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  #1  
Old 09-03-2011, 01:22 AM
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Default Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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  #2  
Old 09-03-2011, 02:00 AM
sugarkang sugarkang is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

I learned a word from Pat Buchanan: dudn't.

did not = didn't
does not = dudn't
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  #3  
Old 09-03-2011, 06:52 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

A pleasant relief from the usual bhtv fare. I look forward to reading John's book.

Without being a professional linguist, I would dispute John's claim that what makes English unique as a language of empire is the result mainly of what happened to old English when the Vikings invaded England. Take the vocabulary of English. All the words I have bolded come either from French or from Latin, often via French. Indeed I once read that nearly 50% of the English lexis is of French origin or of Latin origin via French. And there are some words whose etymology is no longer even apparent, e.g. war (from "guerre"). Just off the top of my head, here are some common words whose French origin is obvious: debt, pay, purchase, lodge, common, curtesy, pray, repent, renounce, fruit, dinner, sauce, feast, veal, table, touch, manner, polite, police, medicine, peace, justice, grace, evidence, pardon....

The Norman Invasion (1066) changed everything in English. Middle English is more or less comprehensible to anyone studying English literature today because its vocabulary was completely transformed by the Normans. Old English is not. There are 39 words of French origin in the first 43 lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

So if English is a hybrid language, it is not only because the "Anglo-Saxons" were invaded by the Vikings but also because they were subjugated by the Normans in 1066. That and the fact that for the next five hundred years, English borrowed extensively from both French and Latin. To say that English is grammatically simple because it is the language of an empire, like Persian, overlooks the fact that its vocabulary (and the concepts that are conveyed by vocabulary) is largely the product of the Roman Empire and its continental heirs.

Last edited by Florian; 09-03-2011 at 03:18 PM..
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  #4  
Old 09-04-2011, 02:04 AM
Sulla the Dictator Sulla the Dictator is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Excellent post.
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  #5  
Old 09-06-2011, 02:50 PM
popcorn_karate popcorn_karate is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Florian View Post
A pleasant relief from the usual bhtv fare. I look forward to reading John's book.

Without being a professional linguist, I would dispute John's claim that what makes English unique as a language of empire is the result mainly of what happened to old English when the Vikings invaded England. Take the vocabulary of English. All the words I have bolded come either from French or from Latin, often via French. Indeed I once read that nearly 50% of the English lexis is of French origin or of Latin origin via French. And there are some words whose etymology is no longer even apparent, e.g. war (from "guerre"). Just off the top of my head, here are some common words whose French origin is obvious: debt, pay, purchase, lodge, common, curtesy, pray, repent, renounce, fruit, dinner, sauce, feast, veal, table, touch, manner, polite, police, medicine, peace, justice, grace, evidence, pardon....

The Norman Invasion (1066) changed everything in English. Middle English is more or less comprehensible to anyone studying English literature today because its vocabulary was completely transformed by the Normans. Old English is not. There are 39 words of French origin in the first 43 lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

So if English is a hybrid language, it is not only because the "Anglo-Saxons" were invaded by the Vikings but also because they were subjugated by the Normans in 1066. That and the fact that for the next five hundred years, English borrowed extensively from both French and Latin. To say that English is grammatically simple because it is the language of an empire, like Persian, overlooks the fact that its vocabulary (and the concepts that are conveyed by vocabulary) is largely the product of the Roman Empire and its continental heirs.
also, since the normans were the conquerors, the french-derived words of the same meaning usually have a more polite or upper-class connotation than the Anglo derived words. I think Pig/swine cattle/beef also show this split so the anglo pig is served to the normans as swine, and the anglo cow is provides the beef that the normans eat.

i havn't watched the DV, but i thought the Norman invasion was well accepted as the defining moment in transforming english into the weirdo language it is.
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  #6  
Old 09-07-2011, 04:50 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Quote:
Originally Posted by popcorn_karate View Post
also, since the normans were the conquerors, the french-derived words of the same meaning usually have a more polite or upper-class connotation than the Anglo derived words. I think Pig/swine cattle/beef also show this split so the anglo pig is served to the normans as swine, and the anglo cow is provides the beef that the normans eat.

i havn't watched the DV, but i thought the Norman invasion was well accepted as the defining moment in transforming english into the weirdo language it is.
McWorter apparently believes that the importance of the Norman Conquest has been exaggerated, but I haven't read his book. You are right, though, about the conventional wisdom. Approximately 10,000 French words entered English as a result of the invasion, 75% of which are still in use. And when you add to those all the later borrowings from Latin and French, many of them essential for educated communication, it is debatable whether English is a Germanic language at all.

It is only a half-truth that the French loanwords for animals --veal, beef, venison, pork, mutton---were used exclusively for cooked meat. You find beef, veal and mutton also used for animals in the field up to the 17th century, according to my etymological dictionary.

Last edited by Florian; 09-07-2011 at 04:52 AM..
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  #7  
Old 09-08-2011, 02:24 AM
timboy timboy is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

From his previous book I take it that McWhorter would argue that while the Norman invasion introduced a lot of new words into English, it didn't change the grammar much - and he believes that the weirdo grammar was already in place before 1066.
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  #8  
Old 09-08-2011, 11:54 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by timboy View Post
From his previous book I take it that McWhorter would argue that while the Norman invasion introduced a lot of new words into English, it didn't change the grammar much - and he believes that the weirdo grammar was already in place before 1066.
That's just not true. If I had access to Old English texts (pre-1066) I could quote you any passage and you would be unable to understand it, and not only because of the differences in vocabulary. It must be regarded as a foreign language. Try reading Chaucer, who wrote three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, and see how easy it is to understand.
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  #9  
Old 09-10-2011, 07:06 AM
kezboard kezboard is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

There's a wrinkle though. McWhorter does says that the odd grammar of English was in place before 1066, but he argues that because it was considered substandard, it didn't show up very often in written documents. After the Norman conquest and the dominance of French in educated circles in England, the English literary tradition was renewed with a new standard, which included the bits that were considered ungrammatical previously -- an example of this would be the verb "do" as an auxiliary verb in questions and negative statements, as in "Do you have a dog"/"I don't have a dog". (This takes up a lot of time in beginning English classes.) McWhorter argues that this came into English from Celtic languages, and it does show up in Chaucer, apparently.

You said (in another post) that English can hardly be considered a Germanic language anymore. That might be true, but it definitely can't be considered a Romance language, either. The odd grammatical features that make English very different from its closest relatives (the auxiliary verb "do", the use of the present progressive, the collapse of case and gender) do not correspond with features in French grammar.

Also, one of the reasons Chaucer is hard to understand for modern English speakers is because of the vowel shift in the fifteenth century.
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  #10  
Old 09-10-2011, 01:26 PM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Quote:
Originally Posted by kezboard View Post
There's a wrinkle though. McWhorter does says that the odd grammar of English was in place before 1066, but he argues that because it was considered substandard, it didn't show up very often in written documents. After the Norman conquest and the dominance of French in educated circles in England, the English literary tradition was renewed with a new standard, which included the bits that were considered ungrammatical previously -- an example of this would be the verb "do" as an auxiliary verb in questions and negative statements, as in "Do you have a dog"/"I don't have a dog". (This takes up a lot of time in beginning English classes.) McWhorter argues that this came into English from Celtic languages, and it does show up in Chaucer, apparently.

You said (in another post) that English can hardly be considered a Germanic language anymore. That might be true, but it definitely can't be considered a Romance language, either. The odd grammatical features that make English very different from its closest relatives (the auxiliary verb "do", the use of the present progressive, the collapse of case and gender) do not correspond with features in French grammar.

Also, one of the reasons Chaucer is hard to understand for modern English speakers is because of the vowel shift in the fifteenth century.
I meant just the opposite: that it is fairly easy to read Chaucer in comparison to Old English, despite the vowel shift. With footnotes anyone can do it. Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, is unintelligible.

I agree that English can't be considered a Romance language either. But the fact that English and French share approximately 15,000 words, some via Latin, makes them close cousins as it were. And frčres ennemis"? Enemy brothers?
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  #11  
Old 09-10-2011, 08:08 PM
rfrobison rfrobison is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by Florian View Post
...[F]rčres ennemis"? Enemy brothers?
I believe the technical term is "frenemies."
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  #12  
Old 09-03-2011, 10:02 AM
harkin harkin is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

The promise of a refreshing discussion was only marginally fulfilled. I'm much less interested in how fascinating ebonics is than how russian schools succeeded where urban american schools have failed. Also somewhat surprising was a discussion of language with almost no mention of reading.....but then that's probably unintentionally the point.

It's been a while since anything made me think of Francine Prose's excellent I Know Why The Caged Bird Can't Read:

"The present vogue for teaching “values” through literature uses the novel as a springboard for the sort of discussion formerly conducted in civics or ethics classes—areas of study that, in theory, have been phased out of the curriculum but that, in fact, have been retained and cleverly substituted for what we used to call English. English—and everything about it that is inventive, imaginative, or pleasurable—is beside the point in classrooms, as is everything that constitutes style and that distinguishes writers, one from another, as precisely as fingerprints or DNA mapping."
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  #13  
Old 09-03-2011, 05:11 PM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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"The present vogue for teaching “values” through literature uses the novel as a springboard for the sort of discussion formerly conducted in civics or ethics classes—areas of study that, in theory, have been phased out of the curriculum but that, in fact, have been retained and cleverly substituted for what we used to call English. English—and everything about it that is inventive, imaginative, or pleasurable—is beside the point in classrooms, as is everything that constitutes style and that distinguishes writers, one from another, as precisely as fingerprints or DNA mapping."
Le style, c'est l'homme: Style is the man (Buffon, 18th century). I agree. I am not sure what your remark has to do with the diavlog, but there is no doubt that the teaching of literature, in the US especially, has become the teaching of "values." To the detriment both of values and literature.
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  #14  
Old 09-04-2011, 02:38 AM
JonIrenicus JonIrenicus is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by harkin View Post
The promise of a refreshing discussion was only marginally fulfilled. I'm much less interested in how fascinating ebonics is than how russian schools succeeded where urban american schools have failed. Also somewhat surprising was a discussion of language with almost no mention of reading.....but then that's probably unintentionally the point...
It seems like the US is a much less homogeneous population than a Russia. And we all know people tend to self segregate in where they live and who they hang around. That would seem to lead to stronger and wilder swings in language and accents.
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  #15  
Old 09-04-2011, 03:45 AM
whburgess whburgess is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by harkin View Post
The promise of a refreshing discussion was only marginally fulfilled. I'm much less interested in how fascinating ebonics is than how russian schools succeeded where urban american schools have failed. Also somewhat surprising was a discussion of language with almost no mention of reading.....but then that's probably unintentionally the point.
I didn't see any indication, at any point, that this discussion was about the education system in urban America. The discussion is about his book which is about the nature of the English language and how it came to be that way.

Apparently he uses Ebonics as an example of how the English language evolved, but he never suggests that Ebonics is a result of bad urban schools. It is a result of adult slaves from Africa learning English as adults and this form of English was passed down the generations. Furthermore, this form of English (Ebonics) is no less correct then the form the rest of us speak, because what we speak is also a derivative of old English in the same way, and for much the same reasons, as Ebonics is a derivative of our English.
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  #16  
Old 09-04-2011, 06:17 AM
sugarkang sugarkang is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by whburgess View Post
Apparently he uses Ebonics as an example of how the English language evolved, but he never suggests that Ebonics is a result of bad urban schools. It is a result of adult slaves from Africa learning English as adults and this form of English was passed down the generations. Furthermore, this form of English (Ebonics) is no less correct then the form the rest of us speak, because what we speak is also a derivative of old English in the same way, and for much the same reasons, as Ebonics is a derivative of our English.
Yet another reason pedantic grammarians don't matter.
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  #17  
Old 09-03-2011, 11:26 AM
Uhurusasa Uhurusasa is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

A blast from the past:

The Story of English

http://www.youtube.com/user/DespairIsAsin#g/a
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  #18  
Old 09-03-2011, 12:57 PM
Winspur Winspur is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

I have to disagree with John that Latin is 'a nightmare.' The grammar is difficult, true, but:

--there are only 4 regular verb conjugation patterns
--verb tenses are limited to past perfect and imperfect, present, and future (Greek is much worse in this regard)
--a native English (or Spanish) speaker can pronounce all words in Latin.
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  #19  
Old 09-03-2011, 02:34 PM
bkjazfan bkjazfan is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

It's becoming difficult to traverse the city of Los Angeles without the ability to speak and understand the Spanish language. Being monolingual in this area of the world is a handicap under which I have first hand experience with. I tell myself I will learn it but never get around to doing so. Oh, don't waste your money on Rosetta Stone. Nice software but it doesn't take you anywhere.

Last edited by bkjazfan; 09-03-2011 at 02:38 PM..
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  #20  
Old 09-03-2011, 02:41 PM
graz graz is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by bkjazfan View Post
It's becoming difficult to traverse the city of Los Angeles without the ability to speak and understand the Spanish language. Being monolingual in this area of the world is a handicap under which I have first hand experience with.
You ought to write a book about that fantastical anecdote.
And then have it translated into Spanish so as to increase sales.

Potential titles:

"The trials of traversing the City of non-Anglos"

"No speak my language in Chavez Ravine"

ETA: Define difficult, and traverse?

Last edited by graz; 09-03-2011 at 02:44 PM..
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  #21  
Old 09-03-2011, 03:28 PM
graz graz is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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How about "Why Doesn't Anyone Understand Me?" or

"I Can't Believe I Was Born In The Pico-Union Area"
Even better than my suggestions. Although the first one may speak to more than a language barrier
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  #22  
Old 09-03-2011, 04:26 PM
bkjazfan bkjazfan is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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Originally Posted by graz View Post
Even better than my suggestions. Although the first one may speak to more than a language barrier
You aren't cutting me any slack today. Better luck next time.

Last edited by bkjazfan; 09-03-2011 at 04:29 PM..
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  #23  
Old 09-04-2011, 12:27 PM
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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You aren't cutting me any slack today. Better luck next time.
No te preocupes. Todo se soluciona en la vida siempre y cuando tengas paciencia.
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  #24  
Old 09-04-2011, 08:32 PM
bkjazfan bkjazfan is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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No te preocupes. Todo se soluciona en la vida siempre y cuando tengas paciencia.
Don't know what it means but I agree.
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  #25  
Old 09-04-2011, 08:41 PM
SkepticDoc SkepticDoc is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Ocean would never say anything mean to anybody.

The ultra short translation would be: Don't worry

My translation: Don't worry. Everything in life is eventually solved as long as you are patient.
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  #26  
Old 09-04-2011, 08:38 AM
dieter dieter is offline
 
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Default Praise and doubts

Edit: wrong thread
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  #27  
Old 09-03-2011, 02:40 PM
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Good stuff.
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  #28  
Old 09-03-2011, 09:56 PM
T.G.G.P T.G.G.P is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Cool diavlog. I recall asking before for McWhorter to talk more about linguistics. I just wonder what time period he's referring to with the Vikings. Does he mean Normans, because I thought they brought latinate/French language.
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  #29  
Old 09-04-2011, 09:36 AM
kezboard kezboard is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Pre-1066, the Vikings were a huge presence in England.
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  #30  
Old 09-03-2011, 11:16 PM
Ken Davis Ken Davis is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Thanks for the absorbing conversation. T'wasn't long enough.

What is it called when a word is coined by combining two (or more) words?

Here's my contribution to the vocabulary: alactric. Means fast as lightning. In noun form: alacricity. Most people say "alectric" anyway. They've almost got it.
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  #31  
Old 09-04-2011, 03:07 AM
sugarkang sugarkang is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

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What is it called when a word is coined by combining two (or more) words?
portmanteaux
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  #32  
Old 09-04-2011, 09:29 AM
dieter dieter is offline
 
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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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  #33  
Old 09-04-2011, 10:13 AM
Winspur Winspur is offline
 
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Default Re: Praise and doubts

Quote:
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.
The Saxons and Vikings settled in much greater numbers than the Normans did. In most of what is now England they totally supplanted the old Celtic languages. In contrast, the Norman conquest looked more like 19th century imperialism; a small elite grabbed the best land along with London. All the two-part English place names (Melton Mowbray, Leighton Buzzard) come from Norman lords seizing or buying existing villages.
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  #34  
Old 09-04-2011, 12:55 PM
JonIrenicus JonIrenicus is offline
 
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Default Re: Praise and doubts

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Originally Posted by dieter View Post
...
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.
...
Years ago I went to a highschool with a large hispanic population, and during that time some Bush family member (not GWB) gave a pandering speech where he spoke spanish to the crowd and I remember some of them talking about how "proper" he sounded, like he learned the spanish used in SPAIN not Mexico.

Not sure how that bush learned spanish, but if he learned in a formal way that probably preserves the original language better than ad hoc spoken absorption.
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Old 09-04-2011, 02:30 PM
kezboard kezboard is offline
 
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Default Re: Praise and doubts

Quote:
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.
I actually don't think this is what McWhorter means and that he did himself a disservice by talking about empires. What I think he means is that languages that have been learned by lots of adults tend to have simpler grammars. He didn't bring up the case of trade languages, but these seem pretty obvious -- Swahili and Indonesian are both supposed to be really easy to learn, even though they're both related to languages that are really complicated. They're both trade languages.

Quote:
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.
I don't know. We would need some actual evidence on this point. But it's worth keeping in mind that Latin was used for a very long time among European elites, and also that while it's true that many areas of Europe were polyglot for a very long time, I would imagine that in many of these areas, these languages existed side-by-side and you didn't have the sort of wholesale adoption of a language the way McWhorter says you did when the Vikings moved into England. When Saxons were encouraged by the Hungarian king to settle in Spiš to set up mining towns during the 12th century, they didn't come in and start speaking Slovak or Hungarian, and they didn't force the Slovaks or Hungarians living there to start speaking their language either; the three language groups continued speaking their own languages at home.

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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.
No way. As someone who's learned a closely related Slavic language, it's not a joke. All those cases are used. It's true that there are parts of standardized grammars that are archaic (like the subjunctive in English, for instance) or just not used all that often (like the future perfect continuous tense -- "will have been being") but people don't just throw out grammatical cases because of laziness.

Last edited by kezboard; 09-04-2011 at 02:43 PM..
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  #36  
Old 09-04-2011, 03:11 PM
Ocean Ocean is offline
 
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Default Re: Praise and doubts

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Originally Posted by kezboard View Post

No way. As someone who's learned a closely related Slavic language, it's not a joke. All those cases are used. It's true that there are parts of standardized grammars that are archaic (like the subjunctive in English, for instance) or just not used all that often (like the future perfect continuous tense -- "will have been being") but people don't just throw out grammatical cases because of laziness.
Oh, yes, I remember while learning (British) English I had to make sentences using different verb tenses. "If I stay here until the theatre opens, I will have been standing for about two hours."
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Old 09-04-2011, 05:24 PM
kezboard kezboard is offline
 
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Default Re: Praise and doubts

At least in English the verb stays the same, so it's "I will have been waiting", "you will have been waiting", etc., which I guess is what McWhorter means when he says English is simple. Still, it seems like what he means by simple is that verbs don't decline and there's hardly any case system, which seems like more of a symptom of his own difficulties with Russian noun declensions or Spanish verb conjugations than anything about English.
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  #38  
Old 09-04-2011, 12:31 PM
Ocean Ocean is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Black Martian Linguists (John McWhorter & Joshua Knobe)

Certainly not science, but an enjoyable, brief conversation of scholarly nature.
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Old 09-04-2011, 04:20 PM
kezboard kezboard is offline
 
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Default Simplification

This was a really interesting diavlog. I've asked linguistics diavlogs before and I'm very happy they've obliged, even though the impetus for this was probably more John's new book than any request I made a few years ago. But please, more.

I read and enjoyed McWhorter's book on English, where he also discussed his theories about the "simplification" of English being caused by the absorption of non-native adults into the English-speaking community. This seems totally plausible to me, and his theory about the "Big Dude" languages does as well, although like I said in my response to Dieter, I think McWhorter ought to clarify that he's not just referring to imperial languages, languages with a lot of speakers, or languages that served as lingua francas (I have no idea what the plural of "lingua franca" is) but rather ones that experienced the influx of lots of new adults learning the language and then raising their children to speak it, PRIOR TO STANDARDIZATION.

However. I'm not totally sure that "simplification" is the best word to use. Why English is an isolating language in a family of synthetic languages is definitely a question that needs to be answered, and like I said, McWhorter's answer sounds totally plausible to me. I'm willing to say that it's totally reasonable that languages that are spoken by small bands of people are able to handle more grammatical complexity, and that the process by which a language like that becomes a massive international language spoken by millions involves a certain amount of flattening out of these complexities. (I so do not believe that Navajo has no regular verbs, though. Seriously, does anyone have a reference for that?) But I don't know that English becoming more isolating is the same as English becoming simpler. It was a little funny that first McWhorter talked about standard modern English being simplified from Old English, and then Black English being simplified from standard modern English, and then he went on to describe complexities of Black English that standard English doesn't have (why you can't say "I be ghetto").

I'm an ESL teacher, and I teach speakers of Czech, which is part of a group of languages McWhorter described as so complicated it seems like a joke. For English speakers, thinking about having to use the right ending on every single noun in a sentence does sound like a joke. I promise it isn't. For Czech speakers, though, the incredibly restrictive word order of English seems like a joke, and learning English takes the same sort of mental re-programming for Czechs as learning a Slavic language does for English speakers. Once a student, trying to tell me that I was the one, not her, who found something, said "It found you!" I've corrected the "I and my sister" mistake a million times. A synthetic language like Czech would never make a pointless rule like this, but English does, because keeping the word order straight is very important. Furthermore, the tense and aspect system in Czech is downright simple. I know there are some languages that have absurdly complex tenses, distinguishing between way far back in the past and yesterday or between whether you saw it happen or whether you just heard that it happened, but as far as I know, English does not have a simpler tense system than those of its relatives. I don't understand why, if the trend was towards general simplification in English, we would lose a really pervasive feature like gender but keep a tense like the future perfect continuous ("I will have been doing") that I probably use about once a week.
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Old 09-04-2011, 05:37 PM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Simplification

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Originally Posted by kezboard View Post
I read and enjoyed McWhorter's book on English, where he also discussed his theories about the "simplification" of English being caused by the absorption of non-native adults into the English-speaking community. .
The theory may be true in general, but, as I pointed out above, it was the non-natives, a tiny minority of Norman invaders, who completely transformed English---by not being absorbed into the English-speaking community. For nearly two hundred years after the Conquest they spoke only in their native French (Anglo-Normand), refusing to learn the language of the Anglo-Saxons, or only learning enough to communicate with the peasants... It was the latter who had to adapt, tant bien que mal, to the language of their masters. After dispossessing 95% of the landowners of their land, the Normans dispossessed them of language as well. I don't know what percentage of English words disappeared and were replaced by French and Latinate words, but it was huge. And the process of latinization went on for centuries.

The rest of your reflections on teaching "simple" English to non-natives are very interesting. I had similar experiences when I used to teach English in France. Getting the French to see the "logic" of the different uses of the present continuous and future continuous (You will be hearing from us soon) convinced me that there are other things that complicate language besides case endings etc.
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