AUTHOR: McWhorter, John
TITLE: Language Interrupted
SUBTITLE: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Antonis Polentas, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex (UK)
John McWhorter is known for his arguments that creoles form a typological class
of languages that have less complex structure than ''old'' languages (cf.
McWhorter 1998, 2001, 2005; Parkvall 2008 for a recent assessment of the claim).
In this book, he looks at cases where language contact has resulted in a
reduction of complexity but not to the same degree as Creoles and Pidgins. These
are cases where the normal development of a language was ''interrupted'' by wide
non-native acquisition which led to the loss of grammatical complexity compared
to other related languages whose historical development did not witness such
interruption. The radical claim that McWhorter makes is that all cases where a
language appears to have been simplified to a degree not explainable by means of
regular linguistic change are due to the intervention of non-native learners.
The book examines a wide range of data in support of this claim.
Chapter 1: Introduction (pp. 3-20). In the introductory chapter the author
states the problem that is the central topic of the book, the reduction in
grammatical complexity that is observed in the development of languages as the
result of non-native acquisition. Specifically, McWhorter states as the purpose
of his book the filling of an ''empirical gap'': the cases where a language
becomes less complex – but not to the same extent as Pidgin and Creole languages
– compared to languages whose transmission is ''uninterrupted'' by non-native
acquisition. In a direct way he mentions three assumptions on which his
argumentation is based: a) that cases of radical loss in grammatical complexity
can be the result of diachronic development interrupted by non-native
acquisition; without it, languages do not become radically less complex; b) it
is important to recognise that grammar simplification is a natural result of
language contact as mixture and he illustrates some possible outcomes of
language contact with graphs: in the cases discussed in the book the result is
the reduction of complexity of the language learned by a large number of
non-native speakers, but without signs of influence from the first language of
the learners, and this is what distinguishes simplification from other possible
outcomes of language contact which involve mixture to a certain degree; c)
finally, it is pointed out that inflectional morphology is but one aspect of
Chapter 2: Defining Grammatical Complexity (pp. 21-50). In the second chapter
the author provides a description of how grammatical complexity is
conceptualized in his work. In line with previous work (e.g. McWhorter 2001),
McWhorter here defines complexity in absolute terms (in line with Dahl 2004; cf.
Miestamo et al 2008 and Kusters 2003 for a discussion of different approaches to
grammatical complexity). Specifically, McWhorter presents three measures of
complexity: overspecification (which refers to the degree in which languages
obligatorily express semantic distinctions), structural elaboration (which
refers to the number of rules of elements used in the grammar of a language for
the generation of surface forms), and irregularity. All three aspects of
complexity are illustrated with examples from languages such as Saramaccan and
Estonian. In his discussion McWhorter also addresses the relation between
inflection and complexity.
Chapter 3: Epistemological Caveats (pp. 51-58). In a brief chapter, McWhorter
addresses potential objections to his approach. Namely, he clarifies that by
ranking languages according to their complexity he does not subscribe to the
view that some languages are/primitive. Then he explains why he adopts a
specific notion of complexity which differs from Hawkins's (2004) and why he
does not discuss factors related to pragmatics and intonation. In the last
section of this chapter he defends his choice not to adopt a generative theory
of grammar (a choice that may make some linguists with a strong generative
background frown) and his macrosociolinguistics perspective instead of a
Chapters 4-8 contain discussion of five test cases of the hypotheses introduced
in the first part of the book.
Chapter 4: English (pp. 59-103). The first test case is English which has lost
more of its grammatical complexity compared to other Germanic languages. English
is shown to have lost many more features that contribute to grammatical
complexity than any other Germanic language, including ''contact heavy'' ones,
like Afrikaans and Yiddish. English has no gender distinction in nouns and
adjectives, no rich case marking, no V2, no subjunctive (distinct from the
indicative), it has lost most of the various verb forms found in Old English
etc. After showing that English grammar is radically less complex than the
grammar of its relatives, McWhorter examines various possible explanations of
this situation. He rejects that this loss of complexity should be seen as a
result of normal linguistic change and argues that, on the contrary, it is due
to the large-scale acquisition of English as a foreign language by the
Scandinavian Viking invaders who settled in the north of England (in Danelaw).
To support this explanation, the author examines and rejects alternative
explanations (influence of Celtic, acquisition of English by the Normans etc.).
His position is corroborated by a detailed examination of the timing of the loss
of various features.
Chapter 5: Mandarin Chinese (pp. 104-137). The next test case focuses on the
comparison between Mandarin (Northern) Chinese and the other Chinese dialects
(or Sinitic languages). The comparison between Mandarin and Cantonese (''Yue''),
Gan, Xiang, Wu, Hakka, and Min shows that Mandarin grammar is less overspecified
with respect to phonology (it has fewer tones than the other languages, more
restrictions in the phonemes that can occur in the final position, fewer
complementizers, negation and aspect markers etc.). Especially in comparison
with Yue and Min, Mandarin looks radically simplified. As in the case of
English, the facts suggest an interruption in the normal transmission of the
language and the intervention of adult language learning. McWhorter discusses
Hashimoto's (1986) theory of 'altaicization' of Northern Chinese, but he does
not concur with the view that the radical loss of complexity is due to the
pidginization of Chinese in the community of foreign bannermen transferred to
Northern China during the reign of the Manchu dynasty. For McWhorter, the
simplification of Mandarin Chinese was the result of massive migrations of
Tibetan and Altaic (and other) populations to Northern China during the Tang
dynasty (a period of expansion of China). The reduction of the complexity of
Chinese in the North should not be seen as the result of language contact with
Altaic languages, while Southern varieties were in contact with Tai Kadai
languages, but in the learning of Chinese by adult speakers of other languages.
Chapter 6: Persian (pp. 138-164). In chapter 6 McWhorter contrasts Persian with
other Iranian languages. Right from the beginning, McWhorter makes a case
against views of the loss of a high number of inflectional features in Persian
as a natural outcome of the evolution of Indoeuropean languages. The anecdotal
characterization for Persian as ''marvellously simple'' may bring Persian close to
the case of English, but it also distinguishes it from other Iranian languages,
such as Kurdish, Pashto, Balochi, Tati etc. none of which seems to have
undergone simplification to the extent of Persian (the figure on p.147 where
various Iranian languages are compared with respect to whether they exhibit case
marking, grammatical gender, plural affixes, adjectival concord, inflected
interrogatives etc. is particularly telling). Next, McWhorter locates the period
in which most simplifications occurred, which was between Old and Middle Persian
(but he also shows that some complexities were lost at later stages) and
presents the differences between Eastern and Western Iranian. Then he examines
various explanations of these developments and he concludes that in spite of the
scant historical evidence for the crucial period, the most likely explanation is
the acquisition of Persian as a foreign language by large populations of Iranian
plateau. A look at what happened in Parthian (another ''simplified'' Middle
Iranian language) and the complex Eastern Iranian relatives of Persian
complements the discussion. Discussion of genetic evidence also points to the
differences in the social context of Eastern and Western Iranian. The chapter
concludes with a reminder that the evidence in support for the role of
non-native acquisition in the history of Persian is suggestive because of the
fragmentary nature of the sources.
Chapter 7: Colloquial Arabic (pp. 165-196). The next test case is about the
simplification observed in Arabic dialects with respect to their ancestor,
Classical Arabic (and Modern Standard Arabic). McWhorter presents theories of
the evolution of Arabic dialects (starting from Ferguson's (1959) monogenesis
account) and concurs with Versteegh's (1984) claim that the history of Arabic in
the conquered areas (after 630 CE) shows a breakdown in language transmission
and the appearance of pidginized forms of Arabic from which the modern dialects
derive (through a process of restructuring with the influence of the standard
language). The author presents the losses of grammatical overspecification in a
variety of modern spoken Arabic dialects and shows that the losses form a cline
starting from Nigerian Pidgin Arabic (with the highest number of losses),
various types of sedentary Arabic dialects to Bedouin dialects which have
retained most features of Classical Arabic. The presentation is completed with a
discussion of the innovations that have appeared in the Arabic dialects since
the time of their emergence and a useful comparison with other cases of New
Semitic: it is shown that the degree of simplification of New Arabics is found
nowhere else in Semitic languages (with an illustration from Neo Aramaic). On
the basis of the data discussed in this chapter McWhorter argues for the view
that the structure of Arabic dialects is better explained as the result of
interrupted language transmission with heavy non-native acquisition: it is the
social contexts in which the acquisition of Arabic took place that allowed for
very little substrate influences unlike the case of creoles (and like the other
cases discussed in the book). This view is shown to be superior to other
theories that fail to recognise this break in the history of Arabic and attempt
to explain the characteristics of Arabic dialects as the result of normal
Chapter 8: Malay (pp. 197-251). The last case, discussed in considerable detail
in the book, is Malay/ Indonesian, which is known to have a less complex grammar
in comparison with its Austronesian relatives (e.g. Tukang Besi). As in the
other cases, McWhorter gives a description of the linguistic relatives of Malay
and then proceeds to a 1-to-1 comparison with Tukang Besi, a language with
considerably more grammatical complexity than Malay. Then he widens the
comparison to include other ''Indonesian-type'' relatives of Malay, and the latter
is shown to possess a less complex structure. To ground his view that this fact
can be due only to the intervention of non-native acquisition in the history of
Malay, McWhorter examines the historical development of Austronesian languages
and suggests that the simplified character of Malay cannot be the result of
normal development. The sociohistory of Malay and its current status suggests
that there have been two stages of pidginization: Standard Malay, and the
various versions of spoken Malay. In relation to the latter, McWhorter
critically discusses Gil's arguments that Riau Indonesian is a counter-example
for his theory (Gil 2001). In connection with that McWhorter distinguishes
between the effects of non-native acquisition, language mixing and areal influence.
The chapter closes with the discussion of two similar cases, Tetun of East Timor
(where two varieties, Tetun Dili and Tetun Terik differ with respect to
grammatical complexity), and the case of some Papuan-related languages in Timor.
These cases receive longer treatment in more recent work by McWhorter (2008).
Chapter 9: A New typology of Language Contact (pp. 252-276). In the final
chapter of this book, McWhorter brings together the insights from the five cases
of interrupted language transmission that he presented in the previous chapters
with other cases of language contact. He proposes a new taxonomy of language
contact phenomena, according to the degree of simplification (no simplification,
some simplification on all levels, extreme simplification) and the areas of the
language that have been affected (lexicon, lexicon + syntax, lexicon + syntax +
phonology/ morphology). He presents his classification in a 3x3 table. In the
cases of no simplification he includes language contact in the Balkan linguistic
area, Media Lengua etc. The cases of moderate simplification include the ones
discussed in the book as well as cases such as the ones analyzed by Holm (2004),
i.e. Popular Brazilian Portuguese, Afrikaans, Singapore English, Réunionnais
French and African American Vernacular English, and Shaba Swahili. The row of
extreme simplification cases is populated by various types of Creole languages.
McWhorter briefly illustrates each case with examples. In this chapter he
manages to connect the contents of this book with his previous work on creoles
(e.g. McWhorter 2001, 2005) and with the literature on language contact
phenomena in general.
The main virtue of the book is that it is written in a clear way and is very
readable in spite of the fact that McWhorter discusses a large amount of data
from a variety of sources. Chapters 4-8, the test cases for the main claim of
the book, are organized in a similar fashion and contain tables where data from
languages are presented in a way that helps the reader to follow the analysis.
This is important as the cases discussed come from different language families,
so it is unlikely that the reader will be familiar with all of them. McWhorter's
writing is engaging; he succeeds in looking at specific, local cases from a
broad perspective and draws parallels between them. The presentation of the data
is lucid and everything is connected to the central line of argumentation of the
book in a direct way.
As has been the case with McWhorter's studies on Creole languages (e.g.
McWhorter 1998, 2001, 2005) this book makes many claims that some scholars and
lay readers will find provocative and may even see McWhorter's approach as
''procrustean''. Some linguists may criticize the lack of a formal linguistic
model which could have made the discussion of linguistic complexity more
explicit. Nevertheless, McWhorter's aim is to provide an explanation of cases
where simplification is the dominant outcome of diachronic development. As this
book is connected to McWhorter's previous work on creoles and the lack of
complexity of their grammars, the reader can see this study as a continuation of
this earlier work, something that is made explicit in the last chapter where
creoles and the cases of interrupted language development as a result of
non-native acquisition are placed in a newly proposed typology of language
contact. The index at the end of the book is rich, which is of importance in
such a book, where a large amount of data from various sources is discussed.
In spite of the wide range of phenomena that McWhorter covers in his
discussions, the use of literature is impressive - to the extent that it is
possible. Nevertheless one part that seems to have been neglected is the
literature on non-native language acquisition. One could imagine that most
scholars working in the area of non-native language learning would frown upon
the downplaying of L1 transfer in the cases presented in the book (this seems to
be the case in the graphs on p. 17, where the result of non-native acquisition
of the languages presented in this book appears to be a simplification of the
grammar of the target language, without transfer of features from L1). Perhaps
the most interesting part of this claim is McWhorter's discussion of the loss of
the V2 word order in English, in spite of the fact that the language of the
Viking invaders in North England was a V2 Germanic language: how could it be
possible to claim that the loss of the V2 property of English was due to its
acquisition by these invaders and settlers whose L1 had this property? McWhorter
(p. 97) refers to studies such as Hakansson et al. (2002) where it was claimed
(in the spirit of Pienemann's Processibility Theory) that Swedish learners of
German (both languages with V2) would not transfer the V2 setting of their L1 to
the interlanguage in its early stages. Nevertheless, as Bohnacker pointed out in
a later study (2006), Hakansson et al.'s subjects were learning German as a
third language, English being their L2, so it may well have been the case that
the lack of V2 transfer was due not to general processing constraints on L2
learning but to L2 influence on L3 learning. Some other studies seem to point in
this direction as well (cf. Bardel and Falk 2007). Apart from this comment, in a
book which advances the claim that language structures can be simplified as a
result of non-native acquisition, one would expect to see a discussion of
studies on non-native acquisition and a more explicit attempt by the author to
relate his views to research on adult L2 acquisition.
Generally, the reading of the book is rewarding and should stimulate further
discussion and research (e.g. extending the main argument of the book on more
cases; McWhorter himself recently provided an interesting discussion of more
cases of Austronesian languages (McWhorter 2008)). The typology of language
contact phenomena proposed in the final chapter is empirically testable, as are
all of McWhorter arguments – another important virtue of the book. It is
tempting to phrase McWhorter's approach to linguistic complexity in terms of
various linguistic theories and to compare his findings with results of research
in adult foreign language acquisition (most of the aspects of complexity lost in
the cases discussed in the book are not unknown in the L2 acquisition literature).
The book should be of interest to linguists working in areas such as historical
linguistics and linguistic change, language contact, typology, linguistic
complexity. It can be read together with McWhorter's works on creoles (e.g. his
2005 book) and works such as Holm (2004). The methodology of McWhorter's study
also invites similar work using other metrics of complexity (e.g. grammatical
features from linguistic typology as has been done by Parkvall 2008).
Bardel C. and Y. Falk (2007). The role of the second language in third language
acquisition: the case of Germanic syntax. _Second Language Research_ 23, 459-484.
Bohnacker, U. (2006). When Swedes begin to learn German: from V2 to V2. _Second
Language Research_ 22, 443-486.
Dahl, Ö. (2004). The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity. Amsterdam:
Ferguson, C. (1959). The Arabic Koine. Language (4), 616-630
Gil, D. (2001). Creoles, complexity and Riau Indonesian. Linguistic Typology, 5
Håkansson, G., Pienemann, M., and S. Sayehli (2002). Transfer and typological
proximity in the context of second language processing. Second Language Research
18 (3), 250-273.
Hawkins, J. A. (2004). _Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars_. Oxford: Oxford
Holm, J. (2004). _Languages in Contact: The partial restructuring of
vernaculars_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kusters, W. (2003). _Linguistic Complexity: The influence of social change on
verbal inflection_. Utrecht: Landelijke Onderzoekschool Tallwetenschap
[Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics].
McWhorter, J. H. (1998). Identifying the Creole Prototype: Vindicating a
Typological Class. _Language_ 74, 788-818.
McWhorter, J. H. (2001). The world's simplest grammars are Creole grammars.
_Linguistic Typology_ 5 (2/3), 125-166.
McWhorter, J. H. (2005). _Defining Creole_. New York: Oxford University Press.
McWhorter, J. H. (2008). Why does a language undress? Strange cases in
Indonesia. In Miestamo, M. et al. (eds), pp. 167-190.
Miestamo, M., Sinnemaki, K., and F. Karlsson (eds.) (2008). _Language
Complexity: typology, contact, change_. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Parkvall, M. (2008). The simplicity of creoles in a cross-linguistic
perspective. In Miestamo, M. et al. (eds.), pp. 265-286.
Versteegh, K. (1984). _Pidginization and Creolization: The case of Arabic_.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Antonis Polentas is doing a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Essex, UK.
The topic of his dissertation is a Simpler Syntax approach to clitic
constructions in Modern Greek. His interests include Constraint-based theories
of syntax, clitics, language typology and second language acquisition.