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Old 09-04-2011, 10:29 AM
dieter dieter is offline
Join Date: Dec 2008
Posts: 237
Default Praise and doubts

Great diavlog. I'd like to see John McWhorter do more on language stuff.

I am not convinced by his thesis though. Not because I find it to be implausible, but Joshua Knobe asked mostly softball questions. I'd like to see a challenge from a contrarian and knowledgable linguist.

1.) Getting invaded by Saxons, Vikings or Normans doesn't look like an act of imperialism to me. British imperialism took off at a time, when the language was already fixed. The invaders weren't exactly imperialists either. They just pushed into Britain and settled there. This happened in continental Europe during the Migration Period and up until not so long ago on a constant basis and rather more frequent than on the insular and therefore relatively secure British isles. New Nations were formed and overwhelmed. Nations split and merged frequently. Languages changed and formed in this process. There must have been a lot of adult learning going on all the time. Yet the languages that are around on the continent today are grammatically complex.

2.) Latin has been spoken and used exclusively by adult learners for 1500 years, yet it remained complex and is reportedly more complex and refined than the common Latin spoken in the Roman Empire.

3.) McWorther speculates jokingly whether Poles are playing a joke on Anglos and don't really speak the complex language, they claim to speak. I don't know about Polish, but this is actually true to some extent. Native speakers use only a subset of the standardized grammar. This varies by class, formality and education level. African American English sounds to me just like a typical uneducated lower class dialect.
My grandmother, who enjoyed only six years of education, spoke such a dialect. And dialects varied from one village to the other, based on the ethnic origin of the villagers. (Croat, Hungarian, former Slavs, ...) One village is said to have had a large influx of soldiers from Napoleon's defeated army.

Older German texts vary greatly in grammar and spelling. It seems like even many literate folks wrote just like they spoke, just like we can see on Twitter and Myspace today.

4.) Non-native speakers frequently don't bother with the gender, case and inflection business. This sounds odd to the ear. It can be unpleasant, but also charming, rather like the different accents of non-native English speakers. But it is usually perfectly intelligible.

5.) Idiomatic expressions are difficult to spot for non-native speakers. How can their extensive use in the English language be reconciled with the adult learner thesis?

Based on these observations, I wonder, whether the grammatical Exceptionalism of the English language is mostly based on a lack of standardization and active care by the learned elites.

Regardless of the origins of grammatical complexity I wonder what accounts for it, especially, if we assume, like John McWhorter, a natural process of accumulated complexity. It could be clarity of thought, which McWorther seems to dismiss. Other reasons could be aesthetics or error correcting redundancy.
It is definitely a form of intellectual status display to use the grammar correctly and use its advanced forms. The intellectual elites could have manufactured and emphasized grammatical complexity for this reason.
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