Monday, January 26, 2009

on pidgins. those wacky pirahas!

Poor Chomsky. The Pirahas have no word for colour and no numbers.
Worse yet, NO recursion.
I am not personally as upset as most seem to be.

Let me segue over to Inuit and words for snow.
D: as I understand it, the word Eskimo is now considered pejorative. I heard it means "eat of raw flesh". Oddly, that description of sushi does not seem to stigmatize the Japanese. Moving on...

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativism holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind General Semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having seven distinct words for snow. Later writers inflated the figure: by 1978, the number quoted had reached 50, and on February 9, 1984, an editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred.[2]

D: it seems like a big deal. It's not.

Eskimo word synthesis

By some definitions of "word", the number of Eskimo words for snow is approximately as large as the number of English sentences that can contain the word "snow", because Eskimo languages (like many native North American languages) are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages allow noun incorporation, resulting in a single compound word that is the equivalent of a phrase in other languages (Spencer 1991). The Eskimo languages have systems of derivational suffixes for word formation to which speakers can recursively add snow-referring roots. As in English, there are a handful of these snow-referring roots, such as for "snowflake", "blizzard", "drift". What an English speaker would describe as "frosty sparkling snow" a speaker of an Eskimo language such as Inuinnaqtun would call "patuqun", and express "is covered in frosty sparkling snow" as "patuqutaujuq",[citation needed] much as an English speaker might use "sleet" and "sleet-covered". Arguably the concept is the same in both languages.

D: how is this pertinent to our discussion of the pirahas? (I didn't feel like looking up lil' squiggly accents for the 'a'. Deal with it.)
Well, it is recursion that allows a language to express an effectively infinite number of ideas.

We just happen to think recursion must necessarily mean complex sentences.

Not true. See LangX/Lang53 (you really should read this site- very well thought out!)

"As for noun case suffixes, we English-speakers may pride ourselves that word-order has rendered most of them unnecessary, and jib at the accusative ending and adjectival agreement in Esperanto - perhaps oblivious to the fact that creole users might regard our genitive or possessive inflection in a similar way. Thus a creole speaker might say:

    "this woman money stolen; that village corn ripe".

It might sound strange to us, but the context determines whether the meaning is possessive or descriptive. Is the genitive inflection essential? If not, we should consider losing it in the initial stages of LangX. In any case, analytic grammar would demand a preposition - if absolutely necessary - (as in French etc., but used only as required) rather than an inflection. Other languages also omit the genitive, e.g. Welsh:

    "llyfr John, llyfr coch" "John's book, red book".

The creoles also tend to drop the plural inflection, e.g.:

    "two house; them rabbit"

So does Chinese; also English - for items regarded as game rather than as individuals, e.g. "sheep, deer, cod, grouse, Portuguese, Swiss etc." However, most languages employ a plural inflection (often [-s]). It's not difficult to see why. The plural is a useful device. For example, 10 kg of stone, wood or oil is very different from 10 kg of stones, woods or oils. The numeral quantifies; the plural diversifies.

The analytic approach would employ auxiliary markers, such as Chinese "xie" ["some"] and the French singular and plural definite articles "le" or "la", and "les" (gender in the linguistic sense being banned in LangX, of course).

Some languages are more advanced than others in terms of economical expression or succinct syntax. Chinese grammar is exemplary in this regard, not least in its approach to word formation.

The creole approach to negation is likewise economical:

    "he no work today"

Old English used the same construction, with the prefix "ne-" for "no", exactly as in Scottish English, Russian and other languages. English uses "never" in a similar way.

Creoles tend to drop the copula between subject and predicate:

    "the sun hot; he old man; them hungry; why you bring this?"

This too is common - e.g. Russian "he engineer" - and might be adopted at least in the initial stages of LangX.

Creoles also tend to use serial verbs:

    "she go try find it; he start run escape"

The infinitive is understood. English often does the same, e.g. "Let my people go!; I heard you call; I watched her paint a picture; he felt a hand touch him" - cf. Shakespeare's old-fashioned "Tranio! I saw her coral lips to move." Another one for Lang29?

As for recursion, creoles tend to use discrete one-clause sentences and anaphora, rather than embedded clauses headed by correlatives. We used the following example in LANGO:

    "Man plough. He my brother." "The man (who is) ploughing is my brother."

The complex construction can, of course, be used outside the immediate context. It could be commentary on a video. However the simplest form of recursion is perfectly functional, and might well be the better alternative for Lang29."


D: a book review of "Pidgins and Creoles" by Loreto Todd.

I greatly enjoyed this book. It has tremendous applications to an IAL designer.

The Lang53 website is a brief summary.

The transition from pidgin to creole parallels the LangX switch from no to a minimal grammar.

Keep in mind that a pidgin is typically an interlang between colonizer and colonized people.

Some creoles remain even after an imperial power withdraws from their colony.

Sometimes, the creole continues to function as a useful interlang for the region.

Aside: a look at regional interlangs is useful when considering the design requirements of a global interlang. It may be more important to match the regional interlangs than every lil' spoken tongue. This may or may not correspond to sheer #s of first-language speakers.

There is ONE country in the world that adopted their creole as an official language.

"Seychellois (a creole of French) is an official language in the Seychelles, and Tok Pisin is despite its name a creole language (of English) rather than a pidgin, and is official in Papua New Guinea. Papiamentu (a creole of Portuguese) is official in Curacao. Jamaican creole is not official, although widely spoken. Hiri motu is officially recognized in Papua New Guines, but is a pidgin not a creole. Haitien has now, I think, official recognition in Haiti. It is, of course, a creole of French."

D: let us take a look at Tok Pisin.

Between 5 and 6 million people use Tok Pisin to some degree, although by no means all of these speak it well. Between 1 and 2 million are exposed to it as a first language, in particular the children of parents or grandparents originally speaking different vernaculars (say, a mother from Madang and a father from Rabaul). Urban families in particular, and those of police and defence force members, often communicate between themselves in Tok Pisin, either never gaining fluency in a vernacular ("tok ples"), or learning it as a second (or third) language, after Tok Pisin (and possibly English). Perhaps 1 million people now use Tok Pisin as a primary language.

D: note the modest amount of consonants. Also note the only-five vowel system. This is about as many vowels as an interlang can have. (Forcing me to revise Decimese...)
Note how few affixes remain. The pronoun system remains robust, however.
Reduplication addresses the fact that many words would have otherwise sounded the same, once only-shared phonemes are permitted.

"There were four phases in the development of Tok Pisin that were laid out by Loreto Todd.
  1. Casual contact between English speakers and local people developed a marginal pisin
  2. Pisin English was used between the local people. The language expanded from the users' mother tongue
  3. As the interracial contact increased the vocabulary expanded according to the dominant language.
  4. In areas where English was the official language a depidginization occurred (Todd, 1990)"
D: a well-designed IAL (as opposed to a new universal mother tongue) must resemble a creole in complexity.
Esperanto, for example, is woefully inadequate as a second-language IAL.
I was tickled by a comment I received about Esperanto. The commenter said it wasn't perfect but it was "good enough".
This is hugely amusing, since yesterday's Sapir essay targets this very sentiment about English as not being an adequate basis for a world language! <:

Tee hee.

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