2009-10-14

The language post

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that there are lots of cases and tenses in the Latin language, more than in any of the modern languages which came from it. Thus, for those and some other reasons, Latin is more complex than any other languages in its family. I think the same holds for ancient Greek, though I am no language scholar, so I might be oversimplifying the situation.

This leads me to believe that languages have become simpler in the last two thousand years. How can this be? Languages can't always become simpler, because I know for a fact that language developed from single words into the phrases, tenses, sentences, and cases that we know and love today.

That means that since spoken or written language first developed tens of thousands of years ago, there was a period of ever-increasing language complexity, as speakers wanted to convey ever move complicated thoughts. Then, there was a peak some time and somewhere, whether it was Greek, Latin, or otherwise, at which point it all began to simplify.

The way I see it, there are three possible explanations. The first is that ancient Latin and Greek were artificially complex; i.e. they were created by academics who wanted a fully-expressive formal language. Second, there might be some other factor of language which has picked up the leftover complexity, such as context, tone, word order, etc. And lastly, it could be that geographic and cultural differences determine which language features are important in a particular locale, and other are left away as extraneous.

The first is supported by the concept of vulgar latin, spoken differently by uneducated people in various locations, and classical latin, which was explicitly agreed upon by prominent scholars. The second possibility above is extremely difficult to measure, though intuition and reasoning lead me to believe it is nearly identical with the third reason, meaning that speech in a given city or countryside automatically brings a stronger context with it than if it were studied from the entire country or empire. It would seem both of these explanations double as motivations for diverging language. People want to be special, and they want to be able to communicate as easily as possible with those people they see most often, and so their language may develop locally. I doubt that it is, according to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a curse placed on humans by a demigod, prohibiting language convergence.

However, one element of Snow Crash's explanation of languages hits the nail on the head: there are many parallels to be drawn between written languages and programming languages. Stephenson tips Sumerian as machine language, and offhand, one might call C computer's Latin, with BASIC, Java, Perl, Python, etc. all specifically and contextually powerful variants on the language tree.

It really makes me wonder which way language is going. Since we live in the Information Age, I'm tempted to think that in a thousand years, everyone in the world with grow up like the Irish: learning one common language and possibly also a somewhat obsolete colloqial one, which in their case are English and Gaelic. I'm not sure yet if I'd be happy or sad about that.

Are there any language scholars out there who can point me in the right direction?

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