Where was human language born? — part 2

Apr 15, 2011 by

As has been correctly pointed out to me by Amittai F. Aviram, there is an additional problem with Atkinson’s claim that languages lose phonemes (and consequently, become less and less complex). It is well known from the study of various “émigré” languages that they tend to be more conservative than their “home country” counterparts. In other words, émigré colonies typically retain an older state of their language than the homeland community.

One example of this phenomenon, already discussed in an earlier posting, is the retention by (some) American English (dialects) of pronunciation features (including phonemes) that were lost in British English (dialects). For example, American English (with the exception of a few dialects) retains the r-fullness (i.e., rhoticity) of Elizabethan English. Another pronunciation feature of Elizabethan English retained by American but not by British English is the more front pronunciation of the vowel in words like bath and calf.

Other examples of “émigré languages” retaining older features of the language abound. Thus, Québecois French retains features of French lost in France centuries ago: for example, in Québec a street closed off for the traffic is called rue barrée, whereas in France it became rue fermée. Similarly, Russian émigré communities maintain older features of Russian lost in the speech of those living in Russia, as discussed in detail by Elena A. Zemskaja, Marina Y. Glovinskaja and Marina A. Bobrik in their 2001 book Jazyk Russkogo Zarubezhja [Language of Russian emigration].

Another set of examples of émigré language conservatism involves Jewish languages. Thus, Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish) is well-known for having preserved many features of the 15th century Castillian Spanish; hence, Kiddle (1978: 76) compares “a Sephardic-speaker [to] almost an informant from the Middle Ages”. For example, Judeo-Spanish has preserved the older form of the word for ‘God’, el Dyo (literally, ‘the God’), whereas Spanish changed it to Dios ‘God’. Among other conservative traits of Judeo-Spanish are lexical archaisms, such as mercar ‘to buy’ (cf. the Standard Spanish comprar), mancar ‘to be lacking’ (cf. the Standard Spanish faltar), inglutir ‘to swallow’ (cf. the Standard Spanish tragar), and many others. Yet another example of grammatical conservatism of Judeo-Spanish is the preservation of the feminine gender for nouns in -or (e.g., calor ‘heat’, color ‘color’, favor ‘favor’, etc.): these nouns were feminine in the Middle Ages and are now commonly masculine in Standard Spanish.

Judeo-Spanish also preserves the 15th and 16th century sounds such as /sh/, /zh/ and /dzh/ that later disappeared from Standard Spanish. For example, the /zh/-to-/x/ change is illustrated by the comparison of [fizho], [hizho] and [izho] from various Judeo-Spanish dialects with the Standard Spanish hijo ‘son’, pronounced [ixo]. Similarly, in Standard Spanish the [sh] of deshar ‘to leave’ and the [dzh] of gente ‘people’ developed into [x] but the original sounds are retained in Judeo-Spanish.

In a similar vein, Yiddish has kept certain features of Middle High German lost in Modern German. For instance, in the sound system, Yiddish preserves a phonemic contrast that has been lost in German, that between word-initial /s/ and /z/; witness such minimal pairs as sok ‘syrup, sap’ (from Slavic) and zok ‘sock’ (from Germanic). As mentioned above, this contrast has been lost in German; hence, German words never start with a [s]: before a vowel, word-initial s is pronounced as [z] and before a consonant as a [sh]: consider, for example, the word-initial [z] in sagen ‘to say’ and [sh] in schlafen ‘to sleep’ and sterben ‘to die’. Examples like this cannot be ignored as they show directly that it is possible for a splitting-off language to maintain a phonemic contrast lost through the development of the parent population’s language — an unavoidable problem for Atkinson!

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