Time's arrow

From Otto Jesperson's 1922 "Language," on the enduring difficulty of evaluating processes of natural evolution in terms of either progress or decay:
To men fresh from the ordinary grammar-school training, no language would seem really respectable that had not four or five distinct cases and three genders, or that had less than five tenses and as many moods in its verbs. Accordingly, such poor languages as had either lost much of their original richness in grammatical forms (e.g. French, English, or Danish), or had never had any, so far as one knew (e.g. Chinese), were naturally looked upon with something of the pity bestowed on relatives in reduced circumstances, or the contempt felt for foreign paupers. . . .  [A] language possesses an inestimable charm if its phonetic system remains unimpaired and its etymologies are transparent; but pliancy of the material of language and flexibility to express ideas is really no less an advantage; everything depends on the point of view: the student of architecture has one point of view, the people who are to live in the house another.
I may here anticipate the results of the following investigation and say that in all those instances in which we are able to examine the history of any language for a sufficient length of time, we find that languages have a progressive tendency. But if languages progress towards greater perfection, it is not in a bee-line, nor are all the changes we witness to be considered steps in the right direction. The only thing I maintain is that the sum total of these changes, when we compare a remote period with the present time, shows a surplus of progressive over retrogressive or indifferent changes, so that the structure of modern languages is nearer perfection than that of ancient languages, if we take them as wholes instead of picking out at random some one or other more or less significant detail. And of course it must not be imagined that progress has been achieved through deliberate acts of men conscious that they were improving their mother-tongue. On the contrary, many a step in advance has at first been a slip or even a blunder, and, as in other fields of human activity, good results have only been won after a good deal of bungling and 'muddling along.' My attitude towards this question is the same as that of Leslie Stephen, who writes in a letter (Life 454): "I have a perhaps unreasonable amount of belief, not in a millennium, but in the world on the whole blundering rather forwards than backwards."
Schleicher on one occasion used the fine simile: "Our words, as contrasted with Gothic words, are like a statue that has been rolling for a long time in the bed of a river till its beautiful limbs have been worn off, so that now scarcely anything remains but a polished stone cylinder with faint indications of what it once was" (D 34). Let us turn the tables by asking: Suppose, however, that it would be quite out of the question to place the statue on a pedestal to be admired; what if, on the one hand, it was not ornamental enough as a work of art, and if, on the other hand, human well-being was at stake if it was not serviceable in a rolling-mill: which would then be the better--a rugged and unwieldy statue, making difficulties at every rotation, or an even, smooth, easygoing and well-oiled roller?


Grim said...

A reasonable argument. Ancient Greek is, I am told by friends who study it, much richer than modern Greek. Generally that is thought to be a kind of marker for Greek civilization generally. But doubtless the Greeks of today are materially much more prosperous, if less inclined to rich expression of subtly different ideas.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Generally, one language is not richer than another, nor is an earlier version richer or purer in any way. The world has gone in Jesperson's direction since his day, I think with accuracy.

The more isolated a language is, the more it will develop tenses, moods, genders, cases. These are the means by which a people unto itself can communicate with great efficiency: a single word, plus a variety of very subtle changes, can communicate an enormous amount. A native speaker knows that changing the primary vowel of a verb from a to e now tells us not only that someone eats, but that "My wife ate, alone."

This breaks down when one trades with others, or conquers/is conquered, or travels. Adults learning a language leave those things off. They have to add in more vocabulary to be understood. With long use, these pidgins and creoles develop subtle twists of simplification as well. Languages which came in contact with others lost all that elegant-looking stuff from Latin and Greek. Latin and Greek lost them, too as they were used as lingua franca. Latin is not a dead language, because Spanish, French and Portuguese survive. That's just what languages do - constantly strive for economy among those who are close, but having to add complexity if one wants to do business with others, even with related languages.

Isolated languages, such as those deep in the Caucasus or in remote valleys in New Guinea, have very complex rules - many cases, genders, etc. Those would be impossible to use as international languages, no matter what political or economic circumstances obtained.

Texan99 said...

Yes, for a man who came of age intellectually in the 19th century, he seems very modern. McWhorter talks a lot, doesn't he, about the crazy lushness of isolated languages? Every style of declension in the book--cases, genders, moods, tenses--and a whole handful of sounds that nobody can dream of making if he didn't grow up there. A lot of that gets scraped off if the speakers ever have to deal with any outsiders.

Jesperson thought carefully about the continual balance between the speaker's need for speed and convenience and the listener's need for disambiguation. Doohickies get added to and subtracted from the language constantly to address one or the other of these two opposing forces. It reminds me of geology. I suppose, though, it's more like biological evolution, where we're often tempted to describe its arc as "progress," instead of as a continual adaptation to whatever the prevalent conditions are.

douglas said...

I like that English seems to have addressed this by stripping the things like gender and other grammatical devices, but substituted a huge amount of vocabulary, much of that adopted from other languages, to reintroduce the ability to finely and precisely speak of something.

In the end, I think it works well. I'm sure though that my Father-In-Law likes that his native language has all those grammatical devices so that he can play with the words and their structure more in the way he delivers them- that is his strength as a writer/speaker.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

McWhorter is quite sensible on many topics.