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Do all languages have a "turning point"?

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Bilingual Heptaglot
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 Message 1 of 38
20 April 2015 at 7:07am | IP Logged 
What I mean by the title is do languages develop gradually (exclusively), or do they experience dramatic and sudden radical changes (within a couple of generations)?

Are there languages that only developed gradually, with no seemingly drastic changes in any point?

For example, English dramatically changed in the period between Old English and Middle English, to the point Old English is an entirely different language but Middle English could be considered a dialect. Was this period of evolution between the heavily Germanic, inflected Old English and Middle English gradual or very sudden?

How about the genesis of Tones in Chinese? It is said Old Chinese lacked tones (though this is disputed). But assuming it had no tones, at some point it did. Was this sudden or gradual.

There is an interesting case I read once that some Native American language which had no tones developed them in Speakers of this language that had been relocated and thus separated from the rest of their nation.

Anyone know of good examples of a language changing drastically in a short period of time?
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robarb
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 Message 2 of 38
20 April 2015 at 8:02am | IP Logged 
All languages go through periods of faster and slower change, either due to language contact or for reasons that
remain obscure to historical linguists. However, not all languages have gone through a period of very fast change
in their recorded history.

How fast was the transition from Old to Middle English? Let's take a quick tour of English through the Middle
Ages:
---------------------------------------
Earlier Old English: Beowulf (700-1000)

Snyredon ætsomne, þa secg wisode,
under Heorotes hrof; heaþorinc eode,
heard under helme, þæt he on heorðe gestod,
Beowulf ma ---ode ðelon him byrne scan,
searonet seowed smiþes orþancum--- :
`Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal! Ic eom Higelaces
mæg ond magoðegn; hæbbe ic mærða fela
ongunnen on geogoþe.

Later Old English: Charter of Cnut (1020)

Cnut cyning gret his arcebiscopas and his leod-biscopas and Þurcyl eorl and ealle his eorlas and ealne his
þeodscype, twelfhynde and twyhynde, gehadode and læwede, on Englalande freondlice.
And ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford and unswicende to godes gerihtum and to rihtre woroldlage.
ic nam me to gemynde þa gewritu and þa word, þe se arcebiscop Lyfing me fram þam papan brohte of Rome,
þæt ic scolde æghwær godes lof upp aræran and unriht alecgan and full frið wyrcean be ðære mihte, þe me god
syllan wolde.

Earlier Middle English: Ormulum (12th century)

Forrþrihht anan se time comm
þatt ure Drihhtin wollde
ben borenn i þiss middellærd
forr all mannkinne nede
he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn
all swillke summ he wollde
and whær he wollde borenn ben
he chæs all att hiss wille.

Later Middle English: Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, 14th century:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

------------------------------------

We can see the language becoming gradually more recognizable and "English-like" with the passing of the
centuries. For me, Beowulf is the only one that's completely opaque, while Chaucer is the only one that I can
really read. The difference between the 12th century and 14th century sample is probably greater than it should
be because they don't represent the same geographical dialect; the 12th century writer was in an area under
Danish influence, while in other parts of England during the same time the French influence had already begun.
While Beowulf and Chaucer certainly seem like completely different languages, the change clearly did
not happen all at once. Beowulf and Chaucer are separated by at least 400 years and possibly as much as 700
years. At no point would people have felt that their great-grandparents were speaking a foreign language.

As for Chinese, I don't think the introduction of tones was a drastic change at the time. The words that gained
tones were already distinguished by a set of final consonants, which affected the way the preceding vowel was
pronounced. When some people stopped pronouncing the consonants, all that was left was the differences in the
way they produced the vowels. For a while there must have been people with and without this sound change
happily coexisting and talking to each other. Eventually, the old way of pronouncing died out and the system
developed into Middle Chinese tones. It probably would've just seemed like differences in accent at the time.

I like to compare it with the words writing and riding. In my accent of English, the only thing that
distinguishes these two words is the first vowel (aɪ̯, versus ɐɪ̯ due to "Canadian" raising). In other places, the d
and t are pronounced differently and the vowel is the same; those accents lack the ɐɪ̯ vowel entirely. The
pronunciation of the word is different and we've generated an entirely new vowel; yet, people from other
countries understand me just fine and probably don't even notice this. The first stages of tone genesis would've
been a similar thing, except that the thing that's created is not "just another" vowel, but a distinction in tone.

Edited by robarb on 20 April 2015 at 8:11am

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Iversen
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 Message 3 of 38
20 April 2015 at 10:58am | IP Logged 
I took me some time even to get at the point where Beowulf became somewhat
comprehensible, but the chronicles written around the same time are easier - though
also much more boring.

Given the drastic changes in the English society after the Norman conquest it is not
surprising to see the language of the population being changed. But if you turn to the
Baltic countries they were also conquered byforeigners who spoke other languages, and
nevertheless their local languages (Lithuanian in particular) are said to be fairly
conservative - which of course isn't the same as saying that modern Lithuanian is even
close to Protoindoeuropean - that is a myth. But I would really like to know how big
the difference is betwwen the language spoken before the arrival af the German order
and the one spoken in for instance the 15. century.

I know the history of the Romance languages better, and here it is clear that for
instance the Catalan of Ramón Llull has moved away from Occitan and towards Castillan,
but not so much that I would declare it another language. Ancient French from before
1200 was however different enough to earn that title. The language of the Pléiade
poets was somewhere in the middle (serving a a bridge in the same way as Chaucer in
English). The difference is that most of France wasn't occupied by foreign speakers
with other languages - OK it was a kaleidoscope of dialects and languages, but the
Norsemen in the Normany adopted the local vernacular, the 'Englishmen' they fought
during the 100 years war were basically Francophone and the Germans didn't invade
France until much later (or earlier, if you include the Franks). So why did the Langue
d'oil change so much then?

Another test case: when Skåne, Halland and Blekinge was ceded by the Danes to the
Swedes in the 1660's everyone in the area was forced to learn to speak Swedish. But
the result was a dialect of Swedish which is harder to understand even for us Danes
than the dialects from Norrbotten and Finland. The last remnant of what Scanian must
have sounded like is spoken on the island Bornholm - and if there is one single Danish
dialect which in its pure form still can baffle me then it must be Bornholmsk.

What about the people in Northern Germany who switched to some bland kind of Lutherian
High German. Well, they don't say "Grüss Gottt", and they roll their r's less,
burthere are not many rests of Platt in the language I have heard on the streets of
Neumünster or Hamburg.

So all in all it is hard to find a pattern. SOme populations change their language
drastically while others are more resilient. For instance High German has basically
kept its Medieval morphology at the same level as Icelandic, but Iceland is an
isolated island in the middle of an ocean, whereas Germany is in the middle of Europe.
How come that they still relish in having four cases and a living subjunctive
(Konjunktiv)? Whereas Danish, Low German and Dutch skipped most of that stuff? No
idea...


Edited by Iversen on 20 April 2015 at 11:02am

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eyðimörk
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 Message 4 of 38
20 April 2015 at 12:23pm | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:
Another test case: when Skåne, Halland and Blekinge was ceded by the Danes to the Swedes in the 1660's everyone in the area was forced to learn to speak Swedish. But the result was a dialect of Swedish which is harder to understand even for us Danes than the dialects from Norrbotten and Finland.

For at least the past five years, I've read a lot in popular media about how this is a misconception. The Scanian dialect supposedly did not arise from swedification following the Treaty of Roskilde, nor was there any quick or brutal change in how people spoke, but rather the language of writing changed. I remember reading about a study at the University of Lund following a family in the years following the Treaty, and as I recall context was everything. For official matters, they switched to Swedish spelling basically overnight. Unfortunately, I don't have the magazine any more, as this was before my move to France. I think it was in an early issue of Språk, though.

That's not to say that Standard Swedish and obligatory "uttalshygien" (pronunciation hygiene) classes haven't affected modern Scanian, obviously it has very much so. Our diphthongs and triphthongs may actually have come from a bridging between old East Danish vowel sounds and more Swedish vowel sounds.

But we've also had plenty of non-Swedish (edit: and non-Danish) continental influence, accounting for things like a difference in stress and tone compared to Standard Swedish... and, of course, the R.


Iversen wrote:
if there is one single Danish dialect which in its pure form still can baffle me then it must be Bornholmsk.

That's funny because as a a native Scanian, Bornholmsk is possibly the one dialect of Danish I don't struggle much with (such lovely and clear vowel sounds and melody, but I still have to focus because some of the words that lack common cognates in Scanian/Swedish come very unexpectedly and throw me off... unlike when I listen to standard Danish), although I might not have encountered extremely thick Bornholmsk. There may well be, as there are in Scania, some pretty isolated sub-dialects which when taken to the extreme are often fairly opaque even to other dialect speakers. I know all too well that even after 60+ years in Scania, my in-laws still think it's a pretty neat party trick when I quote my grandparents and they don't understand a word I'm saying.

edit:
Iversen wrote:
The last remnant of what Scanian must have sounded like is spoken on the island Bornholm

We still don't speak that terribly differently. Yes, educated speakers speak more of a Standard Swedish with an accent. I'm told Bornholmers today like to imitate people from Copenhagen. But like Bornholmers (from what I gather), I, a 30 year old educated speaker, still say "tjyd" and "tjylling" instead of kød or kött (tjøtt) and kylling or kyckling (tjykk-ling).

Edited by eyðimörk on 20 April 2015 at 12:45pm

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daegga
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 Message 5 of 38
20 April 2015 at 1:16pm | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:

So all in all it is hard to find a pattern. SOme populations change their language
drastically while others are more resilient. For instance High German has basically
kept its Medieval morphology at the same level as Icelandic, but Iceland is an
isolated island in the middle of an ocean, whereas Germany is in the middle of Europe.
How come that they still relish in having four cases and a living subjunctive
(Konjunktiv)? Whereas Danish, Low German and Dutch skipped most of that stuff? No
idea...


Well, politics might have to do with it. Both the Holy Empire and the German Empire
were comprised of people with mutually incomprehensible dialects - and about half of
them had to learn a different language in order to communicate with the rest. As far as
I understand the development of the Danish and Swedish standard language followed the
oral development in one specific area (or dialect group) each. I think in "Germany"
this would've been politically impossible because of its decentralized structure. Once
everybody has lost their dialect and only speak Standard German, we might see a more
rapid change.
Btw. when Austria and the German Empire split, the Upper German language, which strikes
me as a bit more simplified (and certainly closer to the dialects), had already been
abandoned in favor of the written language of Saxony.
It's kinda like early Landsmål including archaic forms because the forms in the
dialects were too different.

edit:
We should also not forget that in Scandinavia, Netherlands and Northern Germany the
important cities were part of the Hanse and many simplifications occurred in this time
period.

Edited by daegga on 20 April 2015 at 1:40pm

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Chung
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 Message 6 of 38
20 April 2015 at 10:04pm | IP Logged 
robarb wrote:
All languages go through periods of faster and slower change, either due to language contact or for reasons that remain obscure to historical linguists. However, not all languages have gone through a period of very fast change in their recorded history.


Without a complete historical record, this is probably the best answer/educated guess for the original question. We just can't actually answer if there's a language out the (dead or living) which developed without abrupt changes (however way you define abrupt or the rate of change).

With that out of the way, the reforming of Turkish in the 1920s and 1930s was damned drastic even though it was basically an example of top-down manipulation focused on script and vocabulary.

On a related note, standardization can also be regarded as dramatic (both in degree and speed of implementation). As far as we know, Slovak didn't formally exist before the 18th century, although it's almost certain that some Slavs living in northern Hungary natively used something that, crudely put, sounded rather like a divergent Czech or Polish dialect with some Yugoslavicisms, which in turn had been a set of distinct reflexes of an older Western Slavonic (Proto-Western Slavonic?) tongue which in turn evolved from Proto-Slavonic, and ultimately Proto-Indo-European. The first Slovak standardization was devised by Bernolák in the late 1700s and was quite similar to some Czech dialects. Partially out of religion, and partially out of nationalism, Bernolák's standard was supplanted by Štúr's standardization of the mid 1800s which was based on dialects that less resembled Czech and by chance vaguely resembled more the predecessors of Slovenian and BCMS/Serbo-Croatian. Modern standard Slovak is Štúr's standardization. For a Slovak whose native dialect has relatively little in common with the standardizations (e.g. an eastern Slovak), it might be occasionally jarring for him/her to see how different the standard is from what's used at home.
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tarvos
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 Message 7 of 38
21 April 2015 at 12:57am | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:

So all in all it is hard to find a pattern. SOme populations change their language
drastically while others are more resilient. For instance High German has basically
kept its Medieval morphology at the same level as Icelandic, but Iceland is an
isolated island in the middle of an ocean, whereas Germany is in the middle of Europe.
How come that they still relish in having four cases and a living subjunctive
(Konjunktiv)? Whereas Danish, Low German and Dutch skipped most of that stuff? No
idea...


Actually cases (in an attempt to nobilize the language) were used in Dutch until the
mid-40s, but post-WWII they were abolished. It is practically impossible for Dutch
speakers to read literature from before 1900, with the exception of Max Havelaar by
Multatuli, and it's not routine to read works from before about 1900 in Dutch due to
the very different structure.

The subjunctive also exists in Dutch, replete with conjugation, but is never used and
considered archaic. If you go back a 100 years maybe it was still used.
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Serpent
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 Message 8 of 38
21 April 2015 at 6:02am | IP Logged 
tarvos wrote:
It is practically impossible for Dutch speakers to read literature from before 1900, with the exception of Max Havelaar by Multatuli, and it's not routine to read works from before about 1900 in Dutch due to the very different structure.

The subjunctive also exists in Dutch, replete with conjugation, but is never used and
considered archaic. If you go back a 100 years maybe it was still used.

What kind of native speakers are we talking about? Like, what about you personally - can you read that old literature? Do you know the subjunctive conjugation even if you never use it? Or is it mostly limited to scholars?

Just curious, obviously.


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