Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Principle Wanted

This was a help-wanted ad I encountered once, looking for a job in the educational field. I figured this school really needed me, but I couldn't help them. I don't have the right ones!

Seriously, I've been rereading these linguistic principles, put together by Austin Zeigler, but really taken from Fromkin and Rodman- who provided my original linguistics textbook. I can't really argue with Mr. Zeigler here, or F & R, my old buddies, but a couple of them are intriguing.

#2: There are no 'primitive' languages. All languages are equally complex and equally capable of expressing any idea in the universe.

This one is interesting. How do you define equal? I have a deep feeling that this is right, but I imagine it would be hard to prove. I'd like to rephrase it as this: Humans are willing to fill a certain amount of their brain with the details of their language; there's an optimum amount that they are willing to use; after that their brain gets crowded and begins to forget stuff, so it's not very efficient to have a language that has too much of a memory load. People forget too much and have to keep learning it. So, languages tend to expand to this point and not expand much farther. And they expand in the areas where people need it. So if they need to talk about six different kinds of snow (as the old Sapir-Whorf legend goes), then they use their memories and language space to learn those six different names. Thus some languages are better equipped to talk about snow, for example, than others. But others have expanded equally far in a different direction. So, if looking at the whole systems, one would ultimately conclude that they are equal.

I have the same basic feeling about humans themselves, who seem to have a remarkably diverse set of skills and qualities, deep differences in all kinds of characteristics yet seem to all be in the same deeply difficult condition. But that one's for my quaker blog, if I ever get that organized.

#3. All languages change through time.

This one seems remarkable to me, if only because the sentence is in complete isolation. There are no other generalizations, no other universals, that can be attached to this sentence, or they would have done it. Not: all languages get simpler, get bigger, get more complex, get bigger vocabularies. Nothing. Just: they change. It's like living near the interstate and saying: traffic happens.

There is one more principle that I encountered:

"Since language is essentially a human activity it was argued, guiding principles for the study of its evolution should be sought within the general rules that govern human behavior." Bynon, p. 24.

This apparently came from a "neogrammarian manifesto" in 1878 (Osthoff & Brugmann); it was a guy named Schleicher who said that languages could be considered as organisms in and of themselves, with lives of their own, making progress and decaying, etc. Interesting. Here are the references.

Bynon, T. (1977). Historical Linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Osthoff, H. and K. Brugmann (18780. Einleitung to Morphologische Untersuchungen, I; English translation in W. P. Lehmann, A reader in nineteenth century historical Indo-European linguistics,, chapter 14.

Schleicher, A. (1869). Die deutsche Sprache, second edition, Stuttgart.

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