December 01, 2003

Where have all the inflections gone?

A bird's eye exercise, if we may. I will address, for non-linguist readers, inflections , most familiar as the noisome declensional and conjugational suffixes that bedevil English-speaking learners of, seemingly, most foreign languages we encounter. For the record, worldwide inflections can just as easily be prefixes as suffixes.

Based on Latin shedding so much of its inflections in becoming the Romance languages, and English's being such an inflection-shy sister in the Germanic family compared to, most strikingly, grand old Icelandic, linguists are taught that it is "natural" for languages to "molt" as a matter of course. Some languages stay heavily inflected, like Russian, while some descendants of the same ancestor just take it all off.

The common consensus is that English's paucity of inflections just "happened," a mere by-product of the syllable-initial stress tendency in Germanic, an unremarkable step beyond the denuded reality that Scandinavian and Dutch hide behind their nostalgic orthographies.

But would linguists find these developments so unremarkable if linguistic science had happened to develop (I beg your indulgence) among hunter-gatherers?

I present this as a genuine question: where is the streamlined, inflection-free North American Native American language? The linguist is accustomed to attending talks on these languages encountering bristling paradigms of prefixes and suffixes, indicating the obviative, the inverse and God knows what else, complete with portmanteau morphemes (that is, where one prefix or suffix carries two meanings, such as "me plus him"). Is it just by chance that I have never heard of a language of this area that has shed most of its inflections and relies largely on pronouns and free words along the lines of WILL? Where is the Algonquian "French"?

In the same vein, which Australian language is as inflection-shy as French or English? Has Australia witnessed the language that happened to wend its way into streaking about naked, like some Western European languages have? Or -- where is the Bantu (as opposed to Bantoid) language like this? After four thousand years, if it is so unremarkable for phonology and happenstance to shear off a grammar's affixes, then surely we would not expect that 500 Bantu languages recapitulate the familiar copious noun classes of this group. Where is the Bantu "English"?

I ask these questions because my research increasingly suggests to me that for a language to shed its inflections, rather than consistently replace or even retain them, is less business as usual than the unexpected case. From a global perspective, languages appear to usually do this as the result of widespread acquisition by adults, whose ossified language organs tend to clear away languages' "junk."

Thus the inflection-shy nature of Romance compared to Latin -- and Romanian's remnants of case-marking are dishwater compared to Polish, Greek or Lithuanian -- was due to imperfect renditions of that language being passed on in the context of invasion and imposition from the outside. English is the only Indo-European language in Europe with no gender marking on articles or nouns -- ever notice that? -- because of Vikings' approximation of Old English starting in the eighth century. It is presumably no accident that Persian, with its low inflection and gender-neutral third person pronoun, has been lingua franca par excellence throughout much of its history.

On-the-ground accounts of these "changes in progress" detailed enough to engage the sociolinguist are lost to history. But to require that French and English and Persian "just happened" leaves questions. Where is the inflection-free Slavic language? Yes, Bulgarian lost the nouns' declensions, but get a load of the verbs!! Why are the only Semitic languages that entirely bury the family's triconsonantal verb roots and their attendant vowel changes and affixations the few born amidst heavy non-native acquisition, like Juba and Nubi Arabic? Why is it that a Bantu variety as inflection-wary as English is the brand of Lingala spoken non-natively as a lingua franca?

The evidence suggests that the post-Neolithic "punctuations" that Bob Dixon describes in human languages' timelines have often sheared away a degree of languages' "mess" as they were imposed on adult speakers and passed down in abbreviated form to succeeding generations. Mandarin's mysteriously compact four tones would be a similar case, it having been adopted by Mongol invaders while Cantonese and the rest of the brood mutated uninterrupted, developing the eight and nine tones typical of the "card-carrying" Sinitic language.

Isn't it time that structural reduction played as much a part in theories of language change and contact as mere tradings of grammar?


A: Re animals and music, my little cat Lara displays little interest in natural language grammars' loss of inflection, but is given to rolling ecstatically around on the floor when I play my CD of Bach organ pieces -- the fat bass notes seem to occasion especial enthusiasm.

B: My first response on reading Guy Bailey's account of Texan r-lessness in the New York Times was certainly "Why in God's name did he feed them that?" But then I realized that a scholar of Bailey's stature could not possibly have presented such claims as scholarly wisdom, and recalled from my own experiences with the media that it is almost unavoidable that journalists single out the casual parenthetical as isolated "fact." Almost superhuman feats of vigilance in on-line composition of utterance would be necessary to avoid misrepresentation of this kind.

Posted by John McWhorter at December 1, 2003 01:50 AM