Languages: Puzzle or Story…

Two posts in one week. What the Hell?!?!?

I know. Astounding.

Anyway–today on the bus–since I’ve finally put the bike away for the season (having ridden it since just before St. Patrick’s day until now..)–I was reading a book about the History of the English Language.  I’m borrowing it from my mom, since she recommended it and I need new bus reading material for the winter.  The book is Robert Claiborne’s Our Marvelous Native Tongue: The Live and Times of the English Language.

It’s basically a history of the English Language–which I already know a lot about–but it’s pretty interesting anyway and it’s a great introduction to the subject for someone who doesn’t know such things.  In any case, reading in the first chapter, the book spoke about the basic structure of a language and helped explain just what a language was.  It noted that all languages have phonetics==sounds that are permitted in a language,  semantics==the possible combinations of phonetics (sounds) to create words that mean something,  and syntax==the rules used to combine the words together to create meaningful groupings.  In this process–it noted that each language uses these three aspects to successfully limit what is allowed in a language.  For example–no language uses more than about 45 of the couple hundred different sounds that can be distinguished (phonetics).  In addition–no language uses all possible combination of sounds as valid words–“blick” and “brick” are both totally valid phonetic combination in English–but the first isn’t a word while the second is. (semantics).

Finally–the syntax==grammar of a language–limits things even more.  The combination of words “The man milked the cow in the barn” is a meaningful combination of words to an English speaker. “The the the man cow barn milked in” is not.  The rules of syntax are what differentiate this distinction.

In any case-the book then began to point out various important syntactic categories/rules.  It noted three significant categories in particular–namely:

a) Inflection
b) Addition
c) Position.

Now–I’m gonna skip “addition” here (it involves things like prepositions and conjunctions) and focus on inflection and position.

Inflection is the process by which you change something about the word itself to change syntactic meaning.  For example–“I give you a puppy” vs. “I gave you a puppy” shows an inflectional change.  The vowel changed in  “give” and that created a change in meaning.  In verbs–such changes are usually referred to as conjugation rules.  In English, nouns also have inflectional changes, but they are not as significant or common.  Besides a few archaic/old nouns where there are noticeable changes (mouse–>mice, louse–>lice, tooth–>teeth, goose–>geese, moose–>meese… nah.. just fucking with you..), the only consistent places where inflection takes place in English nouns is in the change of a noun to plural status (add an s to most nouns–stone==>stones) and in possessives–where you add an s to show possession of something.. (Tom–>Tom’s house).

Overall–English is pretty inflection poor, however.  Other languages–such as Latin or German–have much more developed inflection systems.  In these systems, for example, a noun’s ending changes depending on what part of the sentence it is… If it’s a subject–it has one ending–if it’s a direct object–it has another (same with indirect object, possessive object.. etc..).  Now.. such things exist in pronouns in English.. “He hit the ball. ” but “The ball hit him.”   However… Ball remains the same in both sentences in English.

This is not the case in German.  There the same sentences would be “Er schlug den Ball.” (He hit the ball.) vs. “Der Ball schlug ihn.” (The Ball hit him.)

As you can see.. the inflectional change in German usually takes place in the article (Der=masculine nominative article, Den=masculine accusative article)–but it had to be inflected nonetheless..

Now–the important difference–and this gets into position–is that in English if you use “kicks” instead of “hits”–you can only really say “He kicks the ball.” and have it make sense–because unless we are talking about demon-possessed balls that grow legs, saying “The ball kicks him.” sounds a bit weird.

In German, however, you can order the sentence that way.  “Er tritt den Ball.” means “He kicks the ball.” But you could also order the sentence “Den Ball tritt er.” (The Ball kicks he.) if you wanted to emphasize that particular ball.

In essence, having an inflectional system allows you to change the order of the words in a sentence in a much more flexible way than we have in English, where the lack of a developed inflectional system makes it necessary to have a more deterministic positional system in order to convey our meaning.

Now.. all of this set up (If you’ve read this blog for a while–you’ll see how often and important I hold such extended set-ups to be…), is to make the next point understandable..

What the book noted was that with well-developed inflectional systems you get a certain set of costs and benefits.  On the plus side, the ability to reorder the words in any way you want–or in much more flexible ways–means that in terms of poetry/phrasing/emphasis in a sentence, the author can have a lot more options with the words already in the language.  On the negative side–such a big inflectional system is hard to learn for a foreigner–especially if they are older…

In contrast–more positionally-oriented languages–such as English have a very different set of costs and benefits.  The rather “strict” positioning system actually makes learning the syntax/grammar of English a lot easier than either German or Latin (much less something like Finnish with 14 different cases/inflections for words…), but this simplicity in Syntax also makes it harder to be poetic or emphasize points without changing sentence structures more dramatically..

Now–one thing that this stricter syntax may have helped to influence is the tendency of English to rob, rape, pillage, pilfer, steal, abduct, appropriate, carry off, cozen, kidnap, lift*, loot, make off with, misappropriate, pilfer, ,pinch*, pirate, plagiarize, plunder, poach, purloin, ransack, rip off, run off with, sack, shoplift, snitch, spirit away, stick up, swipe, take, thieve, and walk off with any words that it encounters that aren’t nailed down firmly.  More than any other language, English has an immense vocabulary–at least twice as large as any other language and manifold greater than most languages.

This huge vocabulary helped English authors to overcome their stricter positionality by substituting in words that meant the same thing–but used different sounds–thus making rhyming, alliteration, and the like much easier.

In any case–this is where a thought struck me about the contrast between English and other languages.   English–as a positional language–is very much a “story-like” language.  The meaning of any English text comes about in a linearly progressing pattern.  Each word adds more meaning to the growing storyline of the sentence/paragraph/page/book–and these must be read in a strict progression–just like a story–to understand what’s going on.  You cannot show the ending first, and then the beginning and then the middle just because you feel like it–but rather these have a distinct order–even if the kinds of elements you can throw into the story are abundantconsiderablecopious ,countlessgreat, heaps, infiniteinnumerable, innumerous, legionmanifoldmultifarious, multitudinous, myriad, numberless, numerous, populous, profuse, quite a few, severalsundryteeming,uncountable, uncounted, unnumbered, untold, variousvoluminous, etc.

On the other hand, languages like German and Latin are not so story-like, but rather are more like puzzles.  Each word you encounter must be deciphered for its case, gender, number (all inflectional elements), and then the combination of words must be puzzled out together as a whole to figure out the entire meaning. Now–in such sentences–one can leave the verb at the end–or put it in the middle–and the same can be done with subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, adverbs, etc..

What this gives an author is the ability to make extremely pithy, precise, and clever statements using a minimum of words–and this is a quality that is often much admired for various linguistic uses.  Notably, it isn’t surprising that subjects like law and philosophy were productive disciplines in Latin, German, and Greek (an even more inflected language than either of the former) because of the precision and concentrated nature of their syntax…

But who wants a story to be extremely short and precise.  Who wants a story where you have to puzzle over each and every word to figure out what is going on.. Stories have movement–they have a time, a sequence, a progression…

A story is not a puzzle… and a puzzle is not a story.. and although both are cool things–they are different kinds of mental activities.. and it is fascinating to me these different kinds of activities are actually embedded within different kinds of languages… It is also fun to note that while German is known for its complex, intricate sentences–especially in philosophy–English is known for its great poetic and literary authors–most notably Shakespeare–who not only created so many new tales, but also created new expressions, words, and worlds..

.. And that’s enough for tonight…

Think about your language.. think about your story.. and then tell it to me..



About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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One Response to Languages: Puzzle or Story…

  1. Pingback: Games and Stories…. | The Philosophy of NOM

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