kitchen table math, the sequel: John McWhorter on Big Dude languages

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

John McWhorter on Big Dude languages

A fascinating interview with John McWhorter on bloggingheads -- amazing!

I ran his argument by Ed, a historian, and Katharine, a linguist. Ed said it made sense to him; Katharine disagreed with McWhorter that some languages are more complex than others (far more complex, according to McWhorter) but agreed that the "Big Dude" languages are less inflected than the Little Dudes.

Enormously interesting.


Katharine Beals said...

Linguists argue that there's a tradeoff between morphological complexity and syntactic complexity. Morphological complexity, as in highly inflected languages like Latin, means fewer syntactic rules, and therefore freer word order. Simple morphology, as in English, means more syntactic (e.g. word order) rules.

But when McWhorter discusses complexity, he seems to be speaking almost exclusively about morphological complexity, and about the complexity faced by second language learners. That's because morphological complexity is much harder for second language learners to master than syntactic complexity.

For first language learners, on the other hand there seems to be no difference in "easy" vs. "hard" languages. In other words, native Pashto chilren master Pashto at about the same age that native English children master English, even though McWhorter characterizes Pashto as being much more complex than English.

So perhaps McWhorter is right that languages that went through a period in which they were imposed (during preliterate times) on many adult learners underwent simplified *morphology*. But simplifications in morphology generally create complications in syntax. And we see exactly this in evolution of Old English into (Viking- influenced) modern English.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Katharine (if you're around) - what do you mean by complications in syntax --- more specifically, I mean?

And is syntax easier for second language learners than morphology?

Katharine Beals said...

Yes, indeed, syntax seems to be easier for second language learners than morphology is.

Here's my favorite example of syntactic complications in English: Question formation. Here's the rule for American English:

Find the first main auxiliary verb if there is one (where auxiliaries are forms of the verb "to be", "will," "would," "might," "may," "can," "could," "should," "shall," "do" and nonpossessive "have") and put it in the front of the sentence. If the main verb isn't an auxiliary, determine its tense, take the verb "do" and put it in this tense and then stick it in front of the sentence; then change the main verb to its bare infinitive form. Next, find the wh-word that corresponds to the gap in the sentence (semantically, what's being asked about), if there is such a gap, and put it at the very front of the sentence. Thus you get:

She will sleep -> Will she sleep?
She might have been sleeping -> Might she have been sleeping?
She slept -> Did she sleep?
She sleeps -> Does she sleep
She sleeps in which bed -> Which bed does she sleep in?
(Or, with optional pied-piping of the entire prepositional phrase, In which bed does she sleep?)

My students are always surprised at how complicated this rule is. I'm guessing that native speakers are more conscious of the morphological complications of their language than they are of the syntactic complications.