Friday, February 25, 2011


The entire month of February has gone by, and all I've done is study Greek so that someday soon I might be able to produce better translations than this. Did you know that if you learn a new Greek verb form every day for an entire month, you still won't know them all by the end of that month? You will, however, develop a kind of low-level, permanent exhaustion from waking up at 7 AM every day to try.

This leads me to wonder:
1. Is any currently-spoken language as inflected as Greek, and how did anyone in the 5th century speak it correctly?
2. A friend points out that grammars seem to simplify over time--Attic Greek to Koine, for example, or classical Latin to modern Latin--but why would that happen? Shouldn't they become more elaborate instead? Or does the proliferation of vocabulary serve the elaborating function?


arethusa said...

Did you know that if you learn a new Greek verb form every day for an entire month, you still won't know them all by the end of that month?

I did know that. And if your Greek education goes anything like mine did, probably not by the end of next month either.

Is any currently-spoken language as inflected as Greek...?

I nominate Navajo and Tsez. Unless you wanted a more common language?

As for simplified grammars, I always assumed Koine was simpler in terms of grammar (not necessarily in vocabulary, if you're used to reading Attic Greek) because it essentially began as a mish-mash of the major Greek dialects spoken by Alexander's soldiers. I can see under the circumstances that speakers might want to lose the irregular forms, make -mi verbs -o verbs, make the two aorists the same, get rid of the third declension adjectives, and add unnecessary words to make everything clearer.

Alpheus said...

Stipulating that I don't have a precise measure of "inflectedness" handy, I'd guess that Sanskrit would be considered more inflected than Greek by any obvious standard, and it still has a (tiny) population of native speakers and a (larger) population of fluent non-native speakers, the latter numbering in the tens of thousands.

The real obstacle to speaking an inflected language like Greek is not the (admittedly complicated) logic of its accidence but the huge amount of memorization involved –- especially those damned principal parts. But what’s hard for adults is easy for babies. Little Pericles mastered φέρω nearly as easily as you learned “be.”

Grammars do tend to simplify over time -- which seems natural to me. It's easy to see how a grammar becomes simpler (laziness, elimination of redundancy), harder to see how it gets more complicated ("hey kids, let's invent a new mood!"). The simplification is often accompanied, though, not just by proliferation of vocabulary but by (a) morphological changes that make what was originally logical seem arbitrary – this explains all those strange forms of, say, εἰμί – and (b) a refining of the colloquial rules of the language so that idioms and syntactic subtleties do the work once done by more transparent grammatical structures. It’s almost as if the rules of the language “go underground.” Of course, all these processes are influenced by levels of education and literacy.

Re: learning Greek. I'm proof that any idiot can do it. You know it's all about the flash cards, right? What textbook are you using?

Chris Petersen said...

Having struggled to learn Koine Greek several years ago, I am greatly sympathetic to your plight. Best of luck.

In addition to the excellent comments by Alpheus, I would only add that the greater geographic dispersion of a language also tends to result in a simplification of its grammar as occurred with the widespread distribution of Greek under the vast Roman Empire.

Miss Self-Important said...

Arethusa and Alpheus: Well, in that case, why would any grammar start out complex? Moods don't fall from the sky, so how would people who barely have any words decide to put them into 6 moods and 10 cases? Are they just trying to make the most of what's available?

It may be that any idiot can do it, but one must be a very persistent idiot, since I tried once before and did not succeed. This time around, Mastronarde has been replaced with Hansen and Quinn, who are remorseless slavedrivers.

Chris: So can we think of a language that has not undergone simplification over time due to a constraint on its geographical expansion? Or do languages that don't expand die, like nations?

Anonymous said...

In terms of grammar simplification, one of the most recent examples would be our American English vs. British English, which eliminated "shall" as the first person future form, dropped "should" from the subjuctive mood ("I suggest you should do that" vs. "I suggest you do that"), and got rid of the redundant u's in words like "favor" and "color", although that counts as spelling.

Alpheus said...

Well, in that case, why would any grammar start out complex?

Originally all the complexity probably looked simpler: the case endings of Indo-European languages could have arisen by an agglutinative process wherein uninflected nouns became joined with the equivalent of prepositions (but placed after the noun), thus producing the inflected nouns we know and love. A comparable process is likely for verbs. Unfortunately, the fusion of separate words produced changes in sound that were idiosyncratic for particular forms, creating a profusion of declensions and conjugations, both regular and irregular. That's the sort of thing I meant by morphological changes obscuring the original logic of a language.

I guess you're right that it's not, strictly speaking, correct to say that grammars always simplify. The formal rules tend to simplify, while new informal structures develop until they can be expressed as formal rules. I suppose you could argue that "grammars tend to simplify" is only a way of saying, "whatever rules you make will tend to be replaced by new rules that you understand less well."

I prefer Mastonarde to H&Q (and Mastronarde is what I was going to recommend), but if Mastronarde didn't seem to work for you, then I guess H&Q may be the thing. Certainly it has more exercises.

Withywindle said...

My recollection is that Lithuanian is the most complicated of the Indo-European languages by some measure; I refuse to verify this, but toss it out to add to the store of misinformation in the public sphere. I also recollect that the initial complexity of a great many languages is something of a puzzler, with lots of speculation but no very persuasive answer. (Except the Lithuanian answer of, What complexity?)

Tae-Yeoun Keum said...

"It is also a fact that with the advance of civilization, and the growth of society and the state, language becomes poorer and cruder as this systematic work of the understanding is worn away. It is a peculiar phenomenon that the progress toward greater spirituality and rationality should neglect that intellectual exactitude and comprehensibility [of languages even harder than Greek, like Sanskrit], finding it burdensome and superfluous."

- Intro to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), p. 66.

Miss Self-Important said...

Hobbes thought so too, but then exacerbated the simplification, didn't he?