amnfn at well.com
Fri Mar 18 20:00:40 UTC 2011
The existence of loanwords is a good example to start with to show some of
the pitfalls in assuming that a particular change leads to more versatility.
The borrowing of a word from one culture and language to another usually
occurs in a situation where the concept that the borrowed word describes
isn't originally part of the borrowing culture. Also, there is usually a
power differential between the two groups.
Now, if the new concept had arisen without contact, then the word would
not have been borrowed. It would have been derived from the organic
material of the language, using native morphology and native phonology.
When languages start to accept a large group of borrowed words this
affects their morphological and phonological systems, and in turn creates
changes in the grammar. So you cannot assume that borrowing is something
that merely enriches a language in its vocabulary without impoverishing it
someplace else. There is a law of conservation. Nothing can be gained
without losing something.
This is not to say that one language might not be better for a particular
purpose at a particular time, due to its being adapted for that purpose by
the culture of the people who use it. But there's no comparison here to
another language that is adapted to another purpose.
Overall, there is no evidence that a particular language is a better
conveyor of information than another, regardless of the circumstances or
On Fri, 18 Mar 2011, Daniel Everett wrote:
> I think that it isn't difficult to imagine that languages could become more versatile over time. We have to ask 'versatile for what'. If we mean 'a better range of tools for talking about things in a particular cultural niche', then it isn't far-fetched to imagine that this is true.
> Loan words seem to be prima facie evidence for languages becoming more versatile, as does a lot of the evidence from languages in contact.
> I see no problem in saying that some languages are better at communication than others in particular environments. There is a serious research program waiting to be undertaken here.
> And it is no more obvious that languages are communicatively equal than that they are different. No study proves either, though the former is assumed by most linguists and many (but not all) theories. In fact, I think it is the differences that have been overlooked.
> On 18 Mar 2011, at 10:40, A. Katz wrote:
>> I don't think that language has as yet been shown to become either increasingly complex or increasingly versatile.
>> It seems to me that there is a principle of conservation of complexity, under which any rise in complexity in one system in the language results in a decrease of complexity elsewhere. This is why there are continuing cycles in language change, and language does not improve in efficiency over time.
>> If it were otherwise, then some languages would be demonstrably better for communication purposes than others, and no one has ever been able to show this.
>> On Fri, 18 Mar 2011, Tahir Wood wrote:
>>> In the wake of all this discussion about increasing complexity, I wonder if anyone here has thoughts on versatility. Does language become increasingly versatile?
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