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Subject: Causes of Loss of Inflection
Question: I am very interested in the growth and decay of the process of inflection in language. As you know, Latin and ancient Greek were highly inflected languages, as were many other ancient Indo- European tongues (Old Slavonic, Sanskrit, etc). My question is: why is it that inflection decayed over time in nearly every one of these old languages? Does technological development somehow trigger inflectional decay?
Reply: There is no consensus on this issue and there are linguists who argue that languages lose inflection as the numbers of speakers increase, but I personally suspect the answer is more complex. In terms of the larger numbers, one possibility is that if a large population switches to a new language (e.g. consider all the groups of people who have switched to English in the last two centuries), then they may actually change their version of that language to a creole, many of which have simpler inflections. On the other hand, not all creoles have simplified grammar. For example, the English based creole Tok Pisin actually has MORE distinctions than English in some areas because they were inherited from local languages. Tok Pisin distinguishes singular, plural and dual and also distinguish inclusive we (you, me, someone else) from exclusive we (me and someoone else but not you). Another possibility that think is important for Western Europe is that there was an areal trend to lose inflections, particularly case. For instance, German, Russian, Lithuanian and Modern Greek have preserved more cases than languages further West. So loss of inflection is NOT inevitable. It's also important to remember that modern languages can develop complexities not found in ancestral languages. English actually distinguishes verb tenses/aspects that Latin did not (the same is true in Spanish and French). English also has some vowels which are relatively rare in the world's languages. As modern speakers we tend to underestimate the complexity of a modern language because we already know how to speak it. For Western Europe, the question remains why certain inflectional features were lost, but not necessarily further east.
Reply From: Elizabeth J Pyatt      click here to access email
Date: 17-Jun-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Causes of Loss of Inflection    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (18-Jun-2013)
  2. Re: Causes of Loss of Inflection    John M. Lawler     (17-Jun-2013)
  3. Re: Causes of Loss of Inflection    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (17-Jun-2013)

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