Friday, 5 February 2016

Keeping it simple

Guy Deutscher, in The Unfolding of Language constructs an allegory (typically – read it, it's fun) about people who tried to save the effort of communicating by simplifying their language use. Everyone does it, and – paradoxically – it can lead to new complexities (Guardians of The Queen's English like to refer to the "lazy" pronunciation of dialects such as Cockney but (no reference I'm afraid...
This observation comes from a lecture given by John Trim, in the days when Cambridge's Department of Linguistics was run from a converted cricket pavilion on the Sidgwick Site
...) the phonological  system of Cockney is much more complex than that of RBP.

Deutscher refers to one area of complexity in Latin that quite often
<digression type="editorial"> 
I almost said regularly but that would be etymologically inappropriate, since a regula is a 'rule' [or 'little stick']; in fact it wouldn't surprise me if there was a link [by some obscure pathway no doubt including Proto-Indo-European] to 'rigid'... [oops – close, but no cigar: Etymonline says the PIE roots are *reg- and *reig- respectively] 
Where was I? Oh yes. ... that quite often third declension Latin nouns have a seemingly irregular nominative ending in -s, with all the other case endings differing; in these the word-final s becomes a medial r (yes, I'm afraid students of linguistics do have to say medial rather than 'in the middle of a word' – which brings me neatly back to the theme of simplicity: the 6-words of the Wordsworthian version (that old sexist was very keen on the language of a man speaking to me) becomes a 6-letter jargon word.

But Deutscher shows that this irregularity  resulted from a new regularity that ran amok (though he doesn't use quite those words):
...[E]arly on in the history of Latin, some time between the fourth and sixth centuries BC, a sound change took place, in which every (undoubled) s between two vowels turned into an r. In itself this was an entirely regular change, and happened systematically in all eligible candidates. But as a result an irregularity wormed its way into words like flos [HD: = "flower"; the section head is Irregular flowers; shame flos doesn't mean "apple" really – a better candidate for being "wormed into"]. The s in flosem, flosis and so on turned into an r...  whereas the s in flos remained an s...
He cites an article by Christian Touratier, Rhotacisme Synchronise du latin classique et Rhotacisme Diachronique . Although the article itself is in French, the journal it's in is published in German, so I quote from the Abstract (and if you should chance to plug this text into Google Translate and think Aha, caught him out, he's just used their translation, you're on the right lines; I did start with Google Translate, but then edited their not entirely flawless version and told them mine was better):
Der historische Lautwandel, den man üblicherweise 'Rhotazismus' nennt, hat im phonologischen System des klassischen Lateins lebendige Spuren hinterlassen: Das Phonem /s/ realisiert sich zwischen Vokalen und in Berührung mit einer Morphemgrenze als Variante [r]. 
The historical sound change usually called 'rhotacism' has left clear traces in the phonological system of classical Latin: the phoneme /s/ is realized,  between vowels and in contact with a morpheme,  as the variant [r].
Deutscher  uses the word flos/floris but there are many (MANY) examples in the third declension (as Dorothy L. Sayers observed in The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education:
With the Third Declension, the high and austere order of Imperial Rome seemed to lose grip a little.  Irregularities set in...
...). This leaves us with pairs like justice/jurisprudence  (with the s and the r alternating according to the root jus/ juris).

The fortunes of the word ain't provide a good example of the way language learners take the line of least resistance. Put yourself in the position of a European immigrant to America in the 18th or 19th century. The paradigm of the indicative of the verb be is not at all straightforward, especially in the negative:
  • I am not, I'm not, [and not so long ago I amn't]
  • You are not, You're not, You aren't
  • He/she/it is not* (etc etc..., you get the idea)
How much easier than all these variants (with attendant phonological complications – for example, the vowel does not  change between 'I'm not' and 'I am not', but it does change between 'You are not' and 'You're not' [but it's unchanged again in 'You aren't']) is the word ain't:
  • I ain't
  • You [sing.] ain't
  • He/she/it ain't
  • We ain't
  • You [pl.] ain't
  • They ain't
Language Nazis may deprecate this usage, but it certainly makes the language learner's life much simpler.

Must get on.


PS And here‘s a clue:

Surfeit of promissory notes – hateful.  (6)

Update 2016.02.0810:55 – Fixed a few typos, and added PPS:

PPS And another:

Place for fixing damage to paintwork of classic motorcycle? – (8,6)

Update 2016.02.1016:05 – Added this footnote:

* I make it twelve variants (3 x 3 for the singulars, and 1 x 3 for the mercifully unchanging plurals, but with the added complexity of a plethora of more-or-less perfect [i,e. some more than others] homophones we're/were/where/wear, you're/your, they're/their/there [not to mention, for improbably advanced learners,  yaw and yore – but hang on, this is getting rather silly]. Anyway, the one-form-fits-all-verb-forms ain't is a great simplifier.

Update 2016.03.09.22:10 – Added PPPS


No comments:

Post a Comment