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13. Are all languages equally complex, or are some more primitive than others?




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This article is from the sci.lang FAQ, by Michael Covington (mcovingt@ai.uga.edu) and Mark Rosenfelder (markrose@zompist.com) with numerous contributions by others.

13. Are all languages equally complex, or are some more primitive than others?

[--M.C. + M.R.]
Before the 1900s many people believed that so-called "primitive
peoples" would have primitive languages, and that Latin and Greek--
or their own languages-- were inherently superior to other tongues.

In fact, however, there is no correlation between type or complexity of
culture and any measure of language complexity. Peoples of very simple
material culture, such as the Australian Aborigines, are often found to
speak very complex languages.

Obviously, the size of the vocabulary and the variety and sophistication of
literary forms will depend on the culture. The _grammar_ of all languages,
however, tends to be about equally complex-- although the complexity may
be found in different places. Latin, for instance, has a much richer
system of inflections than English, but a less complicated syntax.

As David Crystal puts it, "All languages meet the social and psychological
needs of their speakers, are equally deserving of scientific study, and can
provide us with valuable information about human nature and society."

There are only two case of really simple languages:

* _Pidgins_, which result when speakers of different languages come to live
and work together. Vocabulary is drawn from one or both languages, and a
very forgiving grammar devised. Grammars of pidgins from around the world
have interesting similarities (e.g. they are likely to use repetition to
express plurals).

A pidgin becomes a _creole_ when children acquire it as a native language;
as it evolves to meet the needs of a primary language, its vocabulary and
grammar become much richer. If a pidgin is used over a long period (for
example, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea), it may similarly develop into a
more complex language known as an _extended pidgin_.

* _Language death_, what happens when a language falls out of use-- an
alarmingly widespread phenomenon, which has been studied in detail by
linguists. The process typically takes several generations, and involves
an increasingly simplified grammar and impoverished lexicon.

 

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