I have a linguistics question: how did Latin get so structured and formalistic? Actually, my question is a bit more general than that; as others have pointed out, a lot of ancient languages tend to be very highly structured. I'm curious about how they got that way.

To elaborate: Latin (and, based on Dianna's comments, Sanskrit) involves a large number of fairly complex rules, but those rules are pretty universally applied. Your verbs have to be conjugated to match the person and number of the subject, your nouns and adverbs have to be declined to match their function in the sentence. There are rules of pronunciation and accent that are universal, though nuanced, and that can result in the pronunciation of a word shifting as you conjugate/decline it. But here's the trick: There's a big messy mass of rules to remember, but if you remember the rules and how to apply them, you can work your way through just about anything. The exceptions are pretty few. Spelling, for instance, is universal. The same set of letters always make the same sounds, and if you know how a word sounds, you know how to spell it.

Compare this to English, which is essentially just one giant pile of exceptions. There are a few rules-of-thumb, but even these can't be relied upon ("I before E except after C. Or in Neighbor or Weigh where the 'ie' sound is "ay.' And also 'Weird.'") You can't rely on a pronunciation to know how a word is spelled, and you can't rely on spelling to know how a word is pronounced (Compare "Union" to "Untie").

But English is sort of a special case; modern English is the result of an enjambment of different languages over the course of thousands of years (Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, French, and then modern attempts to rationalize and modernize the languge). But even so, other modern languages are similarly unstructured when compared with the ancients. A lot retain conjugation, but few retain declensions. Many still identify three genders for nouns, while others have cut down to two, and others (English, in one of its more admirable qualities) don't bother assigning arbitrary sexes to inanimate objects and concepts at all.

So it seems like there's been a general linguistic move away from rigidly-structured rule-based languages and towards more ad-hoc, informal arrangements. And it's pretty easy to understand why. People need to communicate regardless of your fancy "rules," and they'll go ahead and do it even if they do it wrong. The more complex the rules, and thus the more education required to speak the language properly, the more likely vernacular simplifications become. Granted, there will be socialization towards these complex rules based in the fact that people can absorb them from daily life and they become second nature, but this same socialization will facilitate the spread of useful simplifications. As the variants multiply, people eventually end up speaking a language that is no longer recognizable. This language won't be as structured as the old one because it's the result of convenient alterations made by thousands of amateur linguists as necessity required.

So, yeah. The whole point of this is to say language used to be highly structured, now it's much more loose and disorganized, and it's very easy to understand how things moved that way. But here's my question: How did Latin (and Sanskrit, and others) get so highly-structured to begin with? A move from more organization to less organization makes intuitive sense. But where did the high levels of organization come from? Latin was not divinely ordained. Who, exactly, decided that adding a vowel after another vowel makes the first vowel short?

Of course, it could be that Latin (and others) just present the illusion of order to the modern learner. It could be that we're only getting the very highly-educated sources, the folks who are in a position to have learned all of the elaborate rules. Further, it's quite possible that the rules they follow are, themselves, artificial constructs that don't reflect the actual ad-hoc language that people spoke. Some unknown guardian of the Latin language, perhaps, took a look at the mass of informal arrangements that made up the language, invented a lot of descriptive rules of thumb, and these rules were promulgated and reinforced among the elite. The descriptive rules likely cut corners and left out exceptions, but they became the basis for written Latin, and in turn written Latin has become our source for How Latin Was.

So, um. Any other explanations? Were ancient languages really so formal and structured, or do we merely think they were in retrospect? And if they were, how did they get that way? It makes sense for languages to become less structured, so how did these highly-structured languages come into being and become popular among the masses?

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on March 7, 2006 6:26 PM.

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