Do Languages Get Simpler When They Get More Complicated?

Do Languages Get Simpler When They Get More Complicated?

 Oh, a minor diversion from the usual political economy stuff that goes up here.  

This is triggered by an article in last week’s The Economist on the nearly dead San language, Nluu.  It has only two living fully fluent speakers alive, both in their 80s.  The San languages are among the world’s most ancient, although arguably reflecting a simpler world than the one we live in, although certainly with many complications we know nothing of.  But the point that caught my attention was that it has 45 distinct click sounds, along with 114 basic sound units. It is one of only three languages in the world (all of them San) that have something called the double lip-full kiss click, whatever that is. I only know that if one sees an exclamation point that means some sort of click. So probably the most numerous living San group are the !Kung, yeah, some sort of click on the front end of that name.

I have known about this matter of clicks in southern African languages for some time but had no idea there were so many different ones.  Not only the San languages but also the Khoechan (or Khoi khoi) languages have lots of them.  Some clicks can also be found in the much more widespread Xhosa languages, one of which was the mother tongue of Nelson Mandela, who almost certainly had some Khoi or San ancestry.  But beyond these languages, I am not aware of any others that have any clicks.  They have disappeared in later languages, and I am unaware of any other language having anywhere near the number of basic sound units that apparently this nearly extinct Nluu language has.

I have not heard anybody theorize about simplifying sounds over time in languages, but I know there is an academic argument about grammar becoming more simplified, especially when two languages are combined as with creole or pidgin languages, something is written about by John McWhorter in hi The Creole Debate. Pidgin languages, artificially created to allow communication between groups and drawing on each other’s languages, tend to be especially simplistic in grammatical terms.

It occurs to me that this might apply to English, which is itself a sort of creole out of Germanic Old English and Latinic Norman French, with some other elements.  In a way it may be the world’s most complicated language in some forms, notably in probably having more words than just about any other language, drawing on so many inputs from so many parts of the world and fields.  But in grammatical terms, it is rather simple, with only a few cases and having eliminated gender from most words.  In contrast, Lithuanian, thought to be the closest to the original proto-Indo-European has seven cases, more than any other, although Russian is not too far off.  However, despite this relative grammatical simplicity, English is hard to learn, not only because it has so many words but because it violates its own supposed rules so often, in contrast with Spanish, for example, reputedly one of the easiest languages to learn.

So, there is no big profound point here, but just that I find this curious: that it seems that as languages evolve and interact with each other and encounter more and more influences, they seem to drop elements they previously had, whether these are sound units or grammatical forms and cases.

Barkley Rosser