Ingrown languages

In an interesting book I read recently, What Language Is by John McWhorter, the author discusses why some languages appear a lot more complicated or ‘ingrown’ than others. He gives the example of Persian and Pashto, two Iranian languages spoken in a number of countries in western and central Asia. Whereas Persian has more or less regular and simple verb conjugations, in Pashto the verb endings and other aspects of the language are much less regular. This is because Persian was the language of a large empire in which many people learned Persian as adults, and few did so perfectly, so many of the irregularities and other complex aspects of Old Persian were regularised and simplified. This process didn’t happen with Pashto, so the language is still ingrown.

Other languages that are or have been used as colonial languages or lingua francas with many adults learning them imperfectly have undergone a similar process of simplification. These include English, Mandarin Chinese, colloquial spoken varieties of Arabic, Indonesian and Swahili. According to McWhorter, these languages could be considered abnormal as many of their irregularities and eccentricities have been levelled out. As a result they are relatively easy to learn, or at least somewhat less difficult than more ingrown languages.

One example a particularly ingrown language is Navajo, which even linguists find superlatively forbidding. Some even claim that it’s not possible to learn it after childhood. Apparently none of the Navajo verbs follow a regular pattern, and regularity is notably absent in other parts of the language.

So if you’re struggling to get to grips with Spanish or Mandarin, it might be of comfort to you to remember that you’re not learning Navajo or a similarly ingrown language.

7 thoughts on “Ingrown languages

  1. Well, this talks about irregularities, but what about difficulties raising from grammatical cases that are not available in other languages?
    I read once that Finnish is considered one of the hardest languages to learn in Europe. A noun in Finnish can have up to 15 grammatical cases (Dative, Accusative…etc), and such thing does not exist in many languages. I wonder if any Finnish readers here can confirm this tip.

    However, it is an interesting theory about “regularizing” what has been irregular, yet, I do feel sometimes that the opposite way works as well. In my own dialect and when it compares to classical or standard Arabic, there are many differences in endings that can be more or less a regular pattern in original Arabic.

    Also, there are irregularities in sounds when you shift from Arabic to a dialect like mine. For example, in standard Arabic, sounds like Qaf (ق) shifts to either be a sound of “G” or to “K” or can remain as it is in the original language. Not sure what makes such differences in sounds in one dialect concerning one sound from the original language, but probably has to do with mixing up with other nations and languages.

    I think we can say that complexity is a two way process and does not always go from the original language to its daughter dialects (or adult learners).

  2. I think we need to be careful here. Although some languages may indeed be simplified through pidginization, their subsequent creolization may make them in at least some aspects more complex than their original format.

    Case in point: the Arabic dialects which McWhorter cites. The Dutch Arabist Kees Versteegh has convincingly (in my view) argued that the dialects were originally Arabic pidgins formed by the non-Arab populations living under imperial Arab rule. However, as they became creolized, they developed complex grammatical features not found even in classical Arabic, which has a highly developed grammar. To give one example: dialectal Arabic has the perfect tense (e.g., Egyptian Arabic: Ana lissa waakil, “I have just eaten”), whereas most of the time, classical Arabic cannot express this in distinction to the regular imperfect (there are exceptions, such as the negative lamma).

    In any case, although I definitely agree with McW on Persian, I disagree with him on the Arabic dialects. Although there are many foreigners who achieve respectable proficiency in Arabic, I myself have definitely not seen many of them learn the dialect, so I cannot accept the claim that they are (at least presently) either easy to learn or a lingua franca.

  3. What I didn’t mention is that McW also explains how languages that have undergone simplification as a result of being imperfectly learned by adults can develop new idiosyncrasies not found in the original language, especially if they become the main language of a community. He uses Black English and Twi to illustrate this point.

  4. I guess you could add Afrikaans to this list of ‘simplified’ languages?

    In a different context the same is happening with my language Welsh, which is being simplified as so many of its speakers are no longer from native Welsh-speaking families. The question then arises is, when does a language recognise these changes/bad language/creolisation and when doesn’t it? And in the case of a minoritiesed language like Welsh where the pressure to change and maybe conform to, comes from one more prestigious language (English) – then when is Welsh just a translated version of another language?

    It’s something which is touched on in an article, ‘Vulgar Welsh’ in the book ‘The Phenomoenon of Welshness or how many aircraft carriers would an independent Wales have?’ by Siôn Jobbins

  5. TJ, in regard to Finnish, note that the many “cases” are just suffixes that correspond to English prepositions. So, for example, the Finnish allative “case” -lle corresponds to English “to” (e.g. “talolle” = “to (a) house”). So it’s not quite as difficult as it sounds. Of course, Finnish is one of the few non-Indo-European languages in Europe, so its grammar and vocabulary are more different from the Indo-European languages and would be more difficult for a native Indo-European language speaker. I think that Basque and Hungarian might also vie in this regard for the “hardest” language to learn in Europe (for a native Indo-European language speaker).

  6. This is actually a tricky issue. The concept of “ingrown language” is not a standard linguistics term and I would argue that it’s a variant of the old “languages become simpler over time” which is not always the case.

    To take English as an example, it maintains a relatively complicated vowel system with some fairly rare vowel contrasts as does another world language, French. English’s long contact with neighboring languages such as French and Spanish (U.S.) also means the grammar is incorporating foreign sounds that did not exist before. Turning to Romance languages, although many grammatical features of Latin were lost, other features including a new verb mood have evolved

    Finally, if you consider dialectal variation across the “power languages”, you will realize that there lots of documented dialectal variations which are rarely included in the standard versions. From a dialectal and sociolinguistic register point of view, world languages are extremely complex.

    While it’s easy to see which of the complex features any language is losing in its history, its much more difficult to realize the new complexities which have emerged.

  7. I think that languages are evolving and becoming simple as many people are learning them. Thinking back to the time I was in school learning my mother language the words were so deep and complicated and truthfully now noone even uses those words anymore. They have either been replaced by slang or a simpler word with the same meaning. I think we notice this as well with the English language, so it it the same with all the other languages.

    But I believe with a desire to learn a new language, persistance and effort anyone can learn them at any age though it is easier and less effort put in childhood. Giving credit to time we now have different methods that help us like the Spanish verb conjugation software and many others availsble on the internet today. Learning languages is becoming easier with time.

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