SSi Forum

The Story of Human Language


#1

I’ve just finished reading “The Story of Human Language” (2004) by my favourite linguist, John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. In it, he describes how languages change over time through insularity (leading to increasing grammatical complexity), contact with other languages (leading to lexical changes) and also through disruptive social change (leading to simplification resulting in pidgin and creolisation). In chapters 33 and 34 he discusses language death, the gist of which is summarised by this quote: “Once a society goes through a generation where the language is not being passed on to the tiny, then the language cannot breathe again. So that means that if you meet a society where very old people are speaking the language in great numbers … but then middle-aged people do not speak the language, then the language is still in trouble.” If people do not learn a language when young, they will usually acquire and pass on a simplified, creole version of the language.
The reason for posting about it is the following intriguing (and if correct still, depressing) passage:
“My sense from the Irish, Welsh, Breton, Maori, and Hawaiian movements is that the languages are unlikely to be passed on to children again in enough households to be significant, but that the languages nevertheless can live as “taught” languages, rather as many Americans have a decent if not native-level proficiency in Spanish.”
This was written in 2004, and things have changed. What do people think? Personally, I think Welsh is vibrant enough to continue as a truly living language. It would be an interesting exercise to do a comparative study of written Welsh and spoken Welsh and determine to what extent the modern spoken language has become a creole, i.e. grammatically simplified. BTW, he considers English to be a creole.


#2

I have not read this book, so can’t comment on it. But as to the future of Welsh, it may be instructive to look at the revival of Hebrew as a spoken national language. The current circumstances of Wales, on the one hand, and the return to Israel in the 19th-20th centuries of large numbers of Jews, on the other, are very, very different.
But what there was in common was a national language that was still used, and with which many people were quite familiar. Hardly any Jews spoke Hebrew as a day-to-day language by the time we started to return to the area over a hundred years ago. But Hebrew was used as the language of prayer and religious study (which play a huge part in the lives of religious-traditional Jews). Hebrew was also often used as an international language when Jews from different countries, who had no other common tongue, would meet. But it was quite dead as a living language. A huge effort by a small number of inspired people changed that: people raising their children with Hebrew as their mother tongue. And it worked. The history is easily accessible on-line so I won’t beleaguer the point.
Welsh has never died as a living language, so it would seem to have an advantage over Hebrew at the turn of the 20th century. The massive challenge of course is the huge influence of a single competing international language: English. I don’t have the answer to that.
But given enough ideological commitment, coupled with political will, and I think that Wales could indeed turn Welsh into its dominant mother tongue. It should be done wisely - no point in antagonising the English-speaking majority, some of whom couldn’t care less.
That’s why I think that SSiW is so important.
Pob lwc i’r Gymry!


#3

I think he’s probably totally correct in as much as Welsh would go down than path and it actually has gone too far down that path, during the twentieth century.

Many people in the world who are native speakers probably had parents who spoke a creole or a poor version of the local language - so i can’t believe that sort of parent-child relationship is doomed. Societal attitudes and expectations as a whole must also be key factors. If you’re a migrant to a country - say Germany, England or France, then the expectation is there and the need as well to learn the local language - even if that’s a pidgin speech - the descendents quickly become native level speakers, through friends, work, the wider community and education. If there remains a big enough pool of native speakers and the expectation shifts towards speaking the language instead of the opposite which is having to justify speaking it, then the descendents of the “pidgin” speakers will be native speakers surely. I think we have to go through the hard phase of having lots of “taught” speakers to complement the pool of native speakers, in order to change a few social norms and expectations.

I think that feeling the need to justify why you’re speaking or learning a particular language is the real killer.


#4

Hi @Louis,

This is really interesting and linguistics, especially historical linguistics fascinates me (though not enough to actually read anything academic about it it would seem :joy: :see_no_evil:). I have a question more than a response to you question; what’s the definition of a creole? Is it possible that Early Welsh (or late Brythonic, not sure when one starts and the other finishes) had already experienced a sort of creolisation from it’s encounter with Latin? From what I understand Latin changed the grammatical structure of Brythonic quite considerably.

I also think people underestimate the amount of Welsh being passed on to younger generations, but as you say it was written in 2004.


#5

I’ll quote McWhorter: “There are no new languages in the strict sense. All of today’s languages are continuations of earlier ones: English is one of today’s versions of Proto-Indo-European. But there have been situations since the first language arose when people speaking pidgins, which are not real languages, have found themselves in situations where they needed to use the pidgin as
their main language. In such situations, people build the pidgin into a new real language. This is called a creole, and creoles are the world’s only truly new languages.” This of course leads to the question what is a pidgin? A pidgin (from Chinese pei tsin - pay money) is a shorthand, cobbled-together communication system (language?) used where there is a need for people of different languages to communicate, usually by combining elements of the different languages in a simplified form, for instance, by deleting ‘redundant’ gender markings, removing plural forms of nouns.


#6

Interesting, I can see why he would call English a creole given the nature of society post-Norman invasion. Also, would that be the same for French? Given that at the time of the revolution a vast majority of the country spoke a different language (Occitan, Basque, Provençal ayyb) then surely a pigin would have existed?