Yves here. I have doubts about this thesis about how languages change. English went though the Great Vowel Shift (in Shakespeare’s day, reason rhymed with raisin). When I was in college, no one knew why and per Wikipedia, it still appears that no one knows why.
I also wonder where Rosser would put Japanese on his simple v. complicated spectrum. Japanese is much simpler language than English: fewer tenses/verb forms, hardly any irregular verbs, no requirement to speak in complete sentences, fairly small vocabulary, no difficult sounds. Contrary to popular perceptions, Japanese is very easy to speak at a basic level (and I have heard tales of men hanging out in bars who became fluent in a few months). What makes Japanese difficult is its types of formality and politeness, and its kanji. There are important subtleties in the forms of address, like an abasing form often deployed by store clerks, or a “I’m not sure of your position” form, which is an insult if you actually do know the other person’s status. It is impossible to speak to someone in Japanese without taking a position on their standing versus yours. That being so central to their language makes them very sensitive to power dynamics.
Japanese also has three alphabets: katakana (generally speaking, each character = a syllable), hiragana, for foreign words and kanji, which are characters borrowed from Chinese. Kanji often have more than one meaning.
So Japanese speakers can and pretty much always do speak more difficult Japanese (more rarified forms of politeness, higher kanji content) to exclude gaijin. In all of my time dealing with the Japanese, I encountered only two Americans who were fluent enough to stand up to this language testing. One was a member of the State Department who was regularly interviewed on Japanese TV; the other was an academic.
That is why gaijin who are doing business in Japan and have some Japanese fluency are best served by playing dumb so their Japanese counterparts will speak Japanese at a level that might be accessible to them (this is true in many situations when dealing across languages, but more so than just about any other with Japanese).
To get back to Rosser’s thesis about languages, Japanese pointedly have avoided foreign influence despite borrowing foreign words. But Japanese has evolved; for instance, I am told older poetry is a slog, but I am not sure what would have led to the shifts in the language. So I don’t see this as fitting his paradigm. But Clive our house Japanophile, who is fluent in Japanese, might disagree.
By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak
Oh, a minor diversion from the usual political economy stuff that goes up here.
This is triggered by an article in last week’s The Economist on the nearly dead San language, Nluu. It has only two living fully fluent speakers alive, both in their 80s. The San languages are among the world’s most ancient, although arguably reflecting a simpler world than the one we live in, although certainly with many complications we know nothing of. But the point that caught my attention was that it has 45 distinct click sounds, along with 114 basic sound units. It is one of only three languages in the world (all of them San) that have something called the double lip-full kiss click, whatever that is. I only know that if one sees an exclamation point that means some sort of click. So probably the most numerous living San group are the !Kung, yeah, some sort of click on the front end of that name.
I have known about this matter of clicks in southern African languages for some time, but had no idea there were so many different ones. Not only the San languages, but also the Khoechan (or Khoi khoi) languages have lots of them. Some clicks can also be found in the much more widespread Xhosa languages, one of which was the mother tongue of Nelson Mandela, who almost certainly had some Khoi or San ancestry. But beyond these languages, I am not aware of any others that have any clicks. They have disappeared in later languages, and I am unaware of any other language having anywhere near the number of basic sound units that apparently this nearly extinct Nluu language has.
I have not heard anybody theorize about simplifying sounds over time in languages, but I know there is an academic argument about grammar becoming more simplified, especially when two languages are combined as with creole or pidgin languages, something written about by John McWhorter in hi The Creole Debate. Pidgin languages, artificially created to allow communication between groups and drawing on each other’s languages, tend to be especially simplistic in gramatical terms.
It occurs to me that this might apply to English, which is itself a sort of creole out of Germanic Old English and Latinic Norman French, with some other elements. In a way it may be the world’s most complicated language in some forms, notably in probably having more words than just about any other language, drawing on so many inputs from so many parts of the world and fields. But in grammatical terms it is rather simple, with only a few cases and having eliminated gender from most words. In contrast, Lithuanian, thought to be the closest to the original proto-Indo-European has seven cases, more than any other, although Russian is not too far off. However, despite this relative grammatical simplicity, English is hard to learn, not only because it has so many words but because it violates its own supposed rules so often, in contrast with Spanish, for example, reputedly one of the easiest languages to learn.
So, there is no big profound point here, but just that I find this curious: that it seems that as languages evolve and interact with each other and encounter more and more influences, they seem to drop elements they previously had, whether these are sound units or grammatical forms and cases.