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View Diary: ÍslensKos: The Icelandic Language (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Lingustic Complexity) (183 comments)

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  •  That is one of the great mysteries of language; (11+ / 0-)

    and the short answer is, no one knows for sure.  We do know that the process of language simplification correlates most highly with number of speakers, then with area of spread.  (Note: it's the process itself, not the simplicity, that correlates.)   We can chart real evolution in the ways that contact with other languages, or social/economic changes, or whatever affect grammar, and they do.  But why the earliest languages are sometimes the most complex is something of a mystery still.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Mon Sep 26, 2011 at 01:10:08 PM PDT

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    •  thanks, yeah, that is what I was getting at (1+ / 0-)
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      mightymouse

      I see all the reasons that languages would simplify over time - that makes sense to me.

      But I just don't get why they were complex in the first place.  Why do nouns need cases, and why do verbs need to conjugate?  In English we do just fine mostly without either.  To me, when I picture people first inventing words, it makes no sense that they would want a different form for the dog that gets the rabbit versus the dog that I pet.  It's just a f_cking dog in either situation.

      •  We use word order. They use case. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico, Magnifico, fizziks

        There is no right answer.  Both have advantages and disadvantages.

      •  There is a surprisingly large amount of (3+ / 0-)
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        Magnifico, a gilas girl, Ahianne

        material you can convey with word forms, that in English you'd otherwise have to slough off into other words.  So (since I mentioned Czech above), if I want to talk about the dog I can already say a lot by choosing pes, psa, psem, or whatever.  You'd have to invent and include another couple of words to convey the same material, so it's easy to see why that may have evolved later.

        That being said, and this is to Rei above as well, it does involve a lot more specific complexity than a streamlined word-order system, where SVO generally holds true no matter what you stick in there.  

        Problem is, we don't have access to the 'original' data.  We can only take guesses based on reconstructions of proto-languages.  

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Mon Sep 26, 2011 at 01:34:18 PM PDT

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      •  You gotta to be careful though (5+ / 0-)

        with saying "they were developing a language" or "inventing words). No natural language was "developed" by any one. You just speak what your mom spoke, and she spoke what her mom spoke, and she spoke what her mom spoke, and she spoke what her mom spoke, etc, etc, going back to the dawn of time. That's why it's wrong to talk about any langauge being older than another (except for creoles.)* Hebrew is NOT the oldest living language in the world, in spite of what the Hebrew department at my university says on their advertisements. (Sorry, had to get that off my chest. ;) )

        As others have noted, it's tricky saying something is complex. German has three genders for nouns while Spanish has two. Why? Well, over time, that is just how they evolved. No one was actively guiding the process.

        But, note, children learn both languages with no problem. An adult who can't speak them, might think 3 is more complex than 2, but once you learn them it doesn't really make a difference.

        *Of course, dads play a role too! And if you get enslaved or you move, your family might start speaking a different language.

        Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

        by Anak on Mon Sep 26, 2011 at 05:00:25 PM PDT

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        •  Opera Lovers Beware (1+ / 0-)
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          Anak
          "...Hebrew is NOT the oldest living language in the world, in spite of what the Hebrew department at my university says on their advertisements. (Sorry, had to get that off my chest. ;) ).."

          Many years ago the New York Metropolitan Opera had a campaign built around the idea that opera promoted and embodied culture (they never mentioned whether societal or bacteriological), which I found totally off-putting.  They seem to be re-introducing that same meme now that their finances have crashed.

          The funny thing about Hebrew is that the modern Israeli version very likely bears zilch resemblance to the forms spoken in the Levant 2500 years ago.  Even by Roman times, the vernacular in Judea was Aramaic, not Hebrew.  Besides, we all know that the oldest living language in the world is Klingon.

          "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

          by PrahaPartizan on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 07:33:00 AM PDT

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        •  Older and younger languages (0+ / 0-)

          there are languages that got frozen in time precisely because they were used in liturgical rites that put a premium on invariability. Thus Sanskrit mostly froze in place even as Hindi developed out from it, the Latin of the Catholic church freezing with the form found in the bible translation by St.Jerome, Hebrew in  the Torah/Talmud, and in the Eastern Orthodox Church in Old Church Slavonic. And in most or all these cases the Priestly/Rabinical caste might continue to speak the 'dead' language right alongside its 'living descendent'. This mostly came about through the intermediation of text, but in the case of Sanskrit I know second hand that there was a period or oral transmission in what to the student's ears had to be farther and farther from the language he spoke outside the temple.

          Closer to home we see this happening in the oldest strata of the old Roman religion, as in most other I-E cult traditions precise recitation of the religious/magical formulae was essential to it's efficacy.

          You even see a more modern example with the King James Version of the English Bible, the 'thee's, 'thy's, and 'hath's surviving in sermons and prayers even as they became obsolete. I mean you would have to be a very ignorant Christian to be thrown by "thy Kingdome come, thy will be done".

          In that sense some languages currently being spoken, even if in limited conditions really are older than others. That is Pope Benedict might struggle to understand St. jerome's accent there is little question that they would be speaking the same language.

          So when a modern Icelander shows the ability to work their way through an Old Norse text with a minimum of instruction while most native speakers of English are lost even at encountering Middle English and sometimes scratch their heads at the King James Version and Shakespeare, which actually are classified as Modern English, it is fair enough to claim Icelandic is "older" than English, its isolation did to that degree did freeze it in time just as liturgic languages did.

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          by Bruce Webb on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:33:48 PM PDT

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          •  Your first examples (0+ / 0-)

            I don't think qualify as "natural languages."

            As for your last paragraph, no. Both English and Icelandic can be traced back to proto-IE. Hence, they are just as old. Does Modern Icelandic preserve more features from its earlier history than English? Sure.

            Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

            by Anak on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 07:57:45 PM PDT

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            •  Vedic Sanskrit and St Jerome's Latin (0+ / 0-)

              were never "natural languages"?

              Certainly they were always more likely to be informed by even more classical forms but the idea that they weren't closer to the then current vernaculars than their modern written and spoken descendants is just nutty. St. Jerome didn't translate the Bible to Latin so that it WOULDN'T be understood .

              Maybe you are trying too hard.

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              by Bruce Webb on Wed Sep 28, 2011 at 06:42:28 PM PDT

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              •  Amigo, it is you who is trying too hard and who (0+ / 0-)

                had to put on your  pendantic hat in order to make some irrelevant point!

                Icelandic is just as old as English. English is just as old as Icelandic. That was the point.

                If some educated classes preserve an older state of a language, of course that older state is older. If you and I decided to chat using Old High German, of course we would be using an older language than Modern German. No seas pendejo, carajo!

                Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

                by Anak on Wed Sep 28, 2011 at 07:19:06 PM PDT

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                •  Thank you for conceding the poster's point (0+ / 0-)

                  icelandic is in an older state than modern English in relation to the forms of the respective languages as they were spoken in the 10th century. As is evident on inspection of the records of both languages. And for the same reasons that Church Latin in by and large, because literacy was more widespread in meideval Iceland than elsewhere and helped  fix the language in place, just as the Medieval Church's relation to the Bible served to freeze Church Latin in place. Once you have 'correct' speech typified in written form actual speech only drifts so far because now being exposed to explicit norms.

                  I was responding to claims about Hebrew being the "oldest" language and debunking thereof to point out that when measured in terms of linguistic drift it isn't a nutty claim at all.

                  Plus I spent most of my adult life working towards being a pedant, i.e. a teacher, things just didn't fall out that way. So 'pedantic' doesn't have the sting you want it to. Sometimes you are forced to talk down to people who don't know quite enough about what they are talking about and part of that process requires showing that you in fact do know more about the subject at hand. Which tends to have the listener call you things like 'smarty-pants', or if they like to preserve their dignity a little 'pedantic'.

                  Well you can bring those 'insults' on, water off a duck.

                  Basta.

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                  by Bruce Webb on Thu Sep 29, 2011 at 05:23:00 AM PDT

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                  •  Bruce, you are wrong. Sorry. (0+ / 0-)

                    And I spent most of my adult life as a teacher as well. Interesting, though not surprising based on what I've read of your posts, that you assume that you occupy some sort of higher, teacher position compared to your interlocuter.  

                    In short, you are not tallking down to me, that's the problem. You are attempting to. But, since in this case you don't know what you are talking about, you're trying to talk down to me is kinda annoying,  ¡carajo!

                    I have no idea what you are talking about in your first paragraph. Why are you talking about the 10th century? And who is "the poster"? The diarist? The diarist was talking about modern Icelandic. Saying it was some sort of fossil. That is totally wrong. It is just as old as English. See what the great historical linguist R. L. Trask has said about the myth of "older languages."

                    Or are you saying Icelandic hasn't changed at all since the 10th century? Wow! That would indeed be interesting. Lol.

                    Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

                    by Anak on Thu Sep 29, 2011 at 09:41:06 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Dictionary (0+ / 0-)

                      Living fossil:

                      an organism that is a living example of an otherwise extinct group and that has remained virtually unchanged in structure and function over a long period of time, as the coelacanth and the horseshoe crab.

                      Insert into my phrase, "living-fossil of a language".  You'll find it to be a perfectly apt usage of the term.

                    •  To further this: (0+ / 0-)
                      Or are you saying Icelandic hasn't changed at all since the 10th century? Wow! That would indeed be interesting. Lol.

                      Are you saying that the Coelacanth is likewise unchanged from the Devonian?  And the Horseshoe Crab from the Triassic?  "Living fossil" does not, and never has meant, "hasn't changed at all", and nor did I describe Icelandic as "hasn't changed at all".

                      •  I was replying to Bruce (0+ / 0-)

                        Bruce is saying that your "point" was that one could say that Modern Icelandic is older than Modern English. Is that what you are saying?

                        If you are merely using "living fossil" as a metaphor for "retains many features now lost in other North Germanic languages," ok. Notice that I wrote various comments on your diary, but I never replied directly to your diary on this, because this reading of "living fossil" I don't find too problematic. Though, one could also then say that Dutch "appel" is a living fossil because it didn't undergo the Second Sound Shift like in German. Is Modern Dutch a living fossil compared to German because it retains pre-SSS forms? But, anyway, yeah, I wasn't arguing against this reading of the phrase.  

                        Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

                        by Anak on Fri Sep 30, 2011 at 01:57:42 PM PDT

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                  •  Ok, sorry, I see now that you wanted to be (0+ / 0-)

                    a teacher but it didn't work out? The phrase, "things didn't fall out that way" isn't part of my dialect," so I misread it.

                    Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

                    by Anak on Thu Sep 29, 2011 at 09:44:44 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                  •  Ok, let's see where we are having a problem... (0+ / 0-)
                    just as the Medieval Church's relation to the Bible served to freeze Church Latin in place

                    As I said, of course Church Latin represented a freezed state of Latin. Chinese literature was frozen like this for centuries: it was only until Lu Xun in the 1930s that someone finally decided to write as Chinese actually speak.

                    So, again, of course there existed an older Chinese that was used for several centuries. But this Chinese was totally artificial and unnatural. It was the language known by a tiny elite, while for centuries the Chinese spoken by all the rest of China went largely unrecorded, until the 1930a.

                    I agree with what you said about Church Latin. But this has nothing to do with the age of modern, living, natural languages. ALL modern, living languages are of the same age. None is older than any other. But, as I said yesterday, uh, yeah, of course, if we decided to speak Old English to each other, that would be an older language than Modern English.  

                    Has this helped to bridge our misunderstandings?

                    Lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. - Hugo Chávez, 1992

                    by Anak on Thu Sep 29, 2011 at 11:39:14 PM PDT

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      •  It may be as simple as laziness :) (0+ / 0-)

        Languages are continually "invented", that is evolving. At first people just talked, there were no written language and as such being the lazy creatures that we are we used as few words as possible to convey something.

        A simple example: 'Vamos!' (spanish) is easier to say than 'Let us go!' (english)

        Dissolve Israel; stop distinguishing between jew and non-jew in Palestine.

        by high5 on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 08:41:17 AM PDT

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