Language is whatever a group of people use to communicate with each other.
(view spoiler)[It doesn’t include Klingon - Do’Ha’ - but it would if there were a group of people who used it as their primary language and it was allowed to evolve naturally. Actually, considering the complexity of the Klingon in Marc Okrand’s The Klingon Dictionary, which is the common tongue of the empire, less well known or widespread dialects must be nightmares for non-natives to learn. (hide spoiler)]
McWhorter divides the book up into five chapters based on the acronym IDIOM, which stands for “ingrown,” “disheveled,” “intricate,” “oral” and “mixed.” He makes the point that English (and any widespread, widely spoken language) is not “normal.” “Normal” languages tend to accumulate a baroque collection of irregularities and ornamentation that make them difficult for non-natives to learn fluently. In Chapter one, he uses several examples of this, including Pashto, which conjugates verbs differently in the past tense depending upon whether they are transitive or intransitive. In Kikuyu, a speaker makes a much finer distinction between “here”-ness and “there”-ness than English. And, as I know from personal experience, a Mandarin speaker has to use a classifier when indicating quantity.
In Chapter two, McWhorter uses Navajo as an example of dishevelment: In Navajo, nearly every verb is irregular. As he notes, it’s as if every verb in English declined like be. And thus it goes through every chapter as he draws on many examples to showcase the complexities of language.
Just as some people get enraptured by biology or astronomy (or, shudder, economics), I get starry-eyed over language & linguistics so I give this book a strong recommendation. As I mentioned, it’s not as strong as McWhorter’s more academic efforts but it’s an enjoyable read for anyone interested in “our magnificent bastard tongues.”["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is a perfectly nice (if dated - 1987) book about exactly what the title suggests and it probably could only appeal to readers like myself who are...moreThis is a perfectly nice (if dated - 1987) book about exactly what the title suggests and it probably could only appeal to readers like myself who are fascinated by how people speak but aren't linguists or philologists.
If you are a linguist, I think the book is too general as it's more a survey of Chinese languages than an in-depth analysis of any one of them.
And because it was written pre-Tiananmen, pre-fall of the Berlin Wall, pre-Soviet collapse, I don't know how current Ramsey's discussion of the PRC's policies toward minorities is or the status of some of the smaller languages (some of which had only a few thousand speakers in 1987).
While it's not a spell-binding read that will keep you rapt for hours, I did find it fascinating and would recommend it to the interested.(less)
The problem with linguistics is that it’s still wedded to the humanistic disciplines of anthropology and history, which have arbitrarily classified la...moreThe problem with linguistics is that it’s still wedded to the humanistic disciplines of anthropology and history, which have arbitrarily classified languages by lexicon, proximity or some other, unscientific criterion. In The Atoms of Language, Mark Baker uses the analogy of the periodic table of elements to argue that languages can be similarly – and more usefully – classified in terms of elements (“parameters”) that combine to produce the variety we see around us. As he writes in the preface: “These parameters combine and interact with each other in interesting ways…. Even though every sentence of Mohawk is different in its structure from corresponding sentences in English, and every sentence in English is different in its structure from corresponding sentences in Japanese, the ‘formulas’ for making sentences in these three languages differ in only one factor each.” (p. ix)
In Chapters 1-5, Baker identifies several preliminary parameters that identify a distinct language. These chapters can be heavy going for the general reader who doesn’t want to put forth some mental effort but Baker ameliorates matters by:
1. Warning you that it’s going to get complicated and telling you what to skip (though why anyone interested enough to pick up this book would want to skip parts is beyond me); 2. Providing you with a concise dictionary of linguistic terms that comes in handy when you forget what “ergative” means; and 3. Writing in a clear and accessible style.
These first chapters are interesting and informative and straightforward so I’m not going to dwell on them in this review; Baker illustrates 8 characteristics of language that he feels should be included in any parametric table, and for a linguistics geek like myself they’re fascinating:
1. Null subject 2. Head directionality 3. Subject side 4. Polysynthesis 5. Subject placement 6. Verb attraction 7. Serial verbs 8. Optional polysynthesis
It’s in the final two chapters, however, that Baker moves beyond the simple mechanics of parameters and gets into the philosophical “stuff,” and gets into the most interesting part of the book. He first tackles a schema for ordering his “elements”: “…parameters are ranked by their power to affect one another and their potentials for rendering each other irrelevant.” (p. 162) Using this criterion, “polysynthesis” become the first parameter – the “hydrogen” of the parametric table of languages. Whether a language opts to be polysynthetic (like Mohawk) or not (like English) determines how the remaining parameters interact, e.g., head directionality is prior to the subject side parameter, which is prior to verb attraction, etc. Baker commendably avoids over-determining language development. First, he’s offering only a preliminary suggestion of how a schema might be organized. And second, humans are not atoms subject to (relatively) iron-clad natural laws. Identifying parameters might help linguists predict a language’s syntax but can’t determine it. An example is Hindi, an Indo-European tongue, which is head-final and ergative in the simple past tense due to the influence of neighboring, non-IE languages on the Indian subcontinent. Another example is Amharic, where the verb follows its object. The parametric table would predict that Amharic should use postpositions but it doesn’t; it uses prepositions just like English and, as with Hindi, due to its proximity to SOV languages.
One cause of parametric change that’s observable is stylistic in origin. Old English is Japanese-like in having SOV word order but there is a convention that fronts the verb after conjunctions (e.g., Bob the ball threw, and bit the dog Mary). As verbs and their objects tend to attract each other, the tendency toward an SVO order became too powerful, and Middle English acquired the familiar syntax of modern English. A more recent example, and one that can be observed in real time, is the transformation of Quebec Eskimo from an ergative to an accusative language. (pp. 219-22)
Why does this occur? It occurs, in Baker’s estimation, because “human speech is unbounded, stimulus-free, and appropriate” and can’t be explained in wholly mechanical terms. (p. 223) A second factor is that people (esp. children) learn languages from the people around them. Studies have shown that absent “intentionality” and “interaction” people don’t learn a new language (so my dreams of learning Spanish by watching “Sabado Gigante” are just that – dreams). A third factor, also most present in the young, is that language learners can extrapolate from examples. It may be an inaccurate conclusion (like OE-speaking children coming to believe SVO was the correct English syntax) but if it reaches a critical mass it transforms a language. This latter factor is part of our general capacity to infer patterns and generalities from imperfectly understood specifics.
Baker is an acolyte of Noam Chomsky and assumes that there is a Universal Grammar lurking in the human brain. Most of my reading in linguistics has been with – if not outright anti-Chomskyans – at least authors with serious issues with UG. But I’m an agnostic on the subject; Chomsky’s insights (and those of his followers) are either going to be a part of any theory of language or their inadequacies will have to be addressed and resolved.
Baker defines the two prevailing viewpoints regarding diversity and development: “cultural transmission” and “evolutionary biology.” Neither of these can wholly account for the variety of languages nor for our ability to learn a language. Cultural transmission focuses on the plasticity of human nature and puts nurture before nature but adherents can’t explain why languages are diverse within a limited frame of reference. E.g., only 1% of nonpolysynthetic languages are OVS, and there’s only one (possibly) OSV language that has been studied to any extent yet 87% of nonpolysynthetic languages are SVO or SOV. (p. 128) (The proportions aren’t exact since they don’t incorporate every language but the ratios are probably close to reality.) There’s also the problem that a culture’s grammar bears no discernable relationship to other cultural artifacts.
Baker’s chief objection to evolutionary biology is that it doesn’t explain why language capacity doesn’t extend to a complete, fixed and truly universal grammar. Or why diversity confers any advantage at all. In fact, most theorists aren’t even concerned with the questions Baker wants to ask. Baker is limited to pointing out the limits of current theories since the state of knowledge is still in its infancy.
The first hypothesis we can dispense with is that there’s a physical reason why parameters are in a language. There’s no evidence for this, however. Even in the face of our ignorance, nothing suggests such a necessity so Baker dismisses this option.
A second theory says that parameter-based language ability (PLA) is an accident of evolution. A conceptual system similar to that of apes evolved with a parametric component and fortuitously conferred an advantage over other hominids. But Baker fiercely resists any suggestion that parameters are evolutionary spandrels. So this idea too is dismissed as inadequate.
Other possibilities have been offered by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom: “…some facets of language might have been so easy to learn with the cognitive apparatus that was already in place when a gene-based language recipe appeared on the scene that there was no pressure to specify those facets.” (p. 213) This suggestion has significant problems, however, and ends up being as inadequate as other theories but it’s headed in the right direction. A second hypothesis, also derived from Pinker, argues that a PLA makes it possible for individual speech to stay in tune with a group’s communications. Essentially, people construct language from individual recipes that would express themselves externally in a common tongue. (p. 214) Unlike many other hypotheses, this one is potentially testable but studies that touch on the question tangentially suggests that this can’t be true.
Ultimately then there’s no remotely adequate explanation for why a parametric table of languages would exist. It’s here that Baker speculates most freely. He distinguishes between two types of problems: There are puzzles, which are questions that can be answered using traditional scientific theories and procedures, e.g., Fermat’s Theorem. Then there are mysteries, which are questions that appear irresolvable with current theory and practice, e.g., why would one language “opt” to be polysynthetic and another not? A mystery is a puzzle, the “difference is that those explanations happen to be outside the range of what the human mind can grasp.” (p. 228) It’s in this latter category that Baker puts PLA. For him, it’s dependent upon how the human mind relates to the external world, a subject we’re only beginning to understand and for which we have only the most primitive tools.
Baker doesn’t fall into the Intelligent Designers’ fallacy of saying we can’t understand a mystery – who would have believed a century ago how many “mysteries” have been reduced to “puzzles” if not solved? – and doesn’t say we’ll never resolve the dilemma but he entertains the possibility that our minds are simply not capable of resolving the dilemma.*
In the end I would recommend this book to my fellow linguistics geeks. It’s given me a new perspective for looking at languages, their histories and their development.
I've enjoyed following his website for a couple or three years now - http://www.zompist.com/ - and I downloaded/printed the original (much shorter) ve...moreI've enjoyed following his website for a couple or three years now - http://www.zompist.com/ - and I downloaded/printed the original (much shorter) version of this to aid me in my own conlang forays. ___________________________________________________________
Review will follow as soon as I polish my conlang sufficiently. ___________________________________________________________
I may have mentioned in passing in other reviews that some of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are the appendices where Tolkien writes about the languages of Middle Earth. As a boy, I would pore over the notes on pronunciation and the index of names, making up words and names for my own use in my own imaginary worlds. Now, my older self has most of Christopher Tolkien’s volumes of his father’s notes, which include the only extensive essay Tolkien pere ever wrote on any of his invented tongues – “Lowdham’s Report on the Adunaic Language,” Sauron Defeated: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Four. My older self is thrilled as well that Al Gore invented the Internet because I discovered there the hominin species homo sapiens geekus conlangis - the community of men and women who spend far too much of their free time making up imaginary languages comprising all the elements of the real things.
Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit is an Idiot’s Guide to making those imaginary languages.
Part of the audience is the gaming community, particularly those gamemasters who want to create worlds that sound realistic. To that end, Rosenfelder gives some rough-and-ready guidelines for creating word lists and affixes that can be used to make names and short sentences for role-playing purposes. The second half of the book’s audience is the hardcore conlanger who may or may not be creating a language for any reason beyond the pure pleasure of the exercise. For those, he has chapters on sounds, vocabularies, grammar, semantics, pragmatics, language families and writing systems, and an appendix where he presents one of his own invented languages, Kebreni.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for the “casual” conlanger. Not because it wouldn’t be useful but because the author has had a shorter version on his website* for several years and that’s sufficient for someone who wants to avoid the dungeon-exploring party made up of “Boris,” “Bear Who Hates Honey,” “Wanda” and “Presto the Magician” adventuring in “Angland.”
Hardcore conlangers (especially those who are just beginning) should find a wealth of useful information and tips on making their languages more than just English with different words, however. Rosenfelder assumes the reader has a fair knowledge of linguistics but provides a useful bibliography for people who want to catch up. There is one thing that would have made the book better, IMO, and that is a CD with examples of pronunciations. It’s all well and good to describe tongue positions, breathing, and the difference between a high and a low vowel but I have trouble “hearing” them. After years of reading various grammars and linguistics texts, I still can’t easily identify alveolars from alveolar palatals or an affricative from a fricative.
For several years now, I’ve been putzing around with my own conlang, meleke, born as part of an imaginary world originally created for my Dungeons & Dragons buddies back in the day. I have a fairly extensive wordlist and grammar notes but I’ve always had trouble finding a verb system I like. However, under the pressure of writing this review, I have managed to create one that I mostly like and have used it to translate the quintessential translation text for all “serious” conlangers – the Babel Text from Genesis 11:1-9:
Lemmonas osura tanda mava set tulonas tamenna aidar maknar. Rhojir tar si ratha, dennonas khellen shada si han SHINAR, kepsonas tamenna not. Afentonas intar tamenna – Fenathat menna tarmen set sajathat forsai menna disa. Tulonas tamenna nar amnen tarmen set nar bratho tumo. Tisona LORD aprir eserva set ostoro set arthir khellen khoten. Afentona tamen – Sathas tamenna sot. Soterathas tamenna lammas mava sot tanda mava fir nanta. Noyen faffas tamenna shenta ursa. Afentona tamen – Ismaffat set allanaffat tandar taralle. Uprathas tamenna kel afentir intar tamenna. Gatrona LORD atarat alo tar. Duronas arthir tamenna esevra. Apellonas khellen esevra BABEL preset not kadhir LORD glavo tandave alove. Gatrona LORD kar not atarat alo tar.
It’s still pretty rough – I haven’t developed the language enough to fully capture subtle connotations – and I’m still not entirely happy with the verbs but overall I think it’s coming along nicely. My problem is that I don’t have the patience to stick with it for extended lengths of time; I fiddle around with it for an hour one day, come back a week later, and then let it lay fallow for a few weeks.
But back to the book – This is definitely a highly specialized niche read. If you are a conlanger, I say, “check it out”; if you’re not, shake your head in bemusement, if you must, but devote your reading time to something else.
* The website contains a whole bunch of fascinating articles and not solely anent conlangs. I have especially enjoyed his essays on Asimov's "psychohistory" and his reviews of the entire Foundation series, including the non-Asimovian, and best IMO, Psychohistorical Crisis.(less)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Admittedly it does get bogged down describing archeological sites but you can skim through those sections with...moreI thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Admittedly it does get bogged down describing archeological sites but you can skim through those sections without missing anything.
Anthony combines linguistics and archeology to localize the origins of the Indo-European language family and plot its spread across Eurasia, similar to Spencer Wells' efforts to combine genetics and archeology to trace the spread of humans from Africa.
The author marshalls the evidence to argue that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) emerged in the Pontic-Caspian steppe between 4500 and 2500 BC, and that it got its greatest impetus to expansion with the introduction of wheeled transport around 3300 BC with the Yamnaya cultural horizon. The herders in this region of the steppe were the first to domesticate the horse (as a source of food, only later were they ridden to control larger herds and range over larger territories). Anthony is also able to document the rise of social hierarchies as exemplified in grave sites, and shows how the wheel opened up the deep steppes to year-round exploitation.
Anthony shows that this increased economic exploitation led to increased competition and violence. While the reader doesn't need to subscribe to a theory of peaceful, sedentary, matriarchal cultures mowed down by savage, nomadic, patriarchal war machines, it is true that violence was less efficient and effective before the introduction of horses and wheels. One can find evidence of cultures suddenly disappearing from the stratigraphic record and graves full of bodies hacked apart by axes. But he also shows that the relationship between the herder and the cultivator was never so simple; indeed, the violent marauders of lurid legend were often the exception rather than the rule. The relationship was mediated by a system of patron-client/host-guest customs. A tradition which, to varying degrees, stretched from Europe to East Asia.
This parallels the argument Karen Armstrong makes that the great moral traditions of the Western religions arose between 2500 and 1500 BC as a response to the incredible violence inherent in the cultures that arose with the horse-riding steppe herders.
The obvious success of PIE-speaking cultures made their dialects prestigious and worth knowing, dominating and eventually driving non-PIE languages to extinction in most areas Indo-Europeans reached. In addition, PIE cultures appear to have been very inclusive, basing identification on language and ritual rather than race and ethnicity, which also helped facilitate their spread. This tradition was long lived: Rome's success two thousand years later owed much to her ability to accomodate foreign elites and co-opt them into the ruling hierarchy.
I could have wished for a little more explanation of the language side of the equation. Unfortunately, Anthony is an archeologist and not a linguist and he gave it short (if interesting) shrift.
Despite that, if you're at all interested in this topic, I can easily and with confidence recommend this book.(less)