The developmental overkill of language

In his excellent natural history of language, The Power of Babel, linguist John McWhorter describes dialects – and it’s all dialects – as “developed far beyond the call of duty”. He’s referring to the way languages tend to become structurally and idiosyncratically baroque:

Left to its own devices, a human language will tend to elaborate into overt expression of subdivisions of semantic space that would not even occur to many humans as requiring attention in speech and become riddled with exceptions and rules of thumb and things only learnable by rote. This process tends to achieve its most extreme expression among groups long isolated, but any language that has been spoken for tens of thousands of years exhibits some considerable degree of “developmental overkill.” It is this feature of human language that contributes to why learning other languages as an adult is such a challenge. No language has been goodly enough to remain completely tidy and predictable, no language has not stuck its nose somewhere where it didn’t really need to go, no language classifies objects and concepts according to principles so universally intuitive that any human could pick them up in an afternoon, and in none of them are there classifications indexed to currently perceptible cultural concepts in anything better than a highly approximate manner.

This tendency towards complex over-elaboration manifests inevitably in any language that has been around long enough. The converse is that new languages have relatively little such ornamentation, which emerges only through centuries or millennia of “sound erosions and changes, grammaticalizations, rebracketings, and semantic change”.

Pidgins are simplified languages, largely stripped of unnecessary complication, that arise for utilitarian reasons between groups who lack a common tongue. So when these are “born again” as full-fledged languages, in the form of creoles, the results are comparatively free of overdevelopment – before the engine of encrustation gets going again for subsequent generations.

12 Responses to The developmental overkill of language

  1. stuartnz says:

    Just out of curiosity, which languages have “been spoken for tens of thousands of years”?

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @stuartnz,.. your observation is well-taken, and speaks to the otherwise highly-regarded McWhorter perhaps demonstrating a little “overkill’ of his own, in trying to emphasis, or make his point of how a long-established language tends to evolve in its complexity over time, and ‘newer’ languages are generally less complicated, and more spare in their grammatical essence.

      His casual hyperbole is a tad disconcerting.

      Even when we look at say Farsi, which I’m assuming derived from ancient Persian, or Aramaic in the Levant/ Fertile Crescent that was likely extant even in pre-Old Testament times, ancient Egyptian and its hieroglyphs , and closer to home, the various tongues of North American native tribes (mostly orally sustained, w/ no written form, or alphabet), we are hardly looking at a window in time that spans barely three-to-four thousand years… even a mere ten thousand would be pushing the bounds of plausibility.

      Yet I still regard McWhorter as one of the more astute and most enjoyable and informative to read of all the high-profile lexicographers writing, commenting, and opining out there today.

    • John Cowan says:

      He clearly doesn’t mean “spoken unchanged”, since no language is spoken unchanged for as much as a hundred years, with the partial exception of the standardized or semi-standardized languages of the last few thousand years. Rather, he must mean “spoken in a continuous tradition without radical interference from other languages”.

  2. Instead of being celebrated for their purity this lack of overdevelopment and over-elaboration in Creoles often leads to them getting seen as bastard languages, mere broken versions of the ‘superior’ language to which they have a connection.

  3. cynthiamvoss says:

    Interesting article. Made me wonder, do you linguist types ever look at leet or internet slang? I think it’s interesting that it developed as a written rather than spoken “language.” It’s silly and fun, with creativity and one-upmanship at its core. What’s your take?

  4. Stan says:

    Stuart, Alex: I interpreted it much as John Cowan did: that McWhorter means languages with a continuous line of descent going back thousands of years. So I don’t think he was being hyperbolic; rather, it’s a given that these languages have evolved from older languages (to which we assign different names and time periods). His description serves to contrast such languages with creoles that may have existed only a hundred or a few hundred years.

    Catharine: Sadly true. AAVE is also regularly (and wrongly) criticised for having broken or inferior grammar. Some people never miss an opportunity to exploit language usage for the purpose of denigrating others.

    Cynthia: I’ve never looked at leet, but I have written about lolspeak, lol itself and, more generally, ‘unnecessary’ words, where fun and creativity (as you suggest) are intrinsic to the style.

    • stuartnz says:

      John, Stan: Thank you for that. I wouldn’t have read it that way, and still struggle to do so, as “tens of thousands” still sounds hyperbolic to me, but will gladly accept that he intended it to be read the way you did.

  5. Jace Harr says:

    This is a really interesting observation, and I think has a lot to do with the psychology of language. Thank you!

  6. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan, your final paragraph in this post would be a nice addition to an introduction to linguistics text. You succinctly summarize that which is often presented in a complex manner. Thank you. P.S.: I’ve also enjoyed your recent posts for many other reasons as well. As usual, you are insightful, creative, and informative. Thanks! (Your recent two-week respite was well deserved and probably needed.)

  7. Stan says:

    Jace: Thanks for your visit! I can’t recommend McWhorter’s book highly enough.

    Vinetta, many thanks for the kind words. Blogging has given way recently to work and offline commitments, but I have a few new posts planned or partially written.

  8. Clodagh says:

    Very interesting, as ever; thanks again Stan. I kind of wondered what McWhorter meant by a language being ‘left to its own devices’; since he identifies isolated groups as the best examples, does he mean where a language’s speakers do not need to engage with another language or its speakers, and which thereby remains uninfluenced by other languages? I wonder how many such languages there are/were, and what kind of historical evidence there might (or can) be for their diachronic development. I wondered too how language can ‘elaborate into overt expression of subdivisions of semantic space’, independently of speakers’ requirements or intention, as McWhorter seems to imply. Isn’t it intriguing that language, which is so fundamentally about human expression and communication, can embrace such counter-intuitive and seemingly irrational structures, and paradoxically impede itself.

    Interesting too that many languages (Indo-European ones, at least) also have a contrary tendency towards simplification in other areas, like verbal and nominal systems. Maybe there’s only so much complexity some speakers will take.

  9. Stan says:

    ‘Isn’t it intriguing that language, which is so fundamentally about human expression and communication, can embrace such counter-intuitive and seemingly irrational structures, and paradoxically impede itself. ‘

    Clodagh: Yes, and it’s interesting too in this respect to consider the evolution of living creatures, certain characteristics of which seem analogously over-developed. Male peacocks’ tails are a familiar example: they are an impediment in some ways, but they confer aesthetic appeal which pays off in females’ sexual selection. The antlers of the (now-extinct) Irish elk recur in traditional discussion of orthogenesis, but Stephen Jay Gould has argued persuasively (PDF) that they were adaptive. I’ll avoid opening the can of worms that is the ‘runaway’ human brain itself. More to the point, Language Log a few years ago looked at what makes a language difficult; and I seem to remember Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language covering this idea of languages oscillating between growing complexity and growing simplification rather well.

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