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Am I the only person round here who believes ... Maybe I'm wrong, though: perhaps Milton Friedman was just obtuse.

Milton Friedman's ways, whatever they might be, would appear to be utterly irrelevant to the discussion. In fact, one of ... They mentioned Roger Lass's use ofthe term before I brought it up, and Lass was also mentioned in McWhorter's book.

I thought it was an established principle that a language contained the expressions its users needed and lost those which they did not. If users need a feature and so retain it, then that feature is not junk. I personally can't see why grammatical gender exists; but it seems safe to assume that if it weren't doing anything, it wouldn't be there.
A language is not, as is constantly pointed out in discussions of such features as "double negatives", a mere scientific code. I find it more illuminating to view it as a cultural artefact, an evolving communal work of art combining social or aesthetic functions with practical uses: not entirely unlike an inhabited landscape.

My crack at Milton Friedman was relevant to a point, probably not well made, that language is often used for careerist purposes without respect for any wider consequences. The expression "sales gimmick" comes to my mind; the use of the emotive and imprecise term "junk" quite clearly signals the author's attitude. I'd take the same view of...I don't know... let's say an historian who courted attention by using the word "hooey" as a technical term: he may have a point, but he's unlikely to excite my serious consideration.
Mike.
I thought it was an established principle that a language contained the expressions its users needed and lost those which they did not.

Really? That sounds almost whimsical. Who defines what is "needed" is it "that which is kept"? Over what span of time are these improvements accomplished? And what about the effects of a widely literate society, with fixed spellings, an education system that advocates standard grammar, etc?
From the point of view of other languages, English badly needs severe spelling reform, but is it going to get it? No, not likely, because the system is entrenched and it works well enough for the locals.

Language that is/was not documented and controlled probably is/was more fluid, as you describe.
If users need a feature and so retain it, then that feature is not junk. I personally can't see why grammatical gender exists; but it seems safe to assume that if it weren't doing anything, it wouldn't be there.

There must be a name for this rosy view does it qualify as Panglossian? I really didn't take you for the positive, upbeat type.
A language is not, as is constantly pointed out in discussions of such features as "double negatives", a mere scientific ... an evolving communal work of art combining social or aesthetic functions with practical uses: not entirely unlike an inhabited landscape.

And inhabited landscapes have gotten nothing but better over the last couple of millennia? Nothing has been kept except that which was needed? Hmm. Was everything kept that was needed? (Say, what became of those boarding houses where the now-homeless used to live?)
My crack at Milton Friedman was relevant to a point, probably not well made, that language is often used for ... the word "hooey" as a technical term: he may have a point, but he's unlikely to excite my serious consideration.

I have no idea who used the term seriously, or for what purpose. Just going by the word, I expect they did see something as useless clutter, no longer serving any purpose and yet still around. "Junk" is not as far down the scale as "trash" or "rubbish," though.

Best Donna Richoux
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I've probably used the term more than McWhorter himself. I know he used it at least once, when quoting linguist Roger Lass, who himself used the term. McWhorter used the word "baroque," in terms such as "baroquerie" and "baroque elaborations" I can't say offhand whether those two are his exact terms, but they certainly represent his ideas. And it's not a matter of any conscious choice on the part of the speakers, but of linguistic conservatism: People kept on using certain usages because they were traditional.

We could do without the past tense in English and still talk about the past (which I believe some English-based pidgins do, and Chinese certainly does), but even a very deliberate engineering of an artificial dialect of English in which the past tense is dispensed with would probably receive heavy disapproval from native speakers of English.
Mike's idea that language keeps what it needs is true. But it is certainly not true that it drops what it doesn't need. For communicating complex ideas, language needs to be complex, and I expect Mike is confusing that necessary complexity with unnecessary baroqueries which could be dispensed with if people could be persuaded to do so. McWhorter attitude about the necessary complexities is completely orthodox, as I pointed out in another post. Note that linguists usually don't consider written representations of a language as "language," but rather a sort of code standing in for language, so things like traditional spelling don't really come into the discussion (although they might be useful as a metaphor).

Needless complexities in writing pose great problems for native speakers, but the type of useless complexities McWhorter is discussing usually pose little or no problem to any native speaker of a language, who picks them up easily when he learns his mother tongue. McWhorter mentions some features of a native American language which poses problems for young children learning it as their mother tongue (an idea which some posters at sci.lang scoffed at), and I have heard that a certain type of "r" sound takes many years to learn for children speaking Czech (I think it is) but if both of these are true, they still are exceptions: The young language-learning brain appears to handle the needless complexities as easily as it does the necessary complexities.

And this is why people cannot be persuaded to drop the junk. It would pose no advantage to them personally and would, instead, pose a disadvantage: They would find the resulting language to be strange and unfamiliar.
You told him "Language that is/was not documented and controlled probably is/was more fluid, as you describe." Such languages have the most baroque elaborations, according to McWhorter, while languages such as English and French have less. I forget his exact words, but it had to do with the language having served as a lingua franca for diverse groups (English dropped its inflections as a result of such use, for example).

Raymond S. Wise
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
E-mail: mplsray @ yahoo . com
That seemed to be the implication from your statement that they have "the least" "baroque junk"/"useless complexities". All of the things I listed

I don't see even the slightest hint of an implication there.

Would you accept "simpler than languages that have more baroque junk and useless complexities"? Which apparently includes pretty much all the rest of the languages of the world. If lacking complexity doesn't make something (at least relatively) "simple", I'm not sure what definition you're using.
On the contrary, I made a point of saying: "This does not mean that creole languages and sign languages are ... community adapts the language to its needs, and there is no such thing as a 'simple culture' with simple needs."

It actually never crossed my mind that you equated linguistic simplicity with utility. I assumed that we both took it as read that all languages manifestly used in speech communities (pidgins and contact languages perhaps excepted) were sufficient for any social situation. We were, I thought, merely comparing the complexity of the languages themselves with respect to features that were present in some but deemed unnecessary by others.
McWhorter said basically the same thing: His opinion on that particular matter is (the posters at sci.lang agree) consistent with that of linguists in general.

I have no disagreement there.
I don't understand how you could believe that I, much less John McWhorter, could believe that a language could be ... society's needs by expressing complex ideas. But some of the posters over at sci.lang came to the same puzzling conclusion.

I don't understand how you, who apparently know something about Esperanto, can believe that the simplicity of a language renders it unusable for the expression of complex ideas.
You really haven't studied ASL verb inflections, have you? You're

In sci.lang , I responded to a similar comment as follows: "If I were to learn a sign language and ... had any relevance, since you do not believe, for example, that Esperanto is relatively simple in form compared to English.

I'd find that last surprising. Of course Esperanto (as designed, and almost certainly even still as spoken) is structurally far simpler than English.
But I agree that it would be irrelevant to the present discussion. The claim wasn't simply that it's simpler than English or French, it was that
the structural complexity of the natural sign languages is at or near a necessary minimum.
I don't see how you can say that about languages that have many pieces of structural complexity not found in most other languages.

Take verb agreement, for example. In English, the only bit of agreement is that, in the present tense only, for third person singular subjects only, the verb form is changed to agree with the subject. In ASL (which has no tense inflection, but accomplishes the same thing with adverbs), by contrast
"(I) want (you)" does not inflect
"(I) see (you)" inflects to agree with the person and number of the direct object
"(I) ask (you)" inflects to agree with the person of the subject and the person and number of the direct object
"(I) give (it) to (you)"
inflects to agree with the person of the subject,
the person and number of the direct object, and
the classifier of the indirect object.
And when when subjects and objects are not specified by agreement they must (typically) be specified by pronoun. (And when they are specified by agreement they must not (typically) be so specified.)

In addition, with direct object agreement, you have to decide whether it's "I ask all of you as a group" or "I ask each of you separately". (Allocative vs. distributive aspect.) And, of course, you have to learn which verbs follow which agreement paradigms.

Clearly, this is far from "minimal complexity". This is further illustrated by the fact that most people who learn the language as a second language don't pick up on all of it (especially the aspectual inflections, which weren't even really noticed by researchers until the 1960s) and therefore speak a simpler version of the language, which nonetheless allows them to communicate with each other and with native speakers who make allowances for their "foreign dialect".
If you were to similarly learn a sign language and then claim that it was equal in complexity of form ... Interlingua, or Tok Pisin, or even the signing system of the North American Indians for purposes of the present argument."[/nq]Speaking as one who has studied (as a second language) both Spanish (5 years pre-college leading to a year of college credit) and ASL (1 year college) and who has more books on the latter than almost anybody not actively engaged in research on it, I think I can safely say that the notion that ASL is in any real sense "less complex" than Spanish (or English or any other natural language I've read about) is untenable. There are things about ASL that are simpler (tense, for example, and the lack of gender).

There are things that are merely different, but not hard to internalize (e.g., sentence structure, quasi-mandatory sentence tags). There are things that are strange and difficult (e.g., keeping track of pronominal referents at multiple pronominal loci). And there are many things (see list in earlier post) that just make you say "Why would I need to specify that?" (or, in some cases "How does English get along without specifying that?" but it's still hard to remember to do so.)
"It would not have any truth. Learning ASL is not easier than learning any other language."

It isn't. In fact, I'd say it's objectively more difficult. Not so much because the grammatical structure is different from what the student is used to (although it almost certainly is), but because there's essentially no carry-over of intuition about the phonology and because the lack of a writing system makes it difficult to study out of class. (When I took ASL, I was already familiar with Stokoe notation, so I could at least write down the words we were taught and could review them before the next class. Other students learned that I was the one to go to if they couldn't remember something.)
Whether ASL is either easier to learn or structurally more simple than other languages has to be tested empirically, to ... contain linguistic junk, you would expect the older sign languages to have more of it than the newer sign languages.[/nq]I'm not sure why you'd expect that. First of all, all sign languages are very young languages, since it's only in the last three or four hundred years that you have the social situations that would allow a large enough number of deaf people to survive and be in one place long enough for others to learn the language from them as children (or for children to learn from one another) and to pass the language down through the generations.

There may have been isolated earlier ones that left little or no trace, but the oldest one I'm aware of (and the evidence even for that is sketchy) was in Kent in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries and which led to the sign language used on Martha's Vinyard (which, in turn, was an influence on turning French Sign Language into American Sign Language).

Second, while it's true that the phonology does seem to be simplifying over the years, I don't believe I've seen any evidence that the grammar of ASL has been simplifying at all, other than to drop some of the things that non-native speakers tried to add to make the language "more like English (or French)". Indeed, I suspect that it's gone the other way, with the increased community of native speakers who learned from native speakers finding it more intuitive to add new features.

Third, your original argument lumped sign languages with creoles at the "less complex" end of the spectrum. There seems to be good evidence that the process that makes creoles in the first place is essentially a throwback to the oldest languages. If they are indeed simpler, then the relatively rapid process of decreolization must lead to more rather than less complexity.

Evan Kirshenbaum + HP Laboratories >"Revolution" has many definitions.
1501 Page Mill Road, 1U, MS 1141 >From the looks of this, I'd sayPalo Alto, CA 94304 >"going around in circles" comes

http://www.kirshenbaum.net /
I thought it was an established principle that a languagecontained the expressions its users needed and lost those which they didnot.

Really? That sounds almost whimsical.

Why, marry, gode miftrefs Donna! Rather doth it sounde liker the conventional wisedome unto me. It's what actually seems to happen.
Who defines what is "needed" is it "that which is kept"?

Why do you see a need for somebody to decide? It just evolves.
Over what span of time are these improvements accomplished?

Who said anything about improvements? Evolution is a matter of matching environmental conditions, not engineering progress. A mammal isn't better at being an animal than a dinosaur was. As for the time-scale, you know as well as I do.
And what about the effects of a widely literate society, with fixed spellings, an education system that advocates standard grammar, etc?

A good question; and one which I'm not sure linguistics has altogether caught up with. A literate society must inevitably use and evolve language differently from an illiterate or in-between one.
From the point of view of other languages, English badly needssevere spelling reform, but is it going to get it? No, not likely, because the system is entrenched and it works well enough for the locals.

Spelling isn't a major feature of any language: not absolutely insignificant, of course, and it may even affect genuine language-change to some extent (we meet examples quite often here in AUE).
Language that is/was not documented and controlled probably is/was more fluid, as you describe.

I didn't know I'd said that. If I did, I don't know what I meant.
If users need a feature and so retain it, then ... assume that if it weren't doing anything, itwouldn't be there.

There must be a name for this rosy view does it qualify as Panglossian? I really didn't take you for the positive, upbeattype.

I don't quite understand why you're using value terms here. (Though I am actually quite a cheery customer: surprised you missed that. Maybe you were using that American irony thing we always have such trouble with over here.) It seems, though, to tie in with your apparent heterodox view that evolution is a process of improvement. I don't see my view as rosy, or Panglossian; but then, as I say, I don't recognize such descriptions as having application in this context.
A language is not, as is constantly pointed out in ... functions with practical uses: not entirely unlike an inhabited landscape.

And inhabited landscapes have gotten nothing but better over thelast couple of millennia? Nothing has been kept except that which was needed? Hmm. Was everything kept that was needed? (Say, whatbecame of those boarding houses where the now-homeless used to live?)

I really can't have expressed myself well. But I did say "not entirely unlike an inhabited landscape": even the Australian bush before we invaded it was over very large areas a human-managed landscape. Once again, I'm not talking about "better" or "worse", but about the meeting of needs of social, aesthetic, and practical kinds. What have boarding-houses got to do with it?
My crack at Milton Friedman was relevant to a point, ... have a point,but he's unlikely to excite my serious consideration.

I have no idea who used the term seriously, or for what purpose.Just going by the word, I expect they ... serving any purpose and yet still around. "Junk" is not as far down the scale as "trash" or "rubbish," though.

And I maintain that such perceptions miss the point of human language. If I may, I'll repeat that a language is itself a communal art-form, not merely the medium for art-forms, and certainly not a lean scientific code. In any case, (and this is a case in point) whether "junk" is of higher or lower rank than rubbish, it's not an objective expression.
Mike.
Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.
An informative response: thank you.
I've probably used the term more than McWhorter himself. I know he used it at least once, when quoting linguist ... as "baroquerie" and "baroque elaborations" I can't say offhandwhether those two are his exact terms, but they certainly represent his ideas.

And I think it goes nicely to the heart of my argument. "Baroque" may here be an overstatement I'd hardly dare call a past tense "an excess of ornamentation" but it does refer to what I hold to be a central function of language. That function is, I said, social and aesthetic.
And it's not a matter of any conscious choice on the part of the speakers, but of linguistic conservatism: People kept on using certain usages because they were traditional. We could do withoutthe past tense in English and still talk about the past

But we have numerous examples of language features being dispensed with. Clearly we see any language at a chosen point; and that point may or may not be one at which a given feature is gaining importance or dying out. But if people don't "kill off" a feature, it can only be because in some sense and for some reason they like it.
Mike's idea that language keeps what it needs is true. But it is certainly not true that it drops what ... confusing that necessary complexity with unnecessary baroqueries which could be dispensed with if people could be persuaded to do so.

But languages do drop features; and it's usually, I think, easy enough to discover why. It's rarely, I suggest, out of capriciousness. A similar logic must apply to the retention of features.
McWhorter attitude about the necessary complexities is completely orthodox, as I pointed out in another post. Note that linguists usually don't consider written representations of a language as "language," but rather a sort of code standing in for language,

I think I mentioned in my response to Donna that this approach may have to change, since a fully literate language community must show different language behaviour from a non-literate one. In our countries, for example, written and spoken language now interact daily in ways which they could not have in Chaucer's time.
so things like traditional spelling don't really come into the discussion (although they might beuseful as a metaphor). Needless complexities ... or no problem to any nativespeaker of a language, who picks them up easily when he learns his mother tongue.

And it's permissible, and here necessary, to ask why this should be so. On my view, it's because the complexities or redundancies are not useless. Language, I maintain, is not a pared-down technical code. Those complexities which lose their social, aesthetic, or practical importance will die out, though usually very slowly, for the reasons you mention.
You told him "Language that is/was not documented and controlled probably is/was more fluid, as you describe." Such languages havethe ... served as a lingua franca for diverse groups (English dropped its inflections as a result of such use, for example).

As I said to Donna just now, I can't remember how that fitted into my thinking, and have no recollection of saying it. But I will float a possibility. Preliterate languages are indeed often, maybe typically, more complex in structure than those of literate, larger, and more heterogeneous communities. I believe this may help to confirm my opinion that language is not merely a medium for art-forms, but a communal art-form in its own right. The less complex the other art-forms in a community, perhaps the more complex the language needs to be to satisfy the human aesthetic impulse.
Mike.
It's interesting, and for all I know may play a part (this would, of course, be a variation on the ... sufficient to explain why useless junk remains in a language. Consider how few irregular plurals in English become regular plurals.

And when it happens, isn't it usually when the word itself falls into disuse for a period of time? (half a generation or so)
the expressions its users needed and lost those which they did not.

(trim)
Who defines what is "needed" is it "that which is kept"?

Why do you see a need for somebody to decide? It just evolves.

Sorry, I wasn't quite clear. I'm trying to establish the meaning of "needed" in your theory above. How do you know that "that which was needed" is what survives? Except for the circular definition of "everything that survived must have been needed"? Which I say is false reasoning.
I don't mean that every need was noticed and labeled and agreed upon. I mean, how do we know for sure that events that happen were "needed" instead of just stuff that happened and persisted? I don't think we can.
Over what span of time are these improvements accomplished?

Who said anything about improvements? Evolution is a matter of matching environmental conditions, not engineering progress. A mammal isn't better at being an animal than a dinosaur was.

Well, we can make analogies based on the evolution of life forms, but my major point is that I think the principles governing language change are quite different from the principles governing life forms. Even setting aside "social Darwinism", language doesn't have DNA and genes and reproduction mechanisms and all that. It grows and dies and is employed in other ways.
As for the time-scale, you know as well as I do.

I was thinking there about how long is the interval between no longer needing something (whether that means) and it conveniently vanishing. If we don't really need the "s" on plurals, as the Chinese assure us we don't, when can we expect them to disappear?

You don't see what is upbeat about assuming that everything in language has a function and a purpose, everything is there to fulfill a need, and everything that is no longer needed vanishes without a trace, without anyone even needing to carry out the garbage?... "Everything that exists, is there for a good reason" fits my definition of a rosy, positive view of life.
(Though I am actually quite a cheery customer: surprised you missed that.

Well, I hoped we were on a footing where I could tease you a little. Please don't fret.
Maybe you were using that American irony thing we always have such trouble with over here.)

Mischief, more likely. I get mischievous sometimes.
It seems, though, to tie in with your apparent heterodox view that evolution is a process of improvement.

Me? No, that's not it. If we must talk about evolution, I can say that it's quite a conservative process we still carry around instructions on how to make tails and gills and whatnot. Things we don't need are sometimes minimized to take up less space and be out of the way, but they don't completely disappear. And someone who knew their stuff could undoubtedly point out any number of aspects of human anatomy that are totally useless and even somewhat counterproductive but yet perfectly preserved from past stages.
So, too, can rather useless grammatical features, like noun gender, be preserved. Once people learn a language, that's what they're going to speak to their own children. Tradition warts and all. Oh, they might learn a few new words and phrases in their lifetimes, but why should they alter the underlying structure? Consciously or unconsciously?

(trim)

Some time around 1980 (the Reagan years), the forces of rising land values, gentrification, and reduced government subsidy caused many "single room occupancy" houses (SRO - rooming houses) to be closed, with nothing to replace them. The residents, mostly low-income single people, had nowhere to go, and the modern problem of the homeless began, and mushroomed. Society still hasn't figured out how to fill that need the government is simply not going to build enough SRO's to house everyone, or any similar form of housing; nor has the private market found it lucrative to do so. Oh, except for prisons everyone has found it good business to build prisons.
So that occurred to me as a counterexample to the idea that somehow the inhabited landscape fills needs. Which maybe you didn't mean but it was hard to tell.
without view by but

He (or she) might get my attention. But yes, tone needs to be considered, and if someone adopts "hooey" or "junk" they had better be aware they are courting disapproval.

I suspect whoever used that term, knew that. As I said, since I don't know who did, I can't pinpoint their reasoning. People can be quite fond of their own* junk, though it's *other people's junk that looks like rubbish. That might have a bearing on the matter.

Thanks for being a good sport.

Best Donna Richoux
Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
I thought it was an established principle that a language contained the expressions its users needed and lost those which they did not.

Really? That sounds almost whimsical. Who defines what is "needed" is it "that which is kept"?

It's easily demonstrated to be false. We haven't needed separate words for "I" and "me", for "he" and "him", for "she" and "her", etc. for over 500 years, but we retain them even though completely unnecessary. Nor do we need all those different forms of the verb "be": "am, are, is, was, were". We could easily say "me be here" rather than "I am here", but we retain the unnecessary distinct forms.
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