diachronic compensation

Steven Schaufele fcosw5 at mbm1.scu.edu.tw
Tue Jan 13 14:32:26 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Dear fellow historical & comparative linguists,
Wrt Larry Trask's recent question about (if i understand him correctly)
a shorthand label for the observation that diachronic `simplification'
in one area of a language's (e.g.) grammar is typically compensated for
by a relative `complication' in another, Theo Vennemann made a valuable
bibliographic recommendation and then wrote:
> The consequence is so self-evident that I do not really think a name is
> needed. If things were different, languages would be optimal on all
> parameters, which is impossible. Thus, the principle also follows
> from the observation that languages keep an overall identical level
> of complexity, at least as long as we do not talk about language de-
> velopment in terms of the evolution of the species.
It -- the diachronic compensation between different grammar-modules
mentioned earlier, as well as Theo's `observation that languages keep an
overall identical level of complexity' -- is self-evident to *us* who
spend our time and intellectual energies studying the matter; i suppose
the value of sex for rearranging genes is self-evident to geneticists,
biologists, and evolutionists.  But it's very far from evident to the
general public, including the intelligent, relatively well-educated
public.  (I'm thinking of my own parents, among others, who in spite of
being at least tetraglot if not pentaglot still tend to assume that
English as a whole is `simpler' than, e.g., Latin or Polish, and Modern
English is `simpler' than Old English or Modern German.  I'm also
thinking of my own students here in Taiwan, some of whom are astonished
at the notion that Chinese has any `grammar' at all.) This `principle'
that Larry is seeking a convenient label for is something we need to
reiterate iteratively in our dialogue with the general public, and for
that reason i'm entirely sympathetic to Larry's quest.
Steven Schaufele, Ph.D., Asst. Prof. of Linguistics, English Department
Soochow University, Waishuanghsi Campus, Taipei 11102, Taiwan, ROC
(886)(02)2881-9471 ext. 6504     fcosw5 at mbm1.scu.edu.tw
        ***O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum!***
        ***Nihil vestris privari nisi obicibus potestis!***

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