Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sapir's Essay on IALs. EVERYONE will want to read it.

D: Sapir starts from the opposite position as Zamenhof.
Z's preface assumes a shared enthusiasm for aux-langs.
With that fatal assumption, he leaps into the gist of the language.
Sadly, that very assumption is the key sticking point.

Sapir tackles the job of selling an aux-lang to a skeptical reader head-on.
And does a brilliant job of doing so.
He exposes the hidden complexity of English (and French) that hides behind the apparent simplicity. He points out how for a native speaker it can be nearly impossible to step outside his bias and see for the first time just how HARD the language can truly be.
I suspect this is aggravated by academic settings. I work in a factory with laypeople that can sometimes be unsure whether to use these or they or them, don't understand strong/weak verbs, and so forth. I see that even after a lifetime of exposure, my many smart educated friends STILL have not mastered their native tongue in writing!

I think we Canucks have it worst. I was reading over a list of commonly misspelled words. To my surprise, some -ce/-se endings tripped me up, like practice and practise.
I am never sure if I am thinking of the British or American spelling conventions.

Is the medium the message? Well, if the medium is a big enough mess, the message must be delayed in favour of teaching a poor medium far longer than need be.
Every hour spent teaching erratic English spelling (medium) is an hour lost to educators for teaching CONTENT (history, geography, et al).

D: and now a brief summary of the essay...

It is not uncommon to hear it said by those who stand somewhat outside the international language question that some such regular system as Esperanto is theoretically desirable, but that it is of little use to work for it because English is already de facto the international language of modern times - if not altogether at the moment, then in the immediate future - that English is simple enough and regular enough to satisfy all practical requirements, and that the precise form of it as an international language may well be left to historical and psychological factors that one need not worry about in advance.
A firm, for instance, that does business in many countries of the world is driven to spend an enormous amount of time, labour, and money in providing for translation services
One speaks of a `necessary evil'.
Too much is not made, as a rule, of any specific difficulty in linguistic communication, but the cumulative effect of these difficulties is stupendous in magnitude. Sooner or later one chafes and begins to wonder whether the evil is as `necessary' as tradition would have it
Those who argue in this spirit invariably pride themselves on being `practical', and, like all `practical' people, they are apt to argue without their host.

I spoke before about the illusions that the average man has about the nature of his own language. It will help to clarify matters if we take a look at English from the standpoint of simplicity, regularity, logic, richness, and creativeness.
One of the glories of English simplicity is the possibility of using the same word as noun and verb.
At first blush this looks like a most engaging rule but a little examination convinces us that the supposed simplicity of word-building is a mirage.
Anyone who takes the trouble to examine these examples carefully will soon see that behind a superficial appearance of simplicity there is concealed a perfect hornet's nest of bizarre and arbitrary usages. To those of us who speak English from the earliest years of our childhood these difficulties do not readily appear. To one who comes to English from a language which possesses a totally different structure such facts as these. We can "give a person a shove" or "a push," but we cannot "give him a move" nor "a drop" (in the sense of causing him to drop). We can "give one help," but we "give obedience," not "obey are disconcerting.
A complete examination, in short, of all cases in which the verb functions as a noun would disclose two exceedingly cheerless facts: that there is a considerable number of distinct senses in which the verb may be so employed, though no rule can be given as to which of these possible senses is the proper one in any particular case or whether only one or more than one such meaning is possible; and that in many cases no such nouns may be formed at all, but that either nouns of an entirely different formation must be used or else that they are not possible at all.
Another example of apparent, but only apparent, simplicity in English is the use of such vague verbs as `to put' and `to get'. To us the verb `put' is a very simple matter, both in form and in use. Actually it is an amazingly difficult word to learn to use and no rules can be given either for its employment or for its avoidance.
These examples of the lack of simplicity in English and French, all appearances to the contrary, could be multiplied almost without limit and apply to all national languages. In fact, one may go so far as to say that it is precisely the apparent simplicity of structure which is suggested by the formal simplicity of many languages which is responsible for much slovenliness in thought, and even for the creation of imaginary problems in philosophy. What has been said of simplicity applies equally to regularity and logic, as some of our examples have already indicated. No important national language, at least in the Occidental world, has complete regularity of grammatical structure, nor is there a single logical category which is adequately and consistently handled in terms of linguistic symbolism.

More important is the question of creativeness. Here there are many illusions. All languages, even the most primitive, have very real powers of creating new words and combinations of words as they are needed, but the theoretical possibilities of creation are in most of those national languages which are of importance for the international language question thwarted by all sorts of irrelevant factors that would not apply in a constructed language.
English, for instance, has a great many formal resources at its disposal which it seems unable to use adequately; for instance, there is no reason why the suffix -ness should not be used to make up an unlimited number of words indicating quality, such as `smallness' and`opaqueness,' yet we know that only a limited number of such forms is possible. One says `width,' not `wideness'; `beauty,' not `beautifulness.'

***We see, then, that no national language really corresponds in spirit to the analytic and creative spirit of modern times.***

D: I was inspired by that line!
Our languages ought to capture the spirit of the times.
I'd say of modern times. By that I mean based soundly on concepts of space, time and math. Logic and ethics. The very essence of modern (and I hope future!) humanity.

QOTD: Sapir.
" ... an international language which is as rich as any now known to us, is far more creative in its possibilities, and is infinitely simpler, more regular, and more logical than any of them. "

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