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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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Boreades


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A Medium Question:

How Far Back in Time Could a Modern English Speaker Go and Still Communicate?


I would tell you more but Medium has decided I am not worthy of accessing their material.

https://humanparts.medium.com/how-far-back-in-time-could-a-modern-english-speaker-go-and-still-communicate-44a0366724c6
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Mick Harper
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It blocked me too
This user had blocked you from following them or viewing their stories.

which had me worried. So soon! But I got in round the back way and came up with this

English is a crazy language with irrational and illogical syntax which is largely due to a history stemming from Norman conquerors trying to hookup with Saxon barmaids. It has stolen bits and pieces from many other languages over the centuries while its speakers spontaneously invented new terms willy-nilly. Have you ever wonder if you had a time machine, how far back could you go and still understand English?

The following video tries to answer that question, but I think it falls short. The video’s makers underestimate how slang and colloquialisms affect one’s ability to understand a speaker, and how accents can render a known word into a completely unrecognizable gibberish. (You don’t even need a time machine to witness that first-hand; simply move from one part of the US to another, or talk to someone from another country.) But on the plus side, the video does get certain points right. Take, for example, the works of Shakespeare. His plays are difficult to understand today not only because of unusual syntax but also because we no longer pronounce words the same way they were said when he was writing his plays
.

Which sounds like the debate I thought I'd entered but it's all disappeared as far as the Medium search engine is concerned. However....
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Mick Harper
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... at the time I was just exploring this new vista following the links as you do and came across a later contribution from an obvious American academic who was laying down the law. English, she said, was an ever-changing process and plonked down verbatim examples from Beowulf to Shakespeare. Except Chaucer which she decided needed her own 'translation'. Yeah, well we all know why so I thought I'd let everyone on Medium.com know why

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Sorry, Kath, this might be what is taught in American universities but it just ain’t so. You say English is a ‘process’ but why, for instance, did you change the rules? Here is a word for word ‘translation’ of Chaucer

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour

When that April, with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root
And bathed every vein in such liquor,
Of which virtue engendered is the flower

This is just English, plain and simple. Different spelling conventions is all. In six hundred years it hasn’t changed one bit apart from soote to sweet and has to hath. Where’s the process in that?

It has to be taught as a ‘process’ for only one reason: Anglo-Saxon, as you say, is a foreign language but universities insist Anglo-Saxon is the fore-runner of English. But it isn’t. Just the language of a bunch of foreign dudes that once ruled England, like the Romans before them and the Normans after them, speaking their foreign languages, Latin and French. Not forgetting William III (Dutch) and George I (German).
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Mick Harper
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Musing on everything at leisure I have a conspiracy theory that fits the facts.

1. I post up my mild reproach.
2. Kath removes it.
3. Thus 'Mick Harper' no longer appears in the Search function
4. Kath bans me
5. So I can no longer 'Find' her post

It all sounds far-fetched and I prefer my original 'dumb software engineers' theory.
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Grant



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It’s amazing how if you pronounce Chaucer like modern English and ignore the silly spellings, the “difficulty” in understanding him disappears. You are right, Mick. It’s one of your finest discoveries. Even showers soote might be “showers suit”
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