English-speaking world to use a more complex language than needed.

DominicX's avatar

@Fyrius

Makes sense.

Another question I was thinking about: Are there any examples of languages gaining additional different forms? Do languages ever add a noun case or add an inflection?

Seems like there would never be any reason to do this, but who knows…

dpworkin's avatar

That is true except when it is not. In the case of English it is true that we no longer inflect for the nominative or the dative case, but that is not the same as saying that English has become less grammatical. Nor do we ever entirely lose the old forms.

Let’s look at an example from Black American Vernacular English. In the constructions “He workin’” and “He be workin’”, some untutored observers would see a “devolution” of the verb form from standard, or received grammar in the clause “to be”.

But in the actual case, when examined, it turns out that this construction, based on African cognates, actually offers a distinction not available in White American Vernacular Engilsh. In case One, it means “He (is at the present time) (at work). In case Two it means “He (not having had a regular job) (is now regularly employed).” We can’t do that as elegantly in Standard English, so what appears to have been a grammatical loss turns out to be a semantic elaboration. Does this make sense?

DominicX's avatar

@dpworkin

Actually, we learned that exact example this year in my sociolinguistics class. :)

A lot of judgmental people could benefit from that…

Fyrius's avatar

@dpworkin
That’s a great example.

dpworkin's avatar

@DominicX I admire your answer. We tend to denigrate differences as being of lesser quality, when actually we are just missing the nuance.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@dpworkin You be workin! Righteous… One mo’ gin.

dpworkin's avatar

@DominicX In regard to your secondary question, linguists have come to feel over the years that a language will evolve to allow something to be discussed that it was not once necessary to discuss. If this requires a different inflection, the inflection will propagate throughout the community of practice.

Thus, when there exists a taboo against marrying your mother’s sister’s daughter, there will be an inflection which will distinguish (cousin) from father’s brother’s son (cousin) which we do not use, because we do not require it. Is English therefor less complex than Dogon?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

And what say you about Panglish. Is this simplification or complexity at its finest? It seems to be a merging of one languages vocabulary with another languages syntax. Different than say, Ebonics.

Please share your thoughts on this. I’m curious.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

And speak to Esperanto as well please. It’s fascinating to hear you speak on this subject.

dpworkin's avatar

There is always one language which acts as the lexifier, and another substrate which acts as the syntaxifier when two languages merge. For example, in the case of Haitian Creole, the lexifiying tongue is French, but the grammar is African.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Is this simplification in a complex way, or complexity for the sake of simplification? I’m trying to tie your answer into the context of the OP. It seems complex to me, yet not as complex as a full translation. And ultimately, this is for the sake of simplification… or, as Fyrius puts it, just laziness. How much of a culture’s identity is lost by doing this?

Fyrius's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies
“How much of a culture‚Äôs identity is lost by doing this?”
None of it. The whole culture changes at the same time and in the same direction as the language.

dpworkin's avatar

Show me an example of your not being able to express something necessary to talk about in a modern language, and I will concede that it is insufficiently complex. However, considering that all languages are based on generative grammar (productive language) I do not believe that such an example exists. All other invidious comparisons are mere matters of taste.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Yes I agree most vehemently. But in that change, what ensures the heritage is not lost. For example, as DP requests, are there any concepts that are best left to Old English, that cannot be effectively communicated with our modern incarnation? I don’t know. I’m asking. And in doing so, I must also beg the question, that future language evolution be capable of accomplishing the same. For instance, can the King James Bible be effectively communicated with Ebonics?

dpworkin's avatar

Ebonics has become pejorative and is a non-preferred descriptor, but the answer is yes. Otherwise you would have to suggest that there is no poetry in Uncle Remus.

Fyrius's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies
What do you mean, the King James bible? If you’re going to talk about expressability in Ebonics, you’ll need to translate the bible into Ebonics anyway. Might as well translate it from the original Hebrew and Greek, without the detour of Middle English.

With that said, the bible has been translated into a gazillion languages and then some, including languages from entirely different language families, including languages of hunter-gatherer tribes with twenty speakers left on an island in South-Asia.
Since Ebonics is just a minor variation on English, I think it’s going to be all right.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@dpworkin I hadn’t thought of Ebonics as pejorative. But I certainly agree after you pointing it out. And I agree with your assessment as well @Fyrius. Thanks.

dpworkin's avatar

I concur that the Old Testament is best translated directly from the Hebrew, and the New directly from the Greek.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Ebonics Translator says…

“In da beginning, God created da heavens an’ da earth. What the fuck sup now?”

Shouldn’t “earth” read “erf”, and “God” read “Big Bro”?

dpworkin's avatar

One cool thing about change over time that appears to be a kind of simplifying, but when more closely examined turns out not to be is dialect leveling.

If you go up and down the East Coast, you find a different dialect sometimes every 20 miles (think of The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey, Southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, etc.)

Now think of what happens as you travel west: these dialects level, the farther West one travels. Why? The Westward traveling pioneers took samples from each dialect region, and over time the differences converged, in a process called accommodation.

LostInParadise's avatar

One way that languages get simpler is that most of the irregularities are from the oldest part of the language. It is the simplest and most basic words that are irregular, like the conjugations of the word to be in most languages. The reason for this is not hard to understand. Languages form spontaneously. There is no committee formed to determine the rules. Eventually, a particular way of conjugating verbs or pluralizing nouns becomes the standard.

ChocolateReigns's avatar

How do the words that started as nouns and have morphed into verbs (Like saying I facebooked her phone number.) fit into this?

dpworkin's avatar

Variants spread through a language community in lots of different ways. The particular example you mention, one might speculate, propagates through a particular community of practice, in this case, youngish Facebook users.

lilikoi's avatar

I would think languages get more complex as people come up with ways for describing increasingly specific things, and that after a point where most things have been described, language evolves with culture so you may have different words to describe the same thing with the occasional new word to explain a something that never existed before.

morphail's avatar

No, I don’t think it’s true that languages get generally simpler over time. It’s true that many European languages have become morphologically simpler over the past 1000 years, but they’ve become syntactically more complex. So English has lost inflections, but its word order is now stricter. For instance changing the order of the words can completely change the meaning: She turned me on, she turned on me. 1000 years ago English word order was much more flexible.

Overall, English is just as complex as it was 1000 years ago.

MRSHINYSHOES's avatar

I heard that languages do get simpler with time, and another interesting tid-bit——as languages “evolve”, they begin to use more “vowels” in their spoken language as opposed to using consonants. Thus, most European languages, in their spoken form, are more “primitive” than Asian languages such as Chinese, because they have more consonants in their spoken languages than Chinese, which use a lot of vowels. :)

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@dpworkin should we not evolve that to “Baah-loaneah”?

morphail's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES where did you hear this?

mattbrowne's avatar

No. Youth languages, sociolects and slang have existed in the past and will do so in the future. Technical or special terminology is actually on the rise. There are more new terms in a period of time compared to disappearing words or terms.

MRSHINYSHOES's avatar

@dpworkin I hate baloney! But I do love liverwurst.

camertron's avatar

George Orwell would say a resounding “yes” in his classic 1984. Part of the novel’s message is that, as we grow lazier, and as our society more actively supports its members, we start to think in a less complex way and therefore don’t speak or write as fluently. Just read some of the letters John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail. They are beautiful works of prose, written by two people in true command of their language. You don’t see people writing like that anymore. Why? Because people would rather send a postcard or a pre-printed creation from Hallmark than a true love letter.

morphail's avatar

@camertron The fact that people might rather send a pre-printed card than write a long letter is not evidence that people are thinking in less complex ways, or that language gets simpler over time. There are other reasons why people might not want to write long letters: lack of time, lack of teaching of handwriting. And we can still write beautiful prose if we want to.

Anyway, I thought the message of 1984 was that changing the language was supposed to change the way people thought.

Fyrius's avatar

@camertron
With all due respect to a great writer, George Orwell knew dick all about how language really works. Which is entirely forgiveable, for someone who lived long before the birth of modern linguistics.
Newspeak was a governmental invention to better control people’s thoughts by limiting what they can express. In a nutshell, languages are memetic systems with a life of their own, and cannot be controlled like that; and what your language can express doesn’t have nearly that much influence on what you can think.

As for the letters you mentioned, I think there are a few other things to take into account. I think @morphail is on to something: in the eighteenth century there were a lot less people who wrote at all, and in general writing wasn’t as cheap as it is now, which is why there was no equivalent of our texting lingo and chat speak. People just took writing more seriously, because it took more time and was more expensive. (And there are also still plenty of people left today who take writing seriously.)
And then there’s the fact that hideously bad writing usually isn’t as well-preserved as very good writing, which biases historical sources towards stuff worth saving.
It’s also just one example, of course. There are all sorts of good reasons why you can’t base generalisations on small numbers of non-randomly selected examples.
Furthermore if you want to be serious about comparing the complexity of language then and language now, you’ll need an objective standard for complexity. It would be irresponsible to base that sort of conclusion on whether something looks complicated, not just because it’s vague and subjective, but also because the writing of earlier times will always look more fancy by virtue of not being familiar.

camertron's avatar

@morphail maybe, but the way people are conditioned to think in 1984 is through governmental regulations and restrictions, not through language alone. I think Orwell was saying that, as people start to have their minds made up for them, they start to forget the words and patterns of thinking they might otherwise have had.

@Fyrius you make some great points that I hadn’t considered initially. Old and unfamiliar or not, 18th century writing still had more depth than many of the recent authors I’ve read. English is already one of the most nuanced languages around (second only to Chinese probably), so our ways of speaking have necessarily evolved over time. Much of the vocabulary even used by an author as recently published as 1970 (James Herriot, for instance) is wider than I have seen in modern literature. Are we forgetting those vocab words in favor of simpler words? Why aren’t we taught them through speech and reading anymore?

Fyrius's avatar

@camertron
Thanks. :)
I think the answer to your question might have something to do with the rise of pop culture. I think there always were more and less eloquent people, but only in the last half century or so have the less eloquent people become an interesting audience to write for.
If that’s the case, it’s more like English (and plenty of other languages, no doubt) has been bridging an ancient gap between very complex and poetic versus very basic language use. Since only the upper extreme would have been recorded, a development of averaging out would look like an overall deterioration.
(shrug)
Well, anyway, I don’t think languages are really capable of becoming significantly less complex. As I mentioned way up there, any language – wherever on earth, whenever in time – will always be a compromise between being easy to use and being effective for conveying the message.

P.S. Come to think of it, there’s also a wealth of recent expressive possibilities that earlier writers didn’t have at their disposal. Just look at all the possible usages of the word “fuck”.
It may not be as classy as “wherefore art thou Romeo”, but there’s no denying it offers new freedom of expression.

morphail's avatar

@camertron you also need an objective measure for what makes English and Chinese more nuanced than other languages. As far as i know no such measure exists. Linguists rend to think that all languages are roughly equal in expressive power.

I agree with @fyrius – Orwell knew very little about language.

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