Language superiority, improvement, etc.
|From:||Leo J. Moser <leojmoser@...>|
|Date:||Tuesday, October 13, 1998, 5:00|
Leo Moser adds some comment:
In a message Mike Farris wrote:
> Actually there is no conflict. As a practicing linguist, I can say the
> following: All natural languages are of more or less equal complexity and
> efficiency in their sum total.
I know this is the perceived wisdom. And it was surely an important
attitude after the 19th Century tendency to talk of "primative languages"
etc. Yet I find it hard to believe in theory. Let's imagine that some dialect
area of Japan had had a different political history (we could take Okinawa
or an imaginary "independent state of Nagano") and had opted to go with
romanization. Wouldn't the resultant language be "of less complexity"
than that of the rest of Japan?
> However, each language tends to do some things better than others. In other
> words, anything you can say in one language, you can say in any other.
Only in a most general sense. I'm not sure everything is really
> what's easy and elegant to say in one language, is convoluted and difficult
> in another (and vice versa). The two spoken languages I know best
> (American)English and Polish definitely have different strengths and
> weaknesses, but overall which is better??? The question is meaningless,
> you'd have to define "better" first (and if you think that's easy, just try
> One might point out the fact that English doesn't have adjective agreement
> (for number and gender and case in Polish) or cases (six or seven in Polish
> depending on how you count) or grammatical gender (five, six or seven,again
> depending on how you count). This might make English look simpler, more
> efficient etc. But (big but) Polish is easier in some important ways than
> Enlgish, esp. in complementation (how you put more than one verb in a
> sentence) and in subordination (how you join sentences together).
> Also I constantly have the perplexing experience of being asked for an
> extremely useful word in one language for the other and have to confessthat
> there is none or finding that a clever turn of phrase in one languageeither
> sounds dumb or just makes no sense in the other.
> A curious by-product of this is I often find it difficult to describe Poles
> using American vocabulary and also find it difficult to describe Americans
> with Polish vocabulary (another American living in Poland who could also
> speak Polish once told me she had the same problem).
> So, in summary. Every language handles some things well and other things
> less well, but when you add up the plusses and minuses, they come outpretty
> Mike Farris
I've said much the same in the past, but now have doubts. Do we
say this on the basis of empirical data, or on the basis of
This would be very difficult to establish empirically.
In terms of logic, I have serious doubts we can say this.
Let's split English into two imaginary (theoretical) languages.
They are different only in one spells a word "through," the other
spells it "thru." Is not the latter going to be slightly "better" i.e.,
more efficient and more logical?
Or say there are two imaginary versions of English, one has
the word "tomato" the other calls the same fruit "poison-apple."
Would not the latter be an "inferior language," because it would
foster a tendency not to use a valuable dietary product?
Or imagine versions of English where:
1. The word "awful" did not have contradictory meanings --
2. "Tag questions" were no more complex than in French
3. The past and present of "to read" were not spelled the same.
4. Plurals were as regular as in Spanish.
If small matters CAN lead to differences in language ease and
efficiency, it seems likely that we are being inaccurate to say
all languages are the same in their usability in effective communication
Best regards, Leo Moser