December 08, 2003

Naked languages

Hey fellow bloggers and assorted fans: a question, taking advantage of this wonderful tool called the internet. A question: can you identify for me languages that have neither 1) inflections nor 2) tones used to distinguish lexical items or encode grammar?

I first started asking people this question in 1996, and since then, I have found that there are four kinds of language like this: 1) Polynesian 2) some languages of Southeast Asia 3) a few Mande languages in West Africa and 4) some creoles.

Obviously this homology is very rare. But how rare? Are there languages like this in South America, by chance? Does anyone know of any other Niger-Congo languages up on that northerly coast that are like this, contrasting with the better-known Twis and Mendes and Igbos?

If you ask me, a natural language that has become neither like Greek nor like Thai after all this time is one that has some skeletons in its closet. Most creolists find too little interest in the whole issue itself to be inclined to even search for such languages -- but I suspect other linguists might be differently inclined.

Have I missed any? Languages with just a whisper of inflection or a mere handful of tonally-distinguished minimal pairs are okay.

Posted by John McWhorter at December 8, 2003 06:00 PM