Discovering the linguistic wheel?

Jul 25, 2011 by

On the one hand, it is great to see so much about linguistics in the popular press and the blogosphere. But on the other hand, many articles (in press and online) that purport to report some newly-made linguistic discovery often make me wonder…

A case in point: a recent report in describing the great discoveries of a team of Oxford researchers into historical morphology of Romance languages.

For starters, the article claims that the study looked at “the hundreds of Romance languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan”. Hundreds, really? Which ones? Notice that they say “hundreds of Romance languages“, not “dialects” or “varieties”. Later on the article corrects itself by saying that the database of the research team includes irregular verb forms in “80 Romance languages and dialects” — a much more reasonable figure. The Ethnologue website, which generally takes a splitter’s approach to linguistic varieties, lists only 41 Romance language (plus Latin, which is classified as a Latino-Faliscan language, a member of another branch of Italic grouping within Indo-European). This list of 41 languages includes not only the better known Romance varieties like “French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan”, but also Aromanian and Megleno Romanian, Judeo-Italian and Shuadit, Napoletano-Calabrese and Sicilian, Asturian and Extremaduran, Picard and Walloon. I doubt there could be hundreds of other Romance varieties, even dialects in addition to those. Nor can one truly say that “Romanian or the French spoken on the Atlantic coast of Canada” have been “neglected by mainstream Romance linguistics”.

Another aspect of this article that really perplexed me is what exactly the reported discovery is. That irregular forms “are learned by successive generations despite ‘making no sense’ or, apparently, having any function in the language”? Anybody who has tried to learn Spanish or French or Russian knows that! And linguists have known for a long time not only that irregular forms survive, but also why and how they do so. Irregular forms arise as a result of historical changes in the system, such as phonological changes (the cited examples of the French je meurs ‘I die’ vs. nous mourons ‘we die’ are a case in point). The irregular forms survive because children learn them as such, and come to realize that these are exceptions to the regular rule. For example, English children learn the irregular forms like went and ate, after they go through a stage of overextending the regular form and creating forms like goed and eated. The reason that such irregular forms survive is that they are reinforced by frequency: rarer verbs become regularized with time, more frequent irregularities survive. Sometimes, the irregular patterns are also reinforced by analogical extention: that’s what happens with think-thank-thunk.

So if anyone can explain to me what the great, earth-shattering contributions of this research are, I am listening!

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