The developmental overkill of language

June 1, 2014

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.

The creole continuum

June 4, 2013

The much-loved “jive talk” scene from the comedy film Airplane! is an amusing if slightly improbable demonstration of how a single language – in this case English – can accommodate varieties so divergent as to be mutually incomprehensible.*

A more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him and the others increasingly unintelligible.

The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese creoles. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor; another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute:

They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply traveled along a continuum of creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in.

What I like about this anecdote is the incremental but radical spontaneous morphing of the language, along with the readymade metaphor (an elevator) in which the continuous shift takes place.

Ethnologue’s page on Guyanese Creole English also notes the “continuum of variation from basilectal Creole to acrolectal English of the educated”.

* Sometimes this communicative shortfall hinges on a single word, as in the famous case of William Caxton’s egges/eyren.

The Power of Babel: Dialects are all there is

March 19, 2013

In my recent post on the evolution of LOL, I included a video of John McWhorter, who has been studying this feature of language. One of his books, The Power of Babel, finally reached the top of my to-read mountain (more of a range, really), and I recommend it highly.

The Power of Babel is a beautifully written and soundly researched history of language that conveys expertly how language changes and what pressures (internal and external) induce that change. Its focus, refreshingly, is not on English – or on any particular language – while pidgins and creoles get prominent coverage.

We get a strong sense from Babel of how artificial are the boundaries we tend to place around and within languages; better to think of it all as a big stew, or a self-pollinating net, its elements mixing all the time to varying degrees and at varying rates. The fun chapter titles give a rough indication of the book’s contents:

John McWhorter - Power of Babel - chapter titles

McWhorter has a talent for drawing clarity out of complication, leading to such nuggets as: “Dialects are all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics.” (He makes a long, persuasive case for the truth of this proposition.) And I liked this line on grammar and social acceptability:

Any given language chooses from an infinite array of possible grammatical configurations, on which notions of respectability are arbitrarily superimposed, meaningless to people speaking the language or even dialect next door.

One last excerpt: a fine summary paragraph on the “ineluctable imperatives” that impel language transformation (McWhorter prefers this term to evolution in the context of language change):

Once it hits the ground, a human language must and will change. Because change can proceed in various directions, once a language is spoken by separate populations, it must and will diverge into dialects. Juxtaposed with other languages, human languages must and will mix. Torn down to its bare essentials, if needed as a medium of full communication, a human language must and will rise again as a new one.

For more information on the book’s contents and style, see Angela Bartens’s review at Linguist List.