Saturday, May 25, 2024

Language Emergence — How Does it Work?

I do not mean how it worked at Babel. That was a miracle. The wedding at Cana is not a manual of how wine is commonly made, because Jesus was not making wine the common way, but the miraculous way. Same goes for the emergence of new languages at Babel. A linguist who is an atheist will argue that never happened, because that's not how new languages emerge. Precisely like a winegrower and winemaker who's an atheist could pretend Cana is a myth, invented by people who have no idea how wine is made. A kind of pious equivalent to the city bumpkin who thinks milk is pressed from some fruit like a juice ...

I also do not mean how it worked when the first man had the first language. That was an equally miraculous and equally quick speeding up of language acquisition.

I mean how it works when something like "French emerged after the Roman Empire split up" happens. Or Latin emerged in the Roman Kingdom or the Republic.

Basically every child alive is learning the language that his parents spoke. For basically every child, this is noticeably different, though intercomprehensible, with the language his dead grea-great-grandparents spoke, if grammophone or written records allow comparison. For basically every child, it would no longer be fully intercomprehensible with the spoken language 400 years earlier. It could still be intercomprehensible on a written level, like when older Swedish "thola" is "tåla" in modern Swedish, which has lost the thorn sound and changed the spelling accordingly in 1700. Probably at that distance, the rhythm and how words are ending and beginning would be the worst problem after a time machine journey. It would very clearly be NOT intercomprehensible 800 years back. Even written forms would be hard to pick out what was happening good deal of the time.

This is known as "language evolution" or "language change" or "language change" and no one disputes this process exists. Not anyone I know. Some people claim their own language (like Greek) is miraculously exempt from this, or that meticulous transmission of what one has learned will halt the process, so, for some reason Homer spoke sth like "mini aïdhe thya" and felt obliged to write this as "μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ" (the ee sound written as eta, iota, epsilon and iota, and if you count yod, even as epsilon in hiatus) so that it is a preposterous misunderstanding of Greek to suppose he pronounced it more like "menin aeide thea" — but even those guys will usually admit it happens in other languages.

This is part of the process of language emergence, but only part of it. If a specific population in either Tuscany or Hungaria had started out 2000 years ago or more, even 3000 years ago, speaking Etruscan, never writing it down, and had come today to speak something like Hungarian, also never writing it down, this language evolution would not have led to the emergence of a new language. It would be new to the time machine, but not to anyone involved, since no one would have had the older language to compare it to.

Never mind if Alinei was right that Etruscan was Old Hungarian, I happen to think he was.

When writing exists, this is different. One way of a language emerging is obviously it's being written down.

Two scenarios are possible, to begin with.

A) Writing in the language is fairly sporadic, works of canonic importance are mainly another language, so, the spelling keeps up with the changes in pronunciation, just as much as grammar and word choice of the writing are pretty faithfully rendered by the written texts. This was the case with lots of West European languages in the later centuries of the Middle Ages, the canonic language, so to speak was Latin. Meanwhile, German, French, joined a bit later by English, could change, at least as fast as chanceries found convenient. You might want to be able to read a legal text from 100 years ago, or you might want not to be able to do so ... in fact, the documents from 1300 are a bit different from those in 1200.
B) You write a language with a history. Classical and religious canonic works are written or translated to it. This means, correct usage might get widened, but not get forgotten just because speech changes. This was the case with Latin in 500 — 650 AD. "Gregory wrote in Late Latin, which frequently departed from classical usage in both syntax and spelling, although with relatively few changes in inflection." Frequent departures from Classical usage doesn't mean establishment of a definite new usage.

In the first case, you can say that a new language has emerged when the one able to read a recent text is not generally able to read an old one. In the second case, you can wonder whether a new language can be claimed to have emerged when the departures from older usage become so frequent that it's obvious the speakers are not quite speaking the old language any more.

Or you can say, the new language actually emerges when the newer speech gets a written usage of its own.

This may come after some quirks, either after a pause with little or no writing (like English and Romanian emerge after Anglo-Saxon and Latin had already been dead as written languages for some time, and both emerge after having a period been the lower class language looking up to a foreign one, French and Bulgarian). Or. Especially if we go to scenario B. By the very specific process I have called language divorce. How French, Spanish, Italian emerged from Latin, when an ambition arose to keep Latin much purer than of recent, at least in some contexts. After about 100 years or less, the educated speaker of the people's language is no longer identic to the speaker of Latin, and instead of tweaking Latin to the differences in popular oral usage, has a new grammar surrounding it. That's the period between Alcuin's arrival in Tours in 800 and the subsequent reboot of Latin into a foreign and fully Classical language, apparent by 813, and the song of Saint Eulalia, and it is also the period between the Council of Burgos (1080, I think) and the Cantar del Mio Cid.

There are linguists in Germany educated to deny this as a valid mode for language emergence. They are used to the model of Old High German, Middle High German, Late Middle High German, Early Modern German, fully Modern German, where scenario A is the norm. They are right that what I called the emergence of French didn't alter anyone's French speech directly. They admit that the fact was likely to have long term effects. I insist, both because of the long term effects, and because of the difference in reading experience, that such a process actually merits to be called the emergence of French. Also, the more gradual emergence you find in between Old High German and Early Modern German only exists because Latin was this period the more official language, leaving German writing something you were free to tinker with.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Ember Saturday of Pentecost

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