My recent video answering the question “Why are some languages so complicated?” sparked a great discussion among some of our readers—and it raised some good questions. I thought I’d reply to a few of those questions in an attempt to dispel a few common myths about language.
First, the idea of complexity in language is a matter subject to intense debate among linguists. Chinese, for example, is very simple in the structure of its words, but extraordinarily complex when you consider its tonal system or the fact that speakers must use other means of indicating what part of speech a word is or what function it’s serving in a sentence. In fact, there’s still a great deal of debate as to whether there’s really any such thing as a “more complex” language.
But even if it’s true that languages do become simpler over time, then why
do we see any complicated languages today at all? Similarly, if writing makes a language simpler, why are some languages with long traditions of writing—like Arabic or Hindi—still so complex? Plus, as my good friend, Fulbright scholar Lydia Green (PhD candidate at Newcastle University and former intern in the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program) likes to point out, there’s really no such thing as an “old” language. Before Spanish was Spanish, it was Latin; before it was Latin, it was Proto–Indo-European (about 2,500 years ago). That particular line of languages does seem to have become somewhat “simpler” over time. But, before Mohawk was Mohawk, it was Proto-Iroquoian (which, in fact, dates back even farther than Proto-Indo-European, to about 3,500 years), and that line of languages is still very complex. In addition, many languages can even become more complex over time. Guy Deutscher illustrates how this can happen in his fantastic book The Unfolding of Language.
So why might languages become “simpler”? Linguist John McWhorter suggests in his book Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress? that languages become simpler and more pidgin-like as they become larger and spoken by more people. He also shows that the world’s simplest languages are creole languages (which are also the world’s “newest” languages). To test this claim, Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale surveyed 2,236 languages and found that this does indeed appear to be the case: larger languages are simpler languages. (You can read the whole article for free here.)
Another common line of thought suggests that certain concepts are simply unthinkable in particular languages, and that more “precise” languages are needed in order to think those concepts. This belief is a form of what is called linguistic determinism. But, first, if language limits thought, then how do words and their meanings ever change over time? How are new languages and words created if our thought is limited to the words and languages we already know? Second, lacking a word for something doesn’t prevent us from conceptualizing it or talking about it. For example, Lolovoli (a generally unwritten language spoken by about 5,000 people on Ambae Island, Vanuatu) has the word hagemai, which means “to come toward the speaker while traveling uphill,” and another word, hivo, that means “to go away from the speaker while traveling levelly or across a slope.” (You can read more about this and other fascinating languages in K. David Harrison’s excellent book When Languages Die). Are English speakers unable to think about these concepts because we lack words for them? Of course not! Third, most of the world’s unwritten indigenous languages—the ones many people think of as “crude” or “primitive”—tend to be extremely precise in a variety of ways. Many languages exhibit a feature called evidentiality, for example, which allows a verb to tell you how the speaker knows the information—whether firsthand or through hearsay. Poor English, so imprecise by comparison! And how useful this feature would be in debates! And, while Greek may have a long tradition of literacy, classical Greek had one word, logos, which meant everything from “mind” to “logic” to “speech.” Yet, using such vague words, the ancient Greeks managed to construct a foundation for all of Western philosophy. It would seem, then, that there is no correlation between “precision” in language and sophistication of thought. (For those interested in reading more about this, be sure to check out Guy Deutscher’s book Through the Language Glass.)
Finally, when talking about a feature of a language, it’s important to compare apples to apples. Sometimes, for example, the number of tenses (such as past, present, etc.) can be confused with the number of forms a verb has (for different persons and numbers, etc.). Generally, languages have a few tenses but many, sometimes hundreds or even thousands, of verb forms. Classical Greek only had three tenses (past, present, and future) and three aspects (the simple, the aorist, and the perfect). By comparison, many dialects of African American Vernacular English have eight tenses and four aspects, while standard English only has three tenses and three aspects, just like Greek.
I hope I’ve managed to challenge a few ideas, and maybe even spark some interest about the amazing ways that languages work along the way. If you’re interested in reading more about some common misconceptions about language, check out the wonderful, short book Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill.