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How Fast Do Languages Change? (Linguistics)
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Mick Harper
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If you are wedded to the proposition that English is an evolved form of a Germanic language (Anglo-Saxon) then, yes, it has lost all those case endings the Continentals go in for with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But if you believe English isn’t a Germanic language then you might expect it to go in for a system all its own. Which it does. Sometimes it has an accusative form He hit him but mostly it doesn’t He hit the ball; it is however enthusiastic about genitive case endings, employing the simple device of adding a sibilant: He hit his ball and He hit the ball’s cover.

How the English managed to invent this neat, distinctive and fully functional system during the twelfth century when Anglo-Saxon was evolving into English is not something we have to explain. Orthodox linguists, as you might predict, apply 'careful ignoral' to the problem. They go watery-eyed and say things like, "Well, of course the transition from Old to Middle English is a complex process not entirely understood as yet... [etc etc for as long as necessary] Our own learned commentator agrees, and changes tack...
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Mick Harper
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In this view languages do not evolve from some primitive state toward greater sophistication. Changes in grammatical structure could be nothing more than a random walk through the space of all possible linguistic features.

Now that, if I may say so, is a very wise statement. I do not say it is a true statement, this geezer is not saying it is a true statement, so what is it that makes it a wise statement? It is because no linguist could say it. The curse of academia is the constant search for pattern, for meaning, for something to say. The one thing they can't stand -- because it removes their function -- is that things are random. Here's a case in point

But if that’s the case, then there’s not much hope of finding an intrinsic marker of priority between pairs of languages.

You're practically back to pre-evolutionary biology. No rhyme, no reason, just God's work. We can describe what we can see but so can everyone else. Anything goes including, oh no!

And so Latin really could have been invented by a bunch of Italian-speaking merchants.
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Mick Harper
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Learning Languages in Early Modern England John Gallagher Oxford £60

At that price and from that stable I won't be reading it any time soon and the review in the Guardian is not likely to change my mind

There has never been a language as globally dominant as English is today.

Good start, sets the table, but I feel a yet coming on

Yet 400 years ago, it was the lowly tongue of an insignificant backwater on the edge of Europe.

Yer what? In 1619 English was the language of Shakespeare and England was one of the great powers of Europe.

Unlike French, Italian, Spanish or even Dutch, it had no cultural prestige

Hold on there. Just a mo. I'll grant that French had a certain cachet but Italian hadn't even really sorted itself out by this stage, Spanish was strictly for the Spanish and as for Dutch, even Dutch, well even the Dutch didn't like Dutch.

and was useless overseas.

As was every language, including French for the most part. You could get by in learned circles with Latin and, like I say, French in high society, but after that...

Anyone who aspired to real civility, or to travel or trade with mainland Europe, had no option but to learn its languages. How English men and women of the late 15th to the early 18th century went about doing so is the subject of John Gallagher’s fascinating new book, a welcome attempt to show that the history of language encompasses much more than just the history of words.

Amen to that. But I wouldn't bank on him getting his basic facts right.
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