Monday, August 09, 2004

Language is misunderstanding

I used to think we could talk intelligently about the grammars of languages by starting with the assumption that grammars are designed for communication. The more I look at actual languages, the less I believe that this is the case. While languages obviously serve as media of communcation, they are in many ways ill-suited to this task. Grammars are too complex, too byzantine, too intricate, and indeed too beautiful, to be optimal codes for communcation. Think of the convoluted tone rules of some Bantu languages, or nominalizations of Kuki-Chin languages that express with a complicated systems of ablaut, consonant mutation, and tone alternations what other languages express as well with a simple affix. These formal filigrees, I would argue, are not there to serve some communicative function, but simply because speakers of languages assume that any pattern they can detect in their language is an essential part of the linguistic code which, if not maintained in their own speech would lead to them being outed as the language bluffers that they are. These include not only robust patterns that form the backbone of the shared linguistic code, but also chimerical patterns that speakers apprehend based upon their own misperceptions and mistaken inferences. It is in these understandable misunderstandings that the seeds of language change lie, or so I and my ilk would like you to believe.

But what about salutary innovations? Can changes that improve languages (by allowing them to express some new semantic or pragmatic distinction, for example) be traced to failures? While this point of view seems pessemistic, the role of mistaken inferences in adding diversity to the linguistic pool is essentially analogous to the role of mutations in adding diversity to the genetic pool (a point made powerfully by Juliette Blevins's new book Evolutionary Phonology). In both cases, the mistransmission of a code adds to a pool of choices from which other factors (evironmental factors/learnability) differentially select. The take-home message is that even optimizing changes in language are a product of our inability to completely understand one another.

UPDATE: Languagehat adds:
for many of us it is precisely the intricate, byzantine bits that are a primary attraction. I've never been able to work up any interest in Esperanto and the other simplified languages, despite their theoretical value for easy communication, because they're too damn boring. If I can't have irregular verbs, I'd rather grunt and point.
I like irregular verbs too, but not as much as noun-classes ;-) Not everyone is agreed on this point, however, and Zizka comments
So anyway, I ended up loving Chinese, with its pidgin-like grammar. And I will always blame German noun declensions for Hitler. So I guess I disagree.
I'll agree that (Mandarin) Chinese is pidgin-like in it's way (not surprising given it's semi-artificial status) but that it nevertheless has a certain charm. However, I wouldn't want to spend my career studying it. Further, Zizka may be right that morphological complexity produces genocidal maniacs: Hitler may have had to learn German, but Stalin had to learn Georgian. By this rule of thumb, we had better keep our eyes on those Athabaskans.


At 9:51 AM, Blogger language said...

Very interesting. I hope you'll write more about this.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

Hello, I came through Language Hat's link.
Sorry if my question seems naïve, but I do not really understand how Chinese fits the definition of a pidgin (and, if so, which definition would that be?), and what allows to say it has a "semi-artificial status". Would you say the same for, say, Greek dimotiki (which is as "constructed" as Mandarin/guoyu/putonghua are).

Once again, while I may be a bit of a polyglot, I am no linguist at all. Thanks in advance for any clarification.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger David Mortensen said...


Mandarin certain doesn't fit the definition of a pidgin (and that word only came up in respose to Zizka's comment over at Languagehat). The point, I guess, is that lots of “normal” languages are quite as regular and transparent in their grammar (or at least in the “entry-level” parts of the grammar) as pidgins, and Mandarin has often been cited as a case of this. With regards to the artificiality of Mandarin/Putonghua/Guoyu, I have to say that I am yet to meet someone who speaks this official standard as their mother-tongue (in natural settings, people seem to speak phonologically more interesting colloquial dialects), but I don't think that schoolbook Mandarin can be said to be asartificial as, say, Bahasa Indonesia. With regards to Greek, I have no idea--I know nothing of Greek after the Hellenic period. All that I was implying through this statment was that the process of standardization often has a “rationalizing” effect upon certain rough areas of grammars, and creates language varieties in which I have little interest as a linguist.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

Thank you, David, for your detailed answer, which makes your point a lot clearer to me. For personal reasons, rather than purely intellectual interest, I am very sensitive to the sociolinguistic (hope I got that right) dynamics between standard/official language and so-called dialectal varieties.
I am relieved to see that you don't consider the pidgin analogy as adequate for Mandarin (that did bother me, I admit). However, even a book like Lü Shuxiang 吕叔湘's 现代汉语八百词 (800 [grammatically functional] Words in Modern Chinese), which is widely used as a grammar companion in -and outside the Mainland, aknowledges, in a implicit way (through the extensive description of the numerous variants and exceptions corresponding to the use of said "words"), that language reform and standardization can never ignore completely real use, no matter how strong the ideological motivation. No one having to deal with spoken and written Chinese on a daily basis can entertain the illusion of a "rationalized" and unified language. You read and hear "exceptions" and "prohibited" forms all the time.

As for Mandarin not beign anyone's "mother tongue", this was still true ten years ago (I used to state it with much confidence back then), but, according to my personal experience, it is now starting to change with the emergence of a youth born grown up in a strictly urban environment with a mixed population (formed of insider immigrants, nobody beign a "real" local), whose linguistic habits are shaped by normalized media language and parents who do not teach their own dialect to their children anymore (a pity, if you ask me), be it for reasons of social advancement, or of nationalist ideology. I was surprised to meet young Taiwanese whose parents, while taiyu and/or hakka speakers forbid the use of any other language than official guoyu. Those people really developped "official language" as their mother tongue (the fact that dialect use was forbidden at school until recently helped, too).

A very similar phenomenon can be seen among Athenian youth who learned to speak only "Radio and TV" Greek since they were born (something very disturbing for old-school speakers like me).

[While writing, I realise I am getting a bit confusing; if you don't mind, I may come back later with some clearer argumentation.]

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

[Also, today's Mainland putonghua and Taiwan guoyu ("Mandarin" is really misleading), besides well-known lexical and phonological differences, have a different way to manage "classical"/wenyan constructions. This may be relevant to a discussion about grammatical complexity.]

At 2:29 PM, Blogger David Mortensen said...


It was inexact of me to conflate Guoyu and Puthonghua, as they are--as you point out--quite distinct. It is interesting, though, that these distinctions are as much a product of the standardization process (as far as I know, or have learned from your post) as the similarities between these varieties.

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"These formal filigrees, I would argue, are not there to serve some communicative function, but simply because speakers of languages assume that any pattern they can detect in their language is an essential part of the linguistic code which, if not maintained in their own speech would lead to them being outed as the language bluffers that they are."

Perhaps we think of "communication" in somewhat different ways, but it seems to me that establishing one's stance as a successful bluffer (or not) *is* in fact a communicative act. Language doesn't only communicate propositions -- it also simultaneously communicates packets of information about affiliation to communities and social standing in those communities.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger David Mortensen said...

On the notion that "bluffing" could be defined as a communicative act, I do not disagree. By communication, I meant not just propositional communication but "speech acts" in general. But even if we consider bluffing and the decisions involved in bluffing, to be communicative acts (and granted that the formal complexities of languages are exploited as markers of group affiliation) I would argue that there is still little evidence that the structures of languages are optimized for communicating information, whether of this type or another, or that language change is motivated by the need to better transmit information, any more than biological evolution is motivated by a need to be better adapted to an environment. Our point of agreement, I think, is that understanding the social function of language is probably more important, in studying language change, than understanding language as a means of communicating propositions.

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