July 8, 2014

NO METRIC SYSTEM, BUT A METRIC LANGUAGE:

Simpler and more foreign (Johnson, Jul 3rd 2014, The Economist)

Interestingly, about two-thirds of English-speakers are not first-language speakers of English. To put it another way: English no longer belongs to England, to superpower America, or even to the English-speaking countries generally. Rather, English is the world's language. What happens to a language when it becomes everybody's? Shaped by the mouths of billions of non-native speakers, what will the English of the future look like?

A look into the past can give us an idea. English is of course not the first language learned by lots of non-natives. When languages spread, they also change. And it turns out, they do so in specific directions.

For example, a 2010 study by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale found that bigger languages are simpler. In more precise terms, languages with many speakers and many neighbours have simpler systems of inflectional morphology, the grammatical prefixes and suffixes (and sometimes "infixes") that make languages like Latin, Russian and Ancient Greek hard for the foreign learner. Contrary to educated people's stereotypes, the tiny languages spoken by "stone-age" or isolated tribes tend to be the world's most complicated, while big ones are less so, by this metric.

None of the other tongues will be missed. Posted by at July 8, 2014 6:35 PM
  
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