Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Deformed Man Lavatory

Update: I realized, as I re-read this thing, that I'd accidentally typed Subject-Object-Verb, when I'd meant to write Subject-Verb-Object. That's the difference between "I the dog kicked," and "I kicked the dog." I have corrected it in the post below.

Ok, in order to understand the title of this post, you'll have to read this. Or, at any rate, the first paragraph or so.

There is of course a rich vein of humor to be mined in the way that non-native speakers of a given language butcher it. If I were to try to learn any dialect of Chinese, I suspect all those tones and contextual clues and evidentiary markers would drive me bananas--and would induce native speakers into paroxysms of laughter.

I seem to remember reading somewhere--but don't quote me on this--that one dialect's word tea, if you change the tone, becomes the word inferior; and that mother-in-law, if you change the tone, becomes horse. If I tried to learn any of the Chinese dialects and converse with the natives, I'd wind up forgetting which tone is which, and regale my hosts with tales of having inferior ceremonies with my horse.

Anyway, the linked article caught my eye, given my amateur interest in the subject of language change. The article makes the case that the English language, which has been accepted as a lingua franca over much of the world, is changing as a result of this fact. That is, since there are now many more non-native speakers of English than native speakers, the former are starting to have a big impact on the development of the language.

This theory isn't entirely off-base, I might add. There are examples of pidgin-like constructions that have worked their way into mainstream usage. Wikipedia mentions that certain phrases in common use today, such as "Long time no see," "look-see", "no can do", "no-go", and "where to?" originated in the usage of Chinese English Pidgin, and then worked their way into common parlance. So it certainly doesn't seem completely unreasonable to expect that certain pidgin-like constructs could make their way into regular usage, even if as nothing more than humorous catch-phrases.

All your base are belong to us!

Anyway, from the Wired article:

It's not merely that English will be salted with Chinese vocabulary for local cuisine, bon mots, and curses or that speakers will peel off words from local dialects. The Chinese and other Asians already pronounce English differently — in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, in various parts of the region they tend not to turn vowels in unstressed syllables into neutral vowels. Instead of "har-muh-nee," it's "har-moh-nee." And the sounds that begin words like this and thing are often enunciated as the letters f, v, t, or d. In Singaporean English (known as Singlish), think is pronounced "tink," and theories is "tee-oh-rees."

English will become more like Chinese in other ways, too. Some grammatical appendages unique to English (such as adding do or did to questions) will drop away, and our practice of not turning certain nouns into plurals will be ignored. Expect to be asked: "How many informations can your flash drive hold?" In Mandarin, Cantonese, and other tongues, sentences don't require subjects, which leads to phrases like this: "Our goalie not here yet, so give chance, can or not?"

And yes, these phrases are understandable by native speakers of English, even if they are grammatically weird.

Now, I'm not so sure that this article gets all its terms right. I'm no expert, so take this with a dose of healthy skepticism, but here are the definitions of some relevant terms, as I understand them:

A pidgin is a mode of communication that exists between two groups of people whose languages are mutually incomprehensible. This mode of communication consists of vocabulary words drawn from one or both languages, with one language usually dominating. Grammar is very, very simple: usually not much more than Subject-Verb-Object, with very little in the way of adjectives, adverbs, or other descriptors. More highly developed pidgins have a few hundred words of vocabulary, which is enough to conduct simple business transactions, but not to express complex thoughts. One key feature of a pidgin is that it is, by definition, not spoken at home--no one is a native speaker of a pidgin.

A creole is a true language that developed from a pidgin. Occasionally in situations where people from two or more cultures are permanently thrown together, and the pidgin is the only means they have of communicating, the pidgin begins to develop beyond its use as a business lingo--especially as it starts getting used in homes, like when a man from one culture and a woman from another get married and have kids. In these circumstances, this rudimentary pidgin talk rapidly grammaticalizes and adds new vocabulary, changing--often in less than a generation--into a fully functional language. Now, it is a common misconception (even expressed in the Wired article) that creoles are merely "mixes" of two or more languages, but this is not true. Rather, creoles are made up from the wreckage of one or more languages, if you will; that is, the pieces of a mother tongue (or two) are taken apart and put together in ways that are completely new, and often incomprehensible to speakers of the original languages.

Here's a hypothetical example: suppose that a pidgin has no word for "goose". They might get around this problem with a circumlocution, by calling it a "big water bird". But that's a bit of a mouthful. After a generation of calling it that, the words might get mashed together into "Bigwatahbuhd". Then unaccented syllables and difficult sounds get smoothed away, and over the next generation or so, it becomes a "Gwatub". And this doesn't just happen for words, it happens for grammatical structures as well. Now one can say that this creole language may have begun as English, but it clearly isn't English anymore.

The third term is lingua franca. Originally this term meant "Frankish Tongue", even though it wasn't actually based on Frankish. Apparently the medieval Arabs called any Europeans "Franks", and the coinage just stuck. Anyway, a lingua franca is a real language (unlike a pidgin) which is used as an international language. Most people who speak a lingua franca don't use it at home, or among their compatriots (although some may); it's mainly used when communicating with outsiders.

Now, one pattern that shows up in linguistics is that the complexity of a language is inversely proportional to how much exposure the language gets to outsiders. It's generally much, much easier to learn a language as a child than it is as an adult. If a culture is isolated from the outside world for a long time, the only people to learn it do so as children, when they can absorb all the complexities; such a language tends over time to become complex to the point of weirdness. But when a culture is in constant contact with the outside world, if it is constantly trading, invading, being invaded, and so forth, there tend to be a lot of adults learning the language. This tends to keep languages simple as time progresses--or at any rate, simpler than they would be if the culture was isolated. So when a linguist comes across a language with few (or no) verb cases, no weird endings, no tones, no evidentiary markings, and a simple, regular structure, the linguist can guess that the culture has probably had regular contact with outsiders, who have been learning the language as adults.

Given this, it isn't surprising that creole languages tend to be grammatically simpler than their mother tongues. And linguae franca tend to become simpler than the native languages that everyone speaks at home. For example, I understand that Swahili, which is lingua franca in much of Africa, is much, much easier to learn than all the other Bantu languages.

Now, at first glance, English doesn't appear to be a good candidate for a lingua franca, because it's so durn hard to learn. Quick: can you explain the difference in meaning between the phrases "I walk my dog" and "I am walking my dog"? There is a difference, but it's really hard to explain what it is. Both phrases are grammatically correct, and we sense that there are times to use one and not the other, but the difference in tense is very subtle. Foreigners who try to learn English tear their hair out when they try to wrap their heads around stuff like this.

Or, they ignore the subtleties and just say "I walk my dog."
White guy: "Hey, neighbor! What're you up to this morning?"

Immigrant: "I walk my dog."
And for that matter, there actually aren't that many people around the world who can produce a convincing "th" sound--either voiced or unvoiced. And we have an "r" sound that is as unpronounceable to other people as the German rolled-guttural "r" sound is to us.

You see the way this works. Anyway, what the Wired article is alleging, is that as English increasingly becomes an international language, some of these subtleties are starting to get eroded. The rest of the world will start speaking a simpler version of English that doesn't sound like what we're used to. In fact, this simpler version of English will, bit by bit, start to infect our own speech--especially as it works its way into movies and TV shows, and as more and more Americans interact with immigrants and foreign businessmen.

Anyway, check out the article. I thought it was interesting.


Bill Chapman said...

What an interesting contribution! I am not sure yet that English is changing in the way suggested. I would like to argue the case for Esperanto as the international language. Esperanto has some characteristics of a pidgin or creole. It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

Take a look at

Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.
Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I've made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there's the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

Brian Barker said...

I'd rather have English, rather than Chinese as the world's future language.

But then I happen to be a native English speaker, which I admit is not a practical proposition in the long term.

So I am therefore convinced that Esperanto deserves more attention, as Bill Chapman suggests.

Timothy Power said...

bill, brian,

I can certainly see benefits to Esperanto as a language--especially the idea of a language that is designed from the outset to be simple to learn and use. I suspect that if Esperanto catches on in a big way, that will most likely be a big plus.

However, I also think that Esperanto has some huge hurdles to overcome before it can become the dominant international language.

As a general rule, languages with small numbers of speakers always struggle. The trouble is, learning a new language always takes a lot of work, even when it's as grammatically simple as Esperanto. People are motivated to speak English because there are several hundred million native speakers, and they tend to inhabit the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations on earth. There are also a billion or so more who learned it as a second language. Any way you slice it, there's a huge payoff to learning English, since there are so many other people who speak it. Esperanto faces a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: there won't be a whole lot of people who know it fluently until people start choosing to learn it; and they won't start choosing to learn it (aside from a small community of idealists) until a whole lot of people know it fluently. There's some benefit to knowing Esperanto in certain academic and diplomatic circles, since that's where other Esperanto speakers hang out; but the tangible benefits of knowing English are much higher for most people in the general populace, even given how much harder it is to learn.

Second, Esperanto has competition. Not everyone who likes the idea of an international language goes with Esperanto--there's also Interlingua, and Ido, and Novial. To the extent that these other languages gain any adherents, it makes it that much harder for Esperanto to gain the critical mass of speakers necessary for most people to consider learning it worth their while.

I suspect that Esperanto is likely to play a role in modern times that Latin played in medieval Europe (although to a somewhat lesser degree), and that Greek played during the early days of the Roman empire: as an elite language, a language of diplomacy and education--but which is constantly on the edge of extinction, since the broad population doesn't speak it and prefers to do business in its own tongue. History hasn't been particularly kind to academic or liturgical languages that aren't used by the common people.

Now, this isn't to say that Esperanto won't catch on. There is the example of Modern Hebrew to learn from. Hebrew was a dead language--or rather, had dwindled to a liturgical language--since well before the time Christ (who, so far as we know, spoke Aramaic). But when the Zionist movement kicked into high gear at the end of the 19th Century, there was a concerted effort to take this liturgical language and revive it as a living, spoken language for the Jewish people. This effort was by all accounts successful. But, this was also a case where the intended speakers of this language had a specific group identity, and the language was one tool intended to help unify these people into a Nation with a common culture. I'm not sure that the Esperanto movement has the same intensity of mission behind it as the movement for Modern Hebrew did.

Anyway, all this could be wrong, and I'm not sure I'd mind if I was wrong on this point (although it means I'd have to learn another language). At any rate it's an interesting experiment, and I'm curious to see how it plays out.