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How Fast Do Languages Change? (Linguistics)
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Mick Harper
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English has no diacritics but it does have more digraphs than anybody else (which serve the same purpose). It may be relevant (I haven't thought about it) but diacritics have to be written above or below the line whereas digraphs don't. Latin has neither diacritics or digraphs but occasionally uses one letter to do the work of two eg J = J or Y. Modern Italian is the most phonetic language I know -- few diacritics and few digraphs.

I am saying all this but, again, I haven't thought about it much and even this may be wrong. Ciao, baby.
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Ishmael


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I propose that the artificial language, Latin, was (as you claim) the original, phonetic, written language. However; the English were first to adopt the Latin system to write a natural language, introducing the diagraph to account for additional sounds not present in Latin.

Having invented the written demotic, and thus standardized the phonetics and symbol associations (though there were initially at least two competing systems), the English proceeded to write other languages. Unable to introduce additional disagraphs without upsetting the standardization for their own language, they introduced diacritics to account for alternate soundings in foreign languages.

They were still at it into the 19th and 20th centuries when they created dictionaries for native peoples in North America and throughout the world.

If this model is correct, all ancient languages with diacritics are forgeries.
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Hatty
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The presenter Melvyn Bragg just explained on BBC Radio 4 that Danes were living and trading in England, setting up commercial centres like York and Lincoln, not to mention a law code in a large swathe of the country, but "it was not until the twelfth century that the Danes melded with the Anglo-Saxons'.

Have I understood correctly? Rather than three or four generations like everybody else, it took this lot three or four centuries. And in all that time they seem to have managed not to change English one jot.
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Mick Harper
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Jot. That's Danish. Pronounced yot. Or maybe Cumbrian. We're going to have to give up on trying to point out that Viking and Danish are two different things. That boat has left the stable doors never to return.
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Mick Harper
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Great example of the academic scuffers creating imaginary worlds here https://twitter.com/DrSueOosthuizen/status/1115539643552997376
As Professor Oosthuizen puts it

Starkey Comics’ terrific graphic showing the history of 24 English words that all trace back, through Latin, French & Porto-Germanic, to the same original word spoken in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language c6000 yrs ago

Comic indeed. Half of it is down to straightforward errors about the correct sequencing of languages, the other half is making up imaginary languages extrapolated from the wrong sequencing! What larks they do get up to. Only Guy Halsall manages not to get swept along with the tide of enthusiasm

Colour me sceptical.

He's not called the Real History Guy for nothing.
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Wile E. Coyote


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Still the dominant paradigm is still just about going strong, albeit by now rejecting all archaeological and genetic evidence. Ortho now comes to this, we can witness change in modern languages so to hypothesise anything for any time in the past, inconsistent with what is known from modern work on living languages, is unacceptable, yet still ......we are safe to posit a PIE as these languages must have come from somewhere.

OR...... Ortho loves a tree.

https://mymodernmet.com/comic-artist-illustrated-linguistic-tree/
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Wile E. Coyote


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To be fair most folks, even in this neck of the woods, love trees.
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Mick Harper
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The real mischief that resides in these trunk and branch models is they encourage 'dead ancestor syndrome'. The PIE must by definition exist, it must by definition co-exist with its offspring(s), there is no reason in the world why it can't exist right now. But ask a linguist to name an example of an ancestral language existing in the world today and s/he won't, can't and shan't.

Whoops, sorry! I forgot. Early philologists were German so 'German' is ancestral to ... er ... the Germanic languages. Uber alles, as they put it.
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Mick Harper
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My man with the press cuttings (Google Alerts) occasionally provides me with blasts from the past which read differently because of what I’ve learned in the meantime. Or not. This is one, from a bunch of reasonably austere savants specialising in ‘computation and statistics’, which arrived this morning, several years old but almost fresh out of the box

Two recent notes on the Language Log discuss a nutty book, The Secret History of the English Language, by M. J. Harper. I haven’t read the book...

This, it has turned out, is probably the single greatest barrier to intellectual advance: the ‘give a dog a bad name’ principle. It is unavoidable given the sheer mass of stuff coming from all sides, but everybody is obliged to apply extreme winnowing procedures when deciding what to read. Necessarily the wheat goes out with the chaff because anything genuinely new is 'nutty'. Nevertheless, if you are setting out to discuss a book (at some length) it is probably better not to make editorial judgements like ‘nutty’ yourself when you haven’t read it. If you return to that quote and add the phrase ‘what they believe to be’ after the word discuss, it is not only fairer, it is transformative. Go on, try it.

It goes on to quite an interesting discussion about language change which I will deal with anon.
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Mick Harper
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...but according to the Language Loggers, Harper contends that everybody has the history of European languages totally backwards. We’ve been taught that Latin gave rise to Italian, French, Spanish and the other Romance languages, and that English comes from Germanic roots with an important dash of Romance. The real chronology is just the opposite, Harper says. Liberman gives this precis:

[T]he history, according to Harper, is that English developed into French, which developed into Provençal, which developed into Italian; and then at some point, say around 400 B.C., some Italian merchants invented Latin as a form of shorthand.

Not quite what I said but close enough for present purposes.

I mention this curious thesis not because I believe anyone should take it seriously, or even because I want to defend it under the constitution’s Freedom of Witness clause.

This encapsulates the basic problem: who shall winnow the winnowers? There are two different types of ‘curious’ theses. Familiar fruitcake ones – which can be dismissed without more ado – and unfamiliar ones which sound fruitcake but can only be dismissed after a little ado. If, that is, you really are in the ‘Freedom of Witness’ business and not just one more orthodox posturer defending the status quo.

But notice the phrase ‘not because I believe anyone should take it seriously’. Why not, pray? You’ve never thought about this before in your whole life so unless you believe that revisionist theories are not to be taken seriously as a matter of general principle, why not this one? True, a coupla real experts have given it the thumbs-down but does not that, at the very least, demonstrate it is serious enough to require expert refutation? Besides, you've been around the block enough times to know that two other things are also true:

1. Those already in the field are almost always hostile to revisionist theories and
2. Intellectual advance can only come about through revisionist theories

So not a very sound general principle. Still, to the geezer’s great credit, he does start thinking about it. You're supposed to come to the conclusion after the thinking but, never mind, he's at least on board...
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Mick Harper
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But there’s an interesting mental exercise here: Can we refute this notion without resorting to mere dull historical facts?

The exquisite phrase ‘mere dull historical facts’ is intended to accuse me of ignoring them, but the fascinating aspect from our point of view is that this very well informed chap believes implicitly that they exist. Or as we would say, ‘they must exist’. It simply wouldn’t occur to him to actually check and even if he did, he wouldn’t come to the conclusion that they didn’t, he would merely conclude, as one of our other famous phrases has it, that ‘more research is needed’. He doubles down

Suppose we had no documentary evidence bearing on the history of languages

We don’t, old chap, we really don’t. So no need to suppose, let’s be hearing how else it might be done...
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Mick Harper
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and we ignored giveaways such as vocabulary items that betray their time of origin

I issue this formal challenge. If anyone can come up with a single word that betrays the time of origin of a single language I will commit harikari [informal, American-English, refers to US baseball commentator Harry Karay who died while stuffing his face at a swanky restaurant].

From internal clues alone, could we deduce that Latin came before French or English?

Now that, if I may say so, is a question that linguists should have been asking ever since the birth of linguistics, but they never have. Our critic moves swiftly on...
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Mick Harper
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Without the labels, how would we know that Old English is older than Middle English, which in turn is older than modern English?

Obviously the labels are irrelevant but I assume you would at least be able to discern that Middle English is intermediate between Old and Modern English. However if you were given three separate texts, without the labelling clue, you would not be able to tell whether the sequence was Old-Middle-Modern or Modern-Middle-Old.

The challenge is rather like that of doing evolutionary biology without the fossil record. Could we look at the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and from their anatomy and physiology alone determine which groups arose earlier and which later?

An excellent question.

For the biological case, there’s a widely accepted premise that a trend toward increasing complexity defines the arrow of time. The vertebrate heart, for example, has two chambers in fishes, then three in amphibians and reptiles, and four in birds and mammals.

An excellent example.

Although there are exceptional cases where this kind of reasoning will lead you astray, it seems to work more often than not.

An excellent summation. Except of course that we would only know the whole relationship between all the organisms has evolved over time because of the fossil record. But now we come to something of a hammer-blow for his entire thesis

There is not a single fossil in the linguistic record.
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Mick Harper
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That was from me by the way. We have spoken languages that aren't written, we have spoken languages that are written and we have written languages that may or may not have been spoken but we don't have fossil languages. He probably means languages that used to be written but are no longer spoken. And wheels one out to illustrate his point

If there’s a similar principle in linguistics, however, I don’t know what it is. When it comes to grammatical complexity, the arrow of time seems to point the other way. Latin, for example, had a more elaborate system of inflection in nouns and adjectives than the languages descended from it.

This is really quite funny. Latin is incredibly simple by every measure except for its inflexion (he means declension) of nouns and adjectives so the arrow of time is mostly pointing the other way (which is the other other way than in the evolutionary biology example he has just cited). He has also chosen the one language for which we have a continuous record stretching over many thousands of years and which hasn't changed at all! No wonder he moves swiftly on

English went through a similar decline in declensions, losing case and gender markers on adjectives

Well yes if you accept that Anglo-Saxon turned into English in the twelfth century I suppose it would look like that. But then every word in 'Old' English changed in the twelfth century to become 'Middle' English in the twelfth century if you assume that. Anything from outside the twelfth century?

and abandoning its thee‘s and thou‘s

Oh dear, what an unfortunate example to land on. English stopped using the second person singular because the th sound didn't exist in the Latin alphabet so had to be written with a y and literate people started saying you instead of thou and the usage spread through the general population. But he's absolutely right, it is a simplification! Is this going to be elevated to a principle of language evolution....
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Mick Harper
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So maybe the rule is that simpler languages come later? But that can’t be universally true, unless we accept the implausible assumption that the very first languages were immensely complicated. Furthermore, if there is a monotonic trend toward simpler syntax, where are we headed? Many linguists would dispute the assertion that languages show a consistent tendency to become either simpler or more complex.

This tells you all you need to know about the current state of linguistics. This dude isn’t a linguist himself but he is a professional (and sympathetic) observer of linguists. The situation he is describing would appear to be Linguistics 101 yet he clearly understands that nobody has a clue what’s going on. But my God, they’d be down like a ton of bricks on the likes of us, trying to bring some order to it all. Our man now illustrates exactly where the problem lies

Yes, English has lost the word endings that once marked nouns as accusative, dative, instrumental, etc.; but in compensation it has acquired a more nuanced system of prepositions and stricter rules about word order.

What a dummy. What a gullible, unreflective dummy...
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