Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dixit Faarlund: "and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language"

1) Amusing or Exasperating?, 2) Traditional Order of Genders and Cases, 3) Dixit Faarlund: "and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language"

Now, Norwegians sometimes refer to us Swedes as "søte bror", but in this case this Swede thinks it is they who are being cute:*

"We can show that wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages -- German, Dutch, Frisian -- it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages." Here are some examples:

  • Word order: In English and Scandinavian the object is placed after the verb German and Dutch (and Old English) put the verb at the end.
  • English and Scandinavian can have a preposition at the end of the sentence.
  • English and Scandinavian can have a split infinitive, i.e. we can insert a word between the infinitive marker and the verb.
  • Group genitive:...

"All of this is impossible in German or Dutch, and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language. The only reasonable explanation then is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages."

"But why the inhabitants of the British Isles chose the Scandinavian grammar is something we can only speculate on," says Jan Terje Faarlund.**

I am not disputing a single of the examples of the examples, so I omit them from the quote. I agree totally that these things are impossible in German and Dutch, though in one example, the first, the statement only applies to certain clauses, not to main clauses with simple verb forms in German (I know less of Dutch).

I will however concentrate on the statement given in the title of the essay.

"and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language"

Well, apparently they did in English. It is not a Scandinavian language. Its plural verb forms are one form all persons - a "fourth person"*** if you like - as in Anglo-Saxon, "we, ye, thei speken Frensche" (before "speken" coincided with "speke"), while all Scandinavian languages as long as they keep their conjugation (another such structure that has changed!) are differentiating "við tölum arabísku, ið telið (?) sænsku, þeir tala kínversku". It does not have a passive, not even a proper reflexive. Scandinavian languages have both. So, if the English had taken over Scandinavian, then also they changed structures within a language.

On the contrary, one is likely to experiment with these structures and to occasionally change them, as any other apspect of a language. One famous author wrote a sentence "Helms too they chose" and got a letter asking if it was grammatical or claiming it was not, and replied that if English had lost the knack of inversion for emphasis, it had better pick up the trick again. Here again, word order is not Scandinavian. "Helms too they chose" vs. "Hjelmar valde de ock."

Now the point is that to me "Helms too they chose" sounds grammatical and a long sentence spanning all of a paragraph may be so too. To someone brought up in modern schools and learning his language mastery from there, they might seem "ungrammatical". Obviously it is a question of them having a lesser span of available expressions for the same idea, or even - in case a complex idea may be stated simpler with a single complex sentence than with five simple ones - a lack of available expressions for an idea. I will not say I am disfavouring their comprehension by using my span, simply because they complain my English (or whatever other language) is ungrammatical. I will admit being unclear when they show that they really did not understand and that their misunderstanding is not systematically related to a misunderstanding (in my view, on their part) of the subject or type of argument I was making. Like when they reply to something I did not state without its being comprehensible as a strawman misstatement or deliberate miscomprehension. Which has not occurred very often to me over the years of debate since more than a decade back.

But the point is, the century which saw this debate between the Professor and the Critics, clearly was not unified as to what structures are acceptable in English. It is clearly changing, to more archaism or to more modernism, I do not really know the outcome, but it is not in a fixed state.

Nor is German.

Ich habe das Buch gelesen. Here we are at one, Jan Terje and me.

Ich habe das Buch über die kleinsten Détails der vergleichenden Grammatik zwischen Englisch, Deutsch und Nordische Sprachen nicht gelesen, da es noch nicht geschrieben ist.


Ich habe das Buch nicht gelesen, welches über die kleinsten Détails der vergleichenden Grammatik zwischen Englisch, Deutsch und die Nordische Sprachen handelt, da es noch nicht geschrieben ist.

OR ... hold on ...

Ich habe nicht gelesen: das Buch über die kleinsten Détails der vergleichenden Grammatik zwischen Englisch, Deutsch und Nordische Sprachen, da es noch nicht geschrieben ist.

It is called Ausklammerung, and it is in German a tactic (more acceptable to my German Guest Professor in the 90's than to myself,° that is why I changed the grammar with a colon and an emphasis on the negation) used to avoid getting too much space between "ich habe" and "gelesen". It is possibly also more used in dialects.

There is an ideological reason for saying "and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language". That way one can keep up the idea that languages sharing lots of structures must needs have common ancestry. At least if they are not related systematically like Turkish versus Chinese word order issues. Like V-O or O-V to the order between noun and adjective. The ideological reason is saving face for the idea all languages with Indo-European traits must come from a common Proto-Indo-European language and if some traits are both Indo-European and Fenno-Ugrian (like much of the conjugation endings) then Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Fenno-Ugrian must needs come from an even older language.

Apart from Ausklammerung, I can cite an even more recent debate meaning structures do indeed change. The Swedish debate in, I think it was the eighties, about "ba", etymologically from "bara", as in "only" or "just", but used in ways that seem to bury this origin "han bara kom, ba, liksom asså" where "just" is expressed twice, once as correctly as "bara" and once as very colloquial "ba", used as a sentence tag. In this somewhat parodic or even self ironising example, there are two more sentence tags.

No, there is no inherent improbability that some structures like this do change, it is only a very little statistical chance beforehand that it will be this or that particular one. And the chances are very much higher if the newer structure is used in a language for which they are bilingual, most speakers that is. At least in the community taking over the turn of phrase. Precisely as Roumanian and Modern Greek have merged Dative and Genitive (Modern Greek "less organically so", simply "mechanically" suppressing the Dative form, Roumanian has unitary forms sometimes hailing from a Latin Dative - in the Singular - and sometimes from a Latin Genitive - in the Plural). Precisely as Roumanian and Bulgarian as well as nearly all Scandinavian languages (not Southern Jutlandic and not English if we were to agree with Jan Terje Faarlund for a moment) attaches definite article of a noun to the end of itself.°° Not to mention how the use of Medieval Latin imposed a unitary tense system and much of its consecutio temporum on West European languages, including Scandinavian ones. There are really other reasons than common descent as possible explanations for common traits in languages. It is really possible to adopt a half or a third of a grammatical structure one is in prolonged contact with.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
St Walburga of Heidenheim

* Science Daily: Linguist makes sensational claim: English is a Scandinavian language
Date: November 27, 2012
Source:University of Oslo

** I am very briefly tempted to make a Swedish pun on his surname, but then he could simply be ironic. Or he could simply be Norwegian. Or trying to give me a cue, even, as a solidarity between Scandinavian linguists against non-Scandinavian non-linguists.

*** A bit like German declination has plural as a "fourth gender".

° Since Ausklammerung gives a Swedish and Ungerman impression on my ear, no doubt.

°° Or, if you prefer, with a structure that has changed, both in English and Swedish, "attaches definite article of a noun to the end thereof."

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