Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!

Notes

1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?

Der, das, die….. I give up!

Welcome back to the HLC!

Did you enjoy last week’s book review? We sure did, so we understand that you’re now occupied with your very own copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, but just in case you do find some time: remember that we promised you a discussion on grammatical and natural gender systems in our post on gender-neutral pronouns two weeks ago? Well, we always keep our promises! Before getting deep into that particular discussion though, let’s first establish something about what we mean when we say gender.

When talking about gender in linguistic study, we’re often talking about a category of inflection. Inflection, in turn, is the modification of a word to express grammatical categories – like gender (but also tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, and mood – let’s not go there right now). The grammatical category gender includes three subcategories (or classes), typically described as masculine, feminine and neuter. A language that uses grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily need to use all three however: in Swedish, for example, you find only two: common (which includes both masculine and feminine, which have merged together to become one) and neuter. Anyway, in a language which inflects for gender, i.e. a language that uses a grammatical gender system, every single noun must belong to one of the gender classes of that language (though a few, a very few, may belong to more than one class). The grammatical category is thus reflected in the behaviour of the words that belong to the subcategory, or the article which belongs to that subcategory. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Let’s use an example. In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each noun in the German language belongs to one of these genders but it is not necessarily the same as the expected gender of the referent. For example, ‘Mädchen’, meaning ‘girl’ in German, is a grammatically neuter, not feminine. While you can’t see that on the noun itself, when taking definite form Mädchen always occurs with the article das, which is the neuter definite article in German, while ‘Junge’, meaning ‘boy’, always occurs with the masculine article der (but then, so does ‘table’).

In a grammatical gender system, the gender of the noun itself is thus not always readily evident. This has often lead people, even those whose job it is to study language, to assume that the gender is arbitrarily assigned and native speakers simply remember it, noun by noun. However, do you know how many nouns the, for example, German language has? We don’t, but we bet you that it’s quite a lot. Yet, native speakers rarely make a mistake when it comes to using the right gender. Is it probable, or even the least bit likely, that a native speaker simply ‘remembers’ the correct gender of all these nouns?

Nah, not really. But how does it work then? Well, like many other things, we don’t know exactly! Corbett has suggested a number of factors that play in when it comes to gender assignment. Among these, we find meaning and form to be the most important ones. Form can further be divided into two types: morphological and phonological. If a language doesn’t assign gender on the basis of these criteria, the gender of a noun might also be based on mythological association, concept association, or marking of important property.

Woof, that got complicated real fast, right? Let’s sum it up by saying that there are really three main ways by which a noun gets its gender: based on (1) semantic criteria – the meaning of the noun decides its gender; (2) morphological criteria – the form of the noun decides its gender; and (3) so-called lexical criteria – the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender, sometimes due to historical reasons.

Now that we know that, we can move on to natural gender systems.

In a natural gender system, a noun is ascribed to the gender that would be expected based on the word itself. That is, a woman is female, a man is male. On the basis of that, you might expect one of the languages to use natural gender to be English, which of course is true. Unlike most of the Germanic languages, English has shrugged off the yoke of grammatical gender (which is just one of the ‘oddities’ of the English language), but it certainly isn’t the only one! As we’ve already said: in Swedish, for example, you’ll find only two genders: common and neuter; in Dutch, there can be either three or two genders depending on geographical area and speaker!

It might be easy to think that a language that uses grammatical gender cannot have natural gender, or the other way around if you prefer. That, however, is not quite true: the two aren’t mutually exclusive! Spanish, for example, uses a grammatical gender system, yet adjectives and nouns are sometimes inflected for natural gender, that is: el pequeño niño the little boy’ but la pequeña niña ‘the little girl’!  

As you can clearly see, grammatical and natural gender is not an easy thing to explain!

via GIPHY

We’ve made an honest attempt at trying to explain these two topics in a way that (hopefully) makes sense to you! If you want to read more about this, though, we suggest our primary source for this post:

Corbett, Greville G. 2012 [1991]. Gender. Online ed. Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166119

If you want to check out other accounts, you might enjoy Jenny Audring’s section on Gender in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, found here.

Questions, thoughts, amazingly inspired outbursts? Let us know!

Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

Ah, nouns. Classically defined as “people, places, and things,”1 these little (and sometimes not so little) words can carry a lot of meaning, encompassing everything from cats to triskaidekaphobia2. Pair them with verbs (those things you do), and you’ve really got something.

In English, there’s a comforting solidity to nouns. Not like verbs, that throw on endings and even, le gasp, change vowels like they’re trying on hats. Nouns, now—nouns are dependable.

Or so you thought. When you change the form of a verb to reflect who’s doing what and when, that’s called conjugation. Here’s the bombshell: nouns can do that, too. It’s called declension.

In some languages, the form of the noun changes to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, a noun may have one form when it’s the subject of a sentence but have a different form when it’s the object. (As a refresher: in ‘Rebekah wants haggis’, ‘Rebekah’ is the subject, and ‘haggis’ is the object.) These noun forms are called cases. Adjectives, pronouns, participles, numerals, and demonstratives (this or that) can also decline. Declension occurs in languages like, oh, English. Or Spanish. (Just a little bit.)

In English and Spanish, the presence of cases is most evident in their pronouns:

English Spanish
subject he él
direct object him lo
indirect object him le
possessive his/hisn su/suyo
reflexive himself se

(Hisn is a dialectal form like mine for the third person.)

For regular nouns, English only distinguishes between singular and plural and between possessive and non-possessive. Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural and declines for grammatical gender (e.g. the adjective blanco will become feminine blanca when describing la tortuga blanca ‘the white turtle’). The diversity of their pronoun forms3 is a remnant of their parent languages, Old English and Latin respectively. These older languages had full, healthy case systems that affected all their nouns. They in turn inherited their noun cases from a common ancestor, namely Indo-European (IE).

The Indo-European Noun Cases

Based on the structure of its surviving daughters, linguists have determined that Proto Indo-European had eight noun cases:

case role example in an English sentence
nominative subject amīcus ‘boy’/puella ‘girl’ (Lat) The boy plays.
accusative direct object amīcum/puellam He loves the girl.
dative indirect object amīcō/puellae He gives the girl a flower.
ablative movement away from amīcō/puellā She runs from the boy.
genitive possessive amīcī/puellae The boy’s tears
vocative addressee amīce/puella Boy, where art thou?
locative physical or temporal location domī ‘at home (Lat) She stays at home.
instrumental by means of which something is done þȳ stāne ‘with a stone’ (OE) He raps on her window with a stone.

 

This is a rather simplified representation of the situation. The actual distinctions and usages of the cases vary from language to language, particularly because very few IE languages utilize all eight cases (like Sanskrit does). It’s the nature of languages to change, and cases have a propensity to merge, a process called syncretism4. It’s like when you’re working on a group project, and half the group doesn’t show up, leaving the kids who want a good grade to pull double duty and fulfill the delinquents’ obligations as well as their own. For example, in Old English, the dative case fills some of the same uses as the ablative case in Latin because Old English doesn’t have an ablative.

The case of noun cases shook out a little differently across the Indo-European language family. As previously mentioned, Sanskrit has eight cases. Latin has seven. Old English has five. Icelandic and German have four (although German doesn’t show it on nouns so much as on articles and adjectives). And languages like English and Spanish don’t so much have cases anymore as much as they have pictures of their old case-infused relatives hanging on their walls.

A college classmate of mine once stated rather authoritatively that the reason the modern Romance languages have generally done away with cases is because it’s too hard to decline all those Latin nouns in your head. To be fair, Latin has five different groups of nouns (called declensions), all with their own endings for Latin’s seven cases. And it is true that many modern IE languages employ far fewer cases than their ancestors, if any at all. But the idea that cases are too hard for our brains to manage in everyday speech? Hogwash. Russian, another IE language that is very much alive and kicking, has six cases. Our friend Finnish (of Uralic descent) has fifteen. (You should also take from the example of Finnish that noun cases are not unique to the Indo-European languages.)

We’ve discussed before (repeatedly) that one language isn’t really harder than any other; they’re just different. The human brain is well equipped to utilize any of them it can get its neurons on. If our homo sapien super computers couldn’t handle a given linguistic structure, it wouldn’t develop. Easy as pie.

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

Now, a robust system of noun cases (and verb conjugation) in a language can affect more than just the morphology. Because so much important information is embedded in the words themselves, word order is less important and more flexible than in languages like Modern English.

In Old English, ‘Se hlāford lufaþ þā frōwe’ and ‘Þā frōwe lufaþ se hlāford’ both mean ‘The lord loves the lady.’ In Modern English, ‘The lord loves the lady’ and ‘The lady loves the lord’ have very different meanings (although, for the sake of romance, one hopes that both statements are equally true). To say ‘The lady loves the lord’ in Old English, you would decline the nouns differently and say ‘Sēo frōwe lufaþ þone hlāford.’ (Maybe this wasn’t the best example as there aren’t noticeably distinct ending on the verbs, but you can see the difference in case in the demonstratives.) This is not to say that Old English doesn’t have rules about word order, but it’s less crucial than in today’s English.

Languages that rely on declension and conjugation (both types of inflection) to convey meaning are called synthetic languages. Languages that rely more on word order are called analytic. These distinctions are not binary but rather are a matter of degree.

So, there you have it. (It being a brief rundown on noun cases.) As parts of speech go, nouns are pretty straightforward. But like a duck paddling on water, nature’s got a lot of beautiful stuff going on underneath the surface.

Notes

1 Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock.
2 A fear of the number 13.
3 Pronouns generally resist change (the stubborn things), hence the moderate survival of cases where they were generally lost throughout the rest of the language.
4 This phenomenon is propelled by things like sound change. If the endings for two cases start to sound identical, it becomes hard to distinguish them as separate forms.

The Dark Arts: How We Know What We Know

If you’ve been following us at the HLC, and especially our Fun Etymologies every Tuesday, you will have noticed that we often reference old languages: the Old English of Beowulf[1], the Latin of Cicero and Seneca, the Ancient Greek of Homer, and in the future (spoiler alert!), even the Classical Chinese of Confucius, the Babylonian of Hammurabi, or the Egyptian of Ramses. These languages all have extensive written records, which allows us to know them pretty much as if they were still spoken today, with maybe a few little doubts here and there for the older ones[2].

Egyptians might have had a bit TOO great of  a passion for writing, if you catch my drift

But occasionally, you’ve seen us reference much, much older languages: one in particular stands out, and it’s called Proto-Indo-European (often shortened to PIE). If you’ve read our post on language families, you’re probably wearily familiar with it by now. However, here’s the problem: the language is 10,000 years old! And writing was invented “just” 5,000 years ago, nowhere near where PIE was spoken.So, you may be asking, how the heck do we know what that language looked like, or if it even existed at all? And what do all those asterisks (as in *ekwom or *wlna) I see on the Fun Etymologies each week mean? Well, buckle up, dear readers, because the HLC will finally reveal it all: the dark magic that makes Historical Linguistics work. It’s time to take a look at…

The Comparative Method of Linguistic Reconstruction

“Linguistic history is basically the darkest of the dark arts, the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries.”

-Cola Minis, 1952

If we historical linguists had to go only by written records, we would be wading in shallow waters indeed: the oldest known written language, Sumerian, is only just about 5,000 years old.

The oldest joke we know of is in Sumerian. It’s a fart joke. Humanity never changes.

Wait, “only just”?? Well, consider that modern humans are at least 300,000 years old, and that some theories put the origins of language closer to a million years ago. You could fit the whole of history from the Sumerians to us 200 times in that and still have time to spare!

So, while writing is usually thought of as one of the oldest things we have, it is actually a pretty recent invention in the grand scheme of things. For centuries, it was just taken for granted that language just appeared out of nowhere a few millennia in the past, usually as a gift from some god or other: in Chinese mythology, the invention of language was attributed to an ancient god-king named Fuxi (approximately pronounced “foo-shee”), while in Europe it was pretty much considered obvious that ancient Hebrew was the first language of humankind, and that the proliferation of languages in the world was explained by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

Imagine your surprise when the guy who was supposed to pass you the trowel suddenly started speaking Vietnamese

This (and pretty much everything else) changed during the 18th century, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. During this age of bold exploration (and less savoury things done to the people found in the newly “discovered” regions), scholars started to notice something curious: wholly different languages presented interesting similarities with one another and, crucially, could be grouped together based on these similarities. If all the different languages of Earth had truly been created out of nothing on the same day, you would not expect to see such patterns at all.

In what is widely considered to be the founding document of historical linguistics, Sir William Jones, an English scholar living in India in 1786, writes:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists […]”

That source is, of course, PIE. But, again, how can we guess what that language sounded like? People at the time were too busy herding sheep and domesticating horses to worry about paltry stuff like writing.

Enter Jacob Grimm[3] and his Danish colleague Rasmus Rask. They noticed that the similarities between their native German and Danish languages, and other close languages (what we call the Germanic family today), were not only evident, but predictable: if you know how a certain word sounds in one language, you can predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy how its equivalent (or cognate) sounds in another. But their truly revolutionary discovery was that if you carefully compared these changes, you could make an educated guess as to what the sounds and grammar of their common ancestor language were. That’s because the changes that happen to a language over time are mostly regular and predictable. Think how lucky that is! If sounds in a language changed on a random basis, we would have no way of even guessing what any language before Sumerian looked like!

More like HANDSOME and Gretel, amirite?

This was the birth of the comparative method of linguistic reconstruction (simply known as “the comparative method” to friends), the heart of historical linguistics and probably the linguistic equivalent of Newton’s laws of motion or Darwin’s theory of evolution when it comes to world-changing power.

Here, in brief, is how it works:

How the magic happens

So, do we just look at a couple of different languages and guess what their ancestor looked like? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A lot more, in fact.

Not to rain on everyone’s parade before we even begin, but the comparative method is a long, difficult and extremely tedious process, which involves comparing thousands upon thousands of items and keeping reams of notes that would make the Burj Khalifa look like a molehill if stacked on top of each other.

The Burj Khalifa, for reference

What you need to do to reconstruct your very own proto-language is this:

  1. Take a sample of languages you’re reasonably sure are related, the larger the better. The more languages you have in your sample, the more accurate your reconstruction will be, since you might find out features which only a few languages (or even only one!) have retained, but which have disappeared in the others.
  2. Find out which sounds correspond to which in each language. If you do this with a Romance language and a Germanic one, you’ll find that Germanic “f” sounds pretty reliably correspond to Romance “p” sounds, for example (for instance, in the cognate couple padre and father). When you find a correspondance, it usually means that there is an ancestral sound underlying it.
  3. Reconstruct the ancestral sound. This is the trickiest part: there are a few rules which we linguists follow to get an accurate reconstruction. For example, if most languages in a sample have one sound rather than another, it’s more probable that that is the ancestral sound. Another criterion is that certain sound changes usually happen more frequently than others cross-linguistically (across many languages), and are therefore more probable . For example, /p/ becoming /f/ is far more likely than /f/ becoming /p/, for reasons I won’t get into here. That means that in our padre/father pair above, it’s more likely that “p” is the ancestral sound (and it is! The PIE root is *ph2tér[4]) Finally, between two proposed ancestral sounds, the one whose evolution requires the least number of steps is usually the more likely one.
  4. Check that your result is plausible. Is it in accordance with what is generally known about the phonetics and phonology of the language family you’re studying? Does it present some very bizarre or unlikely sounds or phonotactics? Be sure to account for all instances of borrowing, coincidences and scary German-named stuff like Sprachbunds[5]. If you’ve done all that, congratulations! You have an educated guess of what some proto-language might have sounded like! Now submit it to a few journals and see it taken down by three different people, together with your self-esteem.[6]But how do we know this process works? What if we’re just inventing a language which just so happens to look similar to all the languages we have in our sample, but which has nothing to do with what any hypothetical ancestor language of theirs would have looked like?

Well, the first linguists asked these very same questions, and did a simple experiment, which you can do at home yourself[7]: they took many of the modern Romance languages, pooled them together, and tried the method on them. The result was a very good approximation of Vulgar Latin.

Well, it works up to a certain point. See, while the comparative method is powerful, it has its limits. Notice how in the paragraph above I specified that it yielded a very good approximation of Vulgar Latin. You see, sometimes some features of a language get lost in all of its descendants, and there’s no way for us linguists to know they even existed! One example of this is the final consonant sounds in Classical Latin (for example, the -us and -um endings, as in “lupus” and “curriculum”), which were lost in all the modern Romance languages, and are therefore very difficult to reconstruct[8]. What this means is that the further back in time you go the less precise your guess becomes, until you’re at a level of guesswork so high it’s effectively indistinguishable from pulling random sounds out of a bag (i.e. utterly useless). That’s why, to our eternal disappointment, we can’t use the comparative method to go back indefinitely in the history of language[9].

When you use the comparative method, you must always keep in mind that what you end up with is not 100% mathematical truth, but just an approximation, sometimes a very crude one. That’s what all the asterisks are for: in historical linguistics, an asterisk before a word basically means that the word is reconstructed, and that it should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt[10].

The End

And so, now you know how we historical linguists work our spells of time travel and find out what the languages of bronze age people sounded like. It’s tedious work, and very frustrating, but the results are well worth the suffering and the toxic-level intake of caffeine necessary to carry it out. The beauty of all this is that it doesn’t only work with sounds: it has been applied to morphology as well, and in recent years we’ve finally been getting the knack of how to apply it to syntax as well! Isn’t that exciting?

It certainly is for us.

Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll dive into the law that started it all: Grimm’s law!

  1. P.S. Remember that Fun Etymology we did on the word “bear”? Yeah, “Beowulf” is another of those non-god-angering Germanic taboo names for bear! It literally means “bee-wolf”.
  2. Or even some big ones: we know very little about how Egyptian vowels were pronounced and where to put them in words, for example.
  3. Yes, the same guy who wrote the fairy tale books, together with his brother.
  4. I won’t explain the “h2” thing, because that opens a whole other can of worms we haven’t time to dive into here.
  5. We’ll talk about these in a future post.
  6. This doesn’t always happen. Usually.
  7. And it doesn’t involve any explosives or dangerous substances, only long, sleepless nights and the potential for soul-crushing boredom. Hooray!
  8. I don’t say “impossible”, because in some cases a sound lost in all descendant languages can be reconstructed thanks to its influence on neighbouring sounds, or (as in the case of Latin) by comparing with different branches of the family. But this is, like, super advanced über-linguistics.
  9. Which would instantly solve a lot of problems, believe me.
  10. Historical linguistics is an exception here. In most other fields of linguistics, the asterisk means “whatever follows is grammatically impossible”.

It’s all Greek to me!

 

Or, How No Language is Any More (or Less) Difficult than Any Other

Lessons I learned from Latin

How did Latin speakers remember which case a word goes in, and its form, as they spoke? We probably all wondered about this question at some time or another. I remember studying Latin in middle school (it’s mandatory in Italy) and being absolutely baffled at the thought that such a byzantine language could have been spoken fluently at some time in the past as I struggled to learn by heart dozens of declension tables as well as lists of environments which required the presence of some case or another (and even longer lists of exceptions to those lists!). The Romans must have been geniuses with prodigious memories who would probably find Italian a ridiculously simple and unsophisticated language to learn.

Then one day, in high school, I stumbled upon a textbook which used a different method to teach Latin from the one I was used to: it taught it as a living language. No more declension tables, no more long lists of baroque rules, no more grand examples of complicated rhetorical stylings; instead, it had everyday dialogues, going from simpler to more complex, and bite-sized grammar sections. Suddenly, Latin became easy: with the help of a dictionary, I could read and write in it with a reasonable degree of proficiency (which, alas, I’ve largely lost).

Had I become a genius? Did I start seeing my native Italian as a boorish, simplified version of the language of Rome? Absolutely not. All that changed was the way the language had been taught to me. That was the day I learned that no language is any more difficult than any other. Also, everything’s easier when you learn it as a baby, and the Romans spoke Latin since they were born, no declension tables necessary.

Latin is by no means the only language to be considered particularly difficult: we’ve all heard how difficult it is to learn Chinese, with all those ideographs[1] to learn, and with words being so ambiguous and whatnot; or Finnish, which has 15 cases and innumerable verbal inflections. Also, it’s a national pastime for everyone[2] to regard their language as the most complex to learn for foreigners, because that makes you feel oh-so-intelligent.

The idea that some languages are inherently more complex than others is, unsurprisingly, another legacy of the dastardly Victorians and their colonialist obsession with ethnocentric nationalism.

It was, of course, in the interest of Eurocentric racists to paint foreign languages as being either primitively simple and unsophisticated, or bizarrely and unnecessarily complicated (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read our post on phonaesthetics a few weeks ago, where we found out that the same reasoning was applied to how a language sounds.

Those Victorians… never happy until they’ve enslaved, massacred or culturally neutered someone different from them. Bless their little hearts.

Scientists estimate that a greater-than-average amount of moustache-twirling went into the making of this linguistic prejudice

My task today is showing you how this is not really true at all, and how your failure to realise your dream of learning Ahkwesásne Mohawk is more due to a lack of proper learning materials rather than any difficulty inherent in the language itself.

It all depends on your point of view

So, am I saying that all languages are equally simple in all their aspects? Well, no. While all languages are more or less equally complex, how that complexity is distributed changes from language to language. For example, while it is undeniably true that Finnish is far more morphologically complex than English, phonologically speaking English makes it look like toddler babbling.

Amazingly, although complexity might be distributed differently from language to language, overall the different parts balance out to make languages more or less as complex as each other. We don’t really know how this happens: various mechanisms have been proposed, but they all have fatal flaws. It is one of the great mysteries of linguistics.[3]

“But why do I find French so difficult, Riccardo?” you scream through a haze of tears as you once again fail to understand how the past subjunctive is of any use in any language ever. Well, the answer is that how difficult a language is to learn for you depends on your first language. Specifically, the more similar two languages are in their distribution of complexity, the easier it is for speakers of each to learn the other. If the languages are related, then it becomes even easier.[4] So, Mandarin Chinese might well be very difficult to learn for an English speaker, due to its very simple morphology, rigid syntactic structure and tonal phonology; but, say, a Tibetan speaker would find it much easier to learn than English, because the two languages are distantly related, and therefore have similar structure.

The moral of the story

And so, once again, we come to the end of a post having dispelled another widespread linguistic misconception.

Even though these myths might seem rather innocuous, they have real and sometimes very serious consequences. The idea that some languages are more or less complex or difficult to learn than others has, over the centuries, been used to justify nationalist, racist, and xenophobic sentiments which have ultimately resulted in suffering and sometimes even genocide.

What we need to do with languages is learn them, share them, preserve them, and speak them, not pitting them against each other in a competition over which is the best, most “logical”, most difficult or better-sounding one.

So enjoy the amazing diversity of human languages, people!

Stay tuned for next week, when Sabina will answer the old question: is English really three languages stacked upon each other wearing a trenchcoat?

  1. They’re not actually ideographs, they’re logographs, but that’s a topic for another post.
  2. Except for English speakers, who, for various reasons, have convinced themselves that their language is stupid, unsophisticated, illogical and boring. More on this in a future post.
  3. It is important to note that this rule does not apply to pidgins and (young) creoles, due to the way they were formed, as pointed out by John McWhorter (2011). These languages truly are simpler than all others. This, however, does NOT make them any more “primitive” or “less expressive”.
  4. Paradoxically, if two languages are TOO closely related, it becomes slightly more difficult for their speakers to learn the other, because they tend to over-rely on the similarities and end up tripping up on the differences.

Morphological Typology, or How Language is Like Ice Cream

Language is like ice cream: it’s delicious, it’s addictive, it’s refreshing, and it comes in an enormous number of varieties.

Did you know that in my native Italy, where modern ice cream was invented, it is customarily divided into three major categories, depending on how much milk it contains?

First of all, there’s sherbet: this is the most ancient kind of ice cream, and it’s basically just flavoured ice. It contains no milk. Then there’s the so-called “frutte” (fruits), which, as the name implies, are exclusively fruit-flavoured, and contain some milk. Finally, there’s the “creme” (creams), such as chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut. These are the true kings of ice cream, and contain the most milk of all.

Believe it or not, language is divided in the exact same way, only with morphological complexity (i.e. how many prefixes, suffixes, and word changes they have) instead of milk: language sherbets with little to no morphological complexity are called isolating languages; language frutte, with a moderate amount of morphological complexity, are called fusional languages; and language creme, with lots of morphological complexity, are called agglutinating languages.

Let’s look at each kind in a bit more detail.

Isolating Languages

Isolating languages are the simplest languages as far as morphology goes (which doesn’t mean they’re “simple” or “easy” languages though!). In a purely isolating language, words never change form: verbs don’t conjugate for tense or mood (as in love – loved), and nouns don’t decline for number or case (as in cow – cows) or anything else.

Now you’re probably thinking: “What a nightmare! How are speakers of these languages supposed to know if there’s more than one of something? Or if something happened in the past or will happen in the future?”

The answer to this question is that they use context, or, when that fails, they “cheat” by using special separate words which carry grammatical meaning, much like English suffixes do.

The classic example of an isolating language is Mandarin Chinese, which is also the language with the largest number of speakers in the world. Let’s look at a Chinese sentence to see how it deals with number and tense:

我三年前吃过四十块蛋糕,肚子疼死啦!

wǒ sān nián qián chī guo sìshí kuài dàngāo, dùzi téng sǐ la!

I three year before eat PAST forty slice cake, stomach hurt death PERF.EXCL!1

Three years ago I ate forty slices of cake, my stomach killed me!”

See? With the use of clever little words like guo (which basically means ‘past tense’), there’s no need to conjugate the verb! And the fact that we’re talking about more than one slice of cake is fully conveyed by the number “forty”, relieving the noun of the burden of plural suffixes.

Fusional Languages

The middle children of the linguosphere, fusional languages are probably the most familiar to readers of this blog, and that’s because most European languages, English included, are fusional.

Fusional languages have a moderate amount of prefixes and suffixes, such as the un- in unimportant or the -ed in cooked (collectively called affixes), and other morphological tricks up their sleeves, and they particularly like changing the forms of their words without adding stuff to them (à la goose – geese). What they don’t like doing is adding more than one or two extra pieces to their words, which keeps them small and contained.

“Well, what if a verb is both past and perfect, or a noun both plural and genitive (possessive)?” I hear you ask. Well, fusional languages have a neat trick to deal with these situations, and that is having a single affix or a word change have more than one meaning.

Now, English is kind of the runt of the litter when it comes to fusional languages, and has some peculiarities which make it somewhat of a bad example to use to explain how they work, so I’ll use my native Italian to show you a fusional language in action:

Se Giovanni facesse quelle stramaledette salsiccie, mangeremmo come dei re.

if Giovanni do-3P.SING.PRES.COND those blasted.PL sausage.PL, eat-2P.PL.PRES.SUBJ like of.the.PL king.PL

If Giovanni were to make those blasted sausages, we would eat like kings.”

Look at those suffixes! The suffix -eremmo in mangeremmo means second person, plural, present and subjunctive2. How’s that for multitasking!?

Agglutinating Languages

Remember two sections ago when you were wondering how isolating languages managed to work with no affixes at all? Well, that laughter you heard coming from the back of the room were the agglutinating languages, mocking our puny fusional lack of affixation.

Agglutinating languages love affixes: the more stuff you can stick to a word, the better. They treat their words like daisy-chains, adding affix upon affix, nevermind how long they end up to be. For agglutinating languages, there’s no need for multitasking in affixes, because you can string as many as you like one after another.

An example of an agglutinating language we can find here in Europe is Finnish, which, as everyone knows, is the native language of Santa Claus, or Joulupukki as he’s known up there.

Let’s have a look at some Finnish:

Kirjastoissammekin on ruskeakarhuja!

book-COLL-PL-INESS-2PL-TOO is brown.bear-PL-PART!

We have brown bears in our libraries too!”

Look at that. Eight words in English, three words in Finnish, isn’t that amazing?

The word kirjastoissammekin alone means “in our libraries too”, and can be neatly taken apart like this: kirja-sto-i-ssa-mme-kin “book-collection-plural-in-our-too”. If you don’t find that neat, then I frankly don’t know how to impress you.

Sometimes, agglutinating languages go mad with power and let their words run amok, gobbling up everything they see, including other words. We call these extreme examples of agglutination polysynthetic languages. These mad scientists can incorporate pieces of words inside other words, giving rise to Frankensteinian monstrosities which can carry the meaning of a whole English sentence on their own. Here’s an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language spoken in Canada:

Qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga

rise-HAB-group-enormous-to-arrive-must-have-FUT-1P.SING

“I’ll have to go to the airport”

More literally, this über-word could be translated as “I will have to arrive at the place where the big rising things are.”

Conclusion

Now that we’ve reached the end of our brief trip through the three morphological types of language, let me quickly go back to my ice cream metaphor to explain an important point about this classification: just as you can mix and match different kinds of ice cream in your cup, languages rarely fit neatly into these categories. Most languages combine characteristics from at least two of these groups, with one being dominant and the others subordinate. For example, it could be argued that English is a fusional language that’s rapidly moving towards becoming isolating; Mandarin Chinese is mostly isolating, but it has some agglutinating characteristics; and Finnish has been known to stray into fusional behaviour from time to time.

The takeaway from this is that things in the world are rarely clear-cut, and language is no exception.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief (but wild) jaunt through the various ways languages organise their morphology. Next week, it will be Sabina’s turn again, and this time she will answer the pressing question: what is the relationship between language and writing? Are they the same thing? (SPOILER: They’re not.)

See you then!

Glossing Glossary (Gloss-ary? Anyone?)

The following is a list of the abbreviations I’ve used in the glosses for the examples. You can happily and safely skip this if you’re not interested in what the abbreviations mean.

PERF : perfect

EXCL : exclamative

1-2-3P : first/second/third person

SING : singular

PRES : present

COND : conditional

PL : plural

SUBJ : subjunctive

COLL : collective

INESS : inessive (a case in Finnish)

PART : partitive (a case in Finnish)

HAB : habitual

FUT : future

Notes

  1. By the way, that cool thing in italics I did with the word-by-word translation is called glossing and we use it a lot in linguistics to explain how sentences work in different languages (don’t worry about the PERF.EXCL thing, it doesn’t concern us).

  2. The subjunctive is what we in linguistics call a mood, which can be very roughly understood as the way of the verb of telling the listener how factual the information you’re giving them is. The subjunctive indicates that the information is hypothetical.