Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars

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Oxford University Press, Jun 18, 2007 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 304 pages
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Foreigners often say that English language is "easy." A language like Spanish is challenging in its variety of verb endings (the verb speak is conjugated hablo, hablas, hablamos), and gender for nouns, whereas English is more straight forward (I speak, you speak, we speak). But linguists generally swat down claims that certain languages are "easier" than others, since it is assumed all languages are complex to the same degree. For example, they will point to English's use of the word "do" -- Do you know French? This usage is counter-intuitive and difficult for non-native speakers. Linguist John McWhorter agrees that all languages are complex, but questions whether or not they are all equally complex. The topic of complexity has become a hot issue in recent years, particularly in creole studies, historical linguistics, and language contact. As McWhorter describes, when languages came into contact over the years (when French speakers ruled the English for a few centuries, or the vikings invaded England), a large number of speakers are forced to learn a new language quickly, and this came up with a simplified version, a pidgin. When this ultimately turns into a "real" language, a creole, the result is still simpler and less complex than a "non-interrupted" language that has been around for a long time. McWhorter makes the case that this kind of simplification happens in degrees, and criticizes linguists who are reluctant to say that, for example, English is simply simpler than Spanish for socio-historical reasons. He analyzes how various languages that seem simple but are not creoles, actually are simpler than they would be if they had not been broken down by large numbers of adult learners. In addition to English, he looks at Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Malay, and some Arabic varieties. His work will interest not just experts in creole studies and historical linguistics, but the wider community interested in language complexity.
 

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Contents

1 Introduction
3
2 Defining Grammatical Complexity
21
3 Epistemological Caveats
51
4 English
59
5 Mandarin Chinese
104
6 Persian
138
7 Colloquial Arabic
165
8 Malay
197
9 A New Typology of Language Contact
252
Notes
277
References
283
Index
307
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Page 8 - Primitive languages are, on the whole, complex. Minute differences in point of view are given expression by means of grammatical forms ; and the grammatical categories of Latin, and still more so those of modern English, seem crude when compared to the complexity of psychological or logical forms which primitive languages recognize, but which in our speech are disregarded entirely.
Page 8 - Latin, and still more so those of modern English, seem crude when compared to the complexity of psychological or logical forms which primitive languages recognize, but which in our speech are disregarded. On the whole, the development of language seems to be such, that the nicer distinctions are eliminated, and that it begins with complex and ends with simpler forms, although it must be acknowledged that opposite tendencies are not by any means absent.

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