Danish linguist Otto Jespersen on the evolution of languages towards simplicity

Saturday, January 29, 2011

One of the most recent issues of Cosmoglotta I've uploaded from 1937 features an article by Otto Jespersen, the Danish linguist and inventor of Novial. The article is not about constructed languages but is related, as it is about the simplification of languages over time. Apparently it was originally written in Danish, then translated into Occidental, and now I've translated it into English.


by Professor Otto Jespersen

We have compared the oldest known states of our western European languages with their current form and we have found certain traits that, generally seen, are common to them, so that it was possible to find some large main lines showing the direction of evolution; and we have come to the opinion that the changes made in the course of centuries have as a whole been advantageous for the speakers, to the extent that we are justified if we speak of progress. The points in which the most recent languages have shown their superiority are as follows:

(1) Their forms are generally shorter, making them less strenuous on the muscles and spoken at a more rapid rate than their old forms.

(2) Their forms are reduced compared to before, resulting in a smaller burden on the memory.

(3) Their formation is much more regular.

(4) Their use in the composition of words (derivation) is much less irregular.

(5) Their more abstract and analytic character facilitate expression, making possible a multitude of combinations and constructions, which were impossible before or in conflict with linguistic use.

(6) Awkward repetitions that followed from the rules of accord of subordinate words with those that governed them have been made superfluous.

(7) Clear and unambiguous comprehension is guaranteed by a regular consequence of the words.

These advantages were not gained by a coup and languages have moved in the directions mentioned with a different speed for each. For example, High German is in many points slow compared to Low German; European Dutch is slower than South African (Afrikaans); Swedish in some areas compared to Danish, and all these languages compared to English. The Romance languages also have not marched at the same pace. Here we emphasize only that all these languages have in historic times moved in general in these directions, and that, from an anthropocentric point of view -- i.e., if we measure according to the needs of speaking people -- we should call that which has happened a welcome progress.

But are these tendencies general, or even perhaps absolute in the world of languages? All examples have been taken from a relatively small circle of languages, those that I myself and probably also the majority of my readers know the best. Do other languages show a similar evolution? Without claiming a deep knowledge of many languages I nevertheless dare to assert that the gained results are confirmed by all languages, of those of which their history is known: Irish today and spoken Scottish Gaelic are in many points simpler in their grammatical structure than the most ancient Irish. Russian has liberated itself from many complicated irregularities of ancient Slavic (Old Church Slavonic), and the same has been done to a greater extent by other Slavic languages: Bulgarian has greatly simplified the flexion of nouns and adjectives, and Serbian its conjugation. Modern Greek spoken is considerably more simply in its forms than the language of Homer and Demosthenes. Modern Persian is almost as simple in its structure as English, while Ancient Persian was a language of great complexity. In India we see a gradual simplification from Sanscrit through Pracrit and Pali to the languages spoken now: Hindi, Hindustani (Urdu), Bengali, etc. Outside our family of languages we see the same: Hebrew is more simple and more regular than Assyrian, spoken Arabic is simpler than the ancient written language. Coptic shows the same facility compared with Egyptian.

In short, even if we can clearly prove our theory only on a minority of languages spoken on the Earth, that minority still embraces all languages known during the era about which we can speak as having a history, and because of that we can dare to assert that the tendency towards simplification of grammatical structure is universal in the world of languages.

That this tendency is, in general, useful, lets us truly speak of progress; on that point all more ancient linguists were blind, because they saw a "cosmos", a magnificent and well-ordered world in the ancient, particularly in the classical languages and because of which modern languages lack a quantity of things that they had learned to admire in the ancients. It also cannot be denied that they to a certain extent were correct: each language presents, when one studies it in the right spirit, as much beauty in a systematically coherent structure, that it can be qualified as a "cosmos". But it is not in every concern a cosmos full of beauty: just as all things human it contains traits more or less beautiful, and a comparative evaluation should not be unilateral. Without a doubt there are things extraordinarily beautiful in the structure of Ancient Greek, and the ancient Greeks with their artistic talent were able to profit to the maximum extent from their magnificent literature. But there is also not less beauty in many modern languages, though the real evaluation of that is based on taste, which for the most part escapes scientific critique.

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