tommyedison

Grammatical Rules

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Are rules of grammar fixed over time or do they evolve over time as needed.

For example, a primitive savage who hunts for food may have just have to identify his prey with a sound and append it with another sound to indicate he didn't get that prey. He has no need for a grammatical system. A modern man, however does.

This is what makes me think that grammatical rules evolve as needed.

Is this a possible theory or is there something I am missing?

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For example, a primitive savage who hunts for food may have just have to identify his prey with a sound and append it with another sound to indicate he didn't get that prey. He has no need for a grammatical system. A modern man, however does.

Do you know of any "primitive savages" who speak primitively? That is, do you know for a fact that any group in the world says nothing more sophisticated than "Antelope" or "Antelope not get!"?

Maybe it would help to define what you mean by "grammatical system."

Another suggestion: Look at the history of English. Has the grammar gotten simpler or more complex ("sophisticated"?) as the centuries have passed? For instance, does English have more case endings now than it did a thousand years ago -- or fewer?

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Do you know of any "primitive savages" who speak primitively? That is, do you know for a fact that any group in the world says nothing more sophisticated than "Antelope" or "Antelope not get!"?

I don't know any savages who do this. But I think it is logical. If primitive savages have only a few concepts formed in their mind, they will not need complicated rules to communicate their meaning. Taking the case of the savage above, if his whole life is focused on hunting to acquire food, it makes sense that he will not need verbs and subjects to communicate what he wants to say. Now if he decides to acquire more knowledge, he will of course need more complicated rules.

Maybe it would help to define what you mean by "grammatical system."

A set of rules to communicate the meaning of a sentence effectively (i.e. to avoid any ambiguity).

Another suggestion: Look at the history of English. Has the grammar gotten simpler or more complex ("sophisticated"?) as the centuries have passed? For instance, does English have more case endings now than it did a thousand years ago -- or fewer?

Although case endings have lessened, I can't say whether it has gotten simpler or more complex because I am not very familiar with Old English.

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Perhaps Pirahã would be a suitable language to look at, as an example of a "primitive language." I do not know if enough information is available, written in English, to be able to compare it systematically to English, which I assume is the one language you know best.

However, the only way I know of to think objectively about changes in language over time is to actually investigate several languages and see what actually happened. There is no substitute for induction and that begins with lots of observations. That is the scientific approach, and we are talking about a scientific theory here.

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Are rules of grammar fixed over time or do they evolve over time as needed.

For example, a primitive savage who hunts for food may have just have to identify his prey with a sound and append it with another sound to indicate he didn't get that prey. He has no need for a grammatical system. A modern man, however does.

This is what makes me think that grammatical rules evolve as needed.

Is this a possible theory or is there something I am missing?

The following article might be of interest.

Review of Writing and Thinking

Today, the field of grammar has been corrupted by subjectivism. Grammar is viewed, not as a logical necessity, but as a mere social convention. Thinking is regarded as an unimportant, "subjective phenomenon." This outlook became dominant soon after the 1941 edition, used for the current reprint, was published—and it can seen in the dramatic contrast between this book and a fifth edition from 1952, which was revised by a third party.

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Perhaps Pirahã would be a suitable language to look at, as an example of a "primitive language." I do not know if enough information is available, written in English, to be able to compare it systematically to English, which I assume is the one language you know best.

I have found quite a few articles on the Piraha with the wikipedia article containing a literal translations from the language.

Wikipedia

Piraha Dictionary (Preliminary)

U of Pittsburgh article

Spiegel article - with a paragraph on Whorf's theory which strikes to me as linguistic subjectivism ("Worldview is shaped by language")

Unusual features of Pirahã include:

* One of the smallest phoneme inventories of any known language (perhaps surpassed only by Rotokas), and a correspondingly high degree of allophonic variation, including two very rare sounds, [ɺ͡ɺ̼] and [t͡ʙ̥]. Female speakers use seven consonants and three vowels, while male speakers have one consonant more at their disposal.

* The pronunciation of several phonemes depends on the speaker's sex.

* An extremely limited clause structure.

* No grammatical numerals, not even "one" or "two"; the closest the language comes to numerals are general quantity words like 'many'.

* No abstract color words other than terms for light and dark.

* Few specific kin terms; one word covers both "father" and "mother".

* The entire set of personal pronouns appears to have been borrowed from Nheengatu, the Tupi-based lingua franca. Although there is no documentation of a prior stage of Pirahã, the close resemblance of the Pirahã pronouns to those of Nheengatu makes any other hypothesis improbable.

* Pirahã can be whistled, hummed, or encoded in music.

Pirahã is agglutinative, using a large number of affixes to communicate grammatical meaning. Even the 'to be' verbs of existence or equivalence are suffixes in Pirahã. For instance, the Pirahã sentence "there is a paca there" uses just two words; the "is" is a suffix on "paca":

káixihíxao-xaagá gáihí

paca-exists there

"There's a paca there"

Pirahã also uses suffixes which communicate evidentiality, a category which English grammar lacks. One such suffix, -xáagahá, means that the speaker actually observed the event in question:

hoagaxóai hi páxai kaopápi-sai-xáagahá

Hoaga'oai s/he [a fish] catch-ing-(I saw it)

"Hoaga'oai caught a pa'ai fish (I can tell you because I saw it)"

(The suffix -sai turns a verb into a noun, like English '-ing'.)

Other verbal suffixes indicate that an action is deduced from circumstantial evidence, or based on hearsay. Unlike in English, in Pirahã a speaker must state their source of information: they cannot be ambiguous. There are also verbal suffixes that indicate desire to perform an action, frustration in completing an action, or frustration in even starting an action.

There are also a large number of verbal aspects: perfective (completed) vs. imperfective (incompleted), telic (reaching a goal) vs. atelic, continuing, repeated, and commencing. However, despite this complexity, there appears to be little distinction of transitivity. For example, the same verb, xobai, can mean either 'look' or 'see', and xoab can mean either 'die' or 'kill'.

If this information is accurate, then I think it provides atleast some evidence that grammar is shaped by the number of concepts and as the number of concepts increase, grammar too evolves.

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Interesting that you brought that up. I ordered Writing and Thinking a few days ago and should be getting it in a few days. This review only confirms that it was a wise decision to purchase it. :D

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Thanks for the very interesting link. It just made me order the book!

You are welcome. I hope you enjoy the book.

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Interesting that you brought that up. I ordered Writing and Thinking a few days ago and should be getting it in a few days. This review only confirms that it was a wise decision to purchase it. :D

Maybe, we could start a thread exploring the ideas presented in the book?

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If this information is accurate, then I think it provides atleast some evidence that grammar is shaped by the number of concepts and as the number of concepts increase, grammar too evolves.

Where do you see the evidence? I do not see why the number of concepts would affect the number of rules of grammar.

If not by number of rules, then how would you measure the "sophistication" of the grammar of a language?

When its speakers began conquering the Middle East, Africa, and Persia, the language of desert tribesmen -- Arabic -- was already enormously complex and able, I am told by experts, to handle anything English can handle. I have heard it called "the language of one million rules."

I am not prepared to debate the subject. I am only offering grist for the mill.

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Of course Grammatical rules evolve as needed. As more concepts enter the language, more rules are needed to differentiate the concept from other concepts, as well as how to make the concept fit the context (ie. a preposition, or a noun, or a verb....Walking, To Walk, He/She/It Walks).

They also evolve...backwards. Observe how few people today are able to understand the Declaration of Independence.

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Of course Grammatical rules evolve as needed. As more concepts enter the language, more rules are needed to differentiate the concept from other concepts, as well as how to make the concept fit the context (ie. a preposition, or a noun, or a verb....Walking, To Walk, He/She/It Walks).

I do not understand. Whether I have 10 nouns (each for a concept) and 10 verbs (each for a concept) or 20 nouns and 20 verbs, why would I need more rules connecting nouns and verbs?

Can you give some examples?

Or are you speaking of kinds of concepts as parts of speech? I can understand saying that growth in the number of parts of speech might call for more rules -- because rules cover relationships. If there are more kinds of things to relate to each other, then there might be a need for more rules.

I would like to suggest, however, that a more advanced society might rationally simplify its grammar -- for example by reducing the number of case, number, and gender suffixes (in an inflected language). Isn't that what has happened to English?

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I do not understand. Whether I have 10 nouns (each for a concept) and 10 verbs (each for a concept) or 20 nouns and 20 verbs, why would I need more rules connecting nouns and verbs?

Can you give some examples?

Sure. Let's say that a new shoe was invented which allowed the user to run at two times the normal speed of a person. The language could either:

1.) Invent a new word

2.) Create a rule stating that one type of running must come before the direct object, and the other must come after the direct object.

Ex: I am now able to run to the store. (Without the shoes)

I am now able to the store run. (With the shoes).

The introduction of a new concept needed a rule to clarify between one concept and the other.

Or are you speaking of kinds of concepts as parts of speech? I can understand saying that growth in the number of parts of speech might call for more rules -- because rules cover relationships. If there are more kinds of things to relate to each other, then there might be a need for more rules.

This would be true also. But I can't imagine how a new part of speech would evolve. Would you please show me an example of a new part of speech?

I would like to suggest, however, that a more advanced society might rationally simplify its grammar -- for example by reducing the number of case, number, and gender suffixes (in an inflected language). Isn't that what has happened to English?

I think there is a difference between complexity and sophistication, to a point. For example, let's say that there was a rule in English stating that before the word blue, you must include the word "al", and before the word red, you must include the word "ak". "The ak red car just passed the al blue car." This would make the English language more complex. But it is not really needed! Taking those words out gets the same message across as having those words. So a rational society, for economy of language, would cut off those words. I don't see why you would want to reduce the number of case/number/gender suffixes in an inflected language though (unless you mean reducing the number of declensions...ie, Latin only having an "A" declension).

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Maybe, we could start a thread exploring the ideas presented in the book?

I would love to do that; once I get the book :D . Perhaps tommyedison would like to join us?

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Let's say that a new shoe was invented which allowed the user to run at two times the normal speed of a person. The language could either:

1.) Invent a new word

That is an issue of concept formation, not grammar, isn't it? Maybe that is your point -- distinguishing it from what follows:

2.) Create a rule stating that one type of running must come before the direct object, and the other must come after the direct object.

Ex: I am now able to run to the store. (Without the shoes)

I am now able to the store run. (With the shoes).

The introduction of a new concept needed a rule to clarify between one concept and the other.

Now I am more confused. Why would a new concept for a new kind of running (labeled by a word) also need a new grammatical rule? Can you give a real-world example of this actually happening in English -- or in Greek, Latin, French, or Arabic (the only other languages with which I am at all familiar, and then not much)?

BTW, I don see any direct object in your running examples. Would you please identify it?

But I can't imagine how a new part of speech would evolve.

If the earliest languages didn't slowly add parts of speech, what would be the alternative -- suddenly one day language bloomed fully formed in Og's mind, a mind that previously had no language? I find that implausible, but of course I am very ignorant of archaeolinguistics or whatever the field is called.

Would you please show me an example of a new part of speech?

New to whom? Every part of speech was new to me, one by one, as I was learning English as a child. I can see the same process in my grandchildren. Historically, I have no information about the path of evolution of language, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago. Does anyone? I really don't know.

Caution: What follows is pure speculation. Which of these two is more plausible?

1. Proper nouns ("Og") appeared first in human cultural evolution, followed by pronouns ("he").

2. Proper nouns appeared simultaneously at the same instant along with all other parts of speech.

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