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09.08.2014
I'll give you a very simple example that I think shows there is an effect: we're talking English now, I don't have to worry about calling you tA? or usted, it simply isn't an issue that arises in English. The study of sign languages changes our idea about what is natural to language, what is universal to language, because many of the things that we find in all of the spoken languages are there because you have to use your voice, whereas in sign language you can use your hands and you can point to locations, and your hands and your face and your body are part of the language. There's evidence that children who grow up with two languages have more cognitive flexibility, they can try to solve problems from several different directions.
In an interview in 1988 you said that by understanding the innate aspects of linguistic development we could understand a great deal about ourselves as human beings. Of course, I'm a psycholinguist, so I deal with psychology and the language part of psychology. Linguistics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional linguists and others with an interest in linguistic research and theory. Sound changes, especially the reduction and loss of unstressed final syllables, meant that verb forms that had been distinct in Anglo-Saxon became identical by Middle English, and lose their final bits of distinctiveness by Early Modern English. Social changes caused the old 2sg with thou, which had a distinct verbal ending in -st, to fall out in favor of you. The collusion of these two forces means that only the lonely 3sg form remains distinct in English.
A common cause of loss of inflection in a language community is a large influx of speakers of another language (either a close but incomprehensible dialect or one just really far away) in Extreme cases it can be similar to (or is called) pidginization, which when a coherent creole comes out has usually lost most of the inflections existing in the parent language (I don't think this is the only way to lose inflections, just one way). For English, it is said that the invasion of the Danes (Old Norse speakers) in the north-east, and then later the Norman invasion (Old French speakers) (all languages involved were inflected) killed off most inflections in English. Your question might be based on some false assumptions or gaps in your linguistics knowledge. Languages are sometimes said to move from one morphological typology to the next in a cyclical pattern.
English has moved further down the path away from inflection than some of its siblings, but others of its siblings are doing the same. These typologies are not as neat as they are sometimes made out to be which is why English and Japanese both don't fit neatly, but in different ways. In inflected and agglutinating languages, the endings can cover a concept of agreement and there are different things with which to agree. As for why English is losing some of its inflection, besides this being a trend for inflected languages generally, it has been suggested that one reason was that the Frisian and Norse languages which have both played a part in English's history had a lot in common but used similar inflections in different ways thus weakening them through ambiguity, making them susceptible to being lost. As for the side question, the languages you invited comparison with, Chinese is an isolating or analytic language with no inflections and arguably no affixation. It's what we are used to, but it's not a priori 'normal' that verbs inflect for person and number - or indeed for anything. As everyone already knew the person and number before the verb suffix was even pronounced, people pronounced it more and more sloppily. At this point in the development of French, ignoring the spelling and history but only focusing on oral French as it is used today, we could say that French verbs are inflexted on both sides and that the empathic pronouns moi, toi etc. English branched off the German-Danish dialect continuum when people from around the German-Danish border moved to Great Britain. The other Germanic languages have been a bit slower with some changes, and German much slower.
If you compare the recent history of German and Dutch, you can get the impression that German is changing much slower because standard Dutch updates when the dialects change, whereas German doesn't.


Not the answer you're looking for?Browse other questions tagged language-change verbs language-families inflection conjugation or ask your own question. Are there languages with a totally regular conjugation for “to be” outside Quechua? Are personal pronouns in English different lexemes or just inflected forms of the same one? What is the smallest number of people in a group, so that it is guaranteed that three of them will have their birthday in the same month?
Slobin, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has made significant contributions to research into child language acquisition. Do linguistic differences affect only the way in which we process language or do they influence other cognitive processes as well?
Scientifically speaking, what are the benefits of studying this language and why do you find it so interesting? So much of what we think is natural grammar is due to the problems of spoken language, where you can only say one word at a time; you can't say two words at the same time, you can't point to something you've said before, so you have to have words like this and that or he and she to point with words, because you can't point with your eyes or your fingers. Do you think that learning two or more languages allows us to experience new ways of perceiving reality and makes us more versatile and better at acquiring knowledge?
I don't think bilinguals are smarter than monolinguals but I think they have some advantages in problem solving and finding new ways to acquire information. Have your many years of research given you a philosophical view on what it is to be human and on our potential for learning? I think that by learning about many different languages I have seen how arbitrary our world really is – how what we think is natural about the world is to a great extent because that's the way we've learned to talk about it. I made a table with the most common (and close) languages and focussed on the category of person and the present tense, for reasons of space. Why also Norwegian and Swedish have the same characteristics but not German, although they are all related languages?
I'm asking out of curiosity: Apart from Chinese and Japanese that I'm aware of (plus Swedish and Norwegian I mentioned above), are there examples of other languages with similar characteristics, regardless of being unrelated? This accounts for the 1sg and all of the plural forms becoming identical in the present tense.
French has suffered a similar loss of unstressed final syllables, which means that in speech the French verb has lost most of its distinct forms. Japanese is of mixed type where its verbal system in agglutinating which means words take multiple endings attached to each other each with a meaning rather than inflectional where one ending encapsulates several meanings. Proto-Indoeuropean did inflect for person and number and that takes a long time to disappear, so that's what most languages familiar to us still do. If you absolutely want to stress it's the first person singular, you can use a personal pronoun.
At the same time, the personal pronoun ego, being used so much, gradually acquired a simpler pronundation je. The various constitutive languages were mixed in a natural process in which nobody tried to make the result behave like Latin. It seems that for most Dutch speakers, standard Dutch is an averaged dialect, whereas for most Germans, standard German is an almost unchanging standard which dialect speakers learn like a foreign language. His many achievements include demonstrating the importance of cross-linguistic comparison in the study of language acquisition and of psycholinguistics in general, through research carried out in the United States, Turkey, Israel, Croatia, Spain and Holland.


Where language is important is in all of the parts of our mental life where there is no objective material reality – whether we consider somebody's actions right or wrong, whether we consider something dangerous or beautiful. If you have to do that every time you make any statement, you must question whether it influences the way you think about the validity of your statements. So it helps us understand much more about how spoken languages are constructed, to see how the mind can construct a language without speech, its different possibilities.
There's also some evidence that it's better for the brain –that bilinguals in old age have fewer problems of mental deterioration.
In that quotation from 1988 I was much more interested in what I call the 'innate factors' of language, but I don't believe that any more. These do not all have to be present in a given language just because it has a certain morphological typology.
Those were in my side question, where I was asking if other languages didn't inflect verbs according to person.
For various reasons, English is particularly progressive in many respects and has lost the inflections. In the course of the centuries, with increasing frequency people did that even when there wasn't a strong reason to stress anything.
We have a pronoun and a suffix, which both give the same information about person and number.
The suffixes will disappear more and more, until French verbs are marked for person and number by a prefix rather than a suffix. The endings got simpler in each dialect, but I guess in different dialects this happened differently. Apparently, speaking several languages builds up connections in the brain which then protect you from deterioration of particular parts of the brain.
I think what's innate is the capacity to build many different kinds of languages, but the structure of language itself is not part of what we were born with, so by gradually changing what I believed in 1988 I think I have more respect for the human mind, because what it has are capacities to build endlessly new types of patterns for storing information, for retrieving information, for recognizing the patterns, for communicating them to other people. The only languages I really considered were the ones beloning to the Germanic family and also the European ones that were the most close to English. When scholars wanted to create a written language standard (17th-18th century), they were not interested in simplifying the inflections, but in making them as similar to Latin as was possible by picking suitable endings from the various dialects. Professor Slobin was a guest speaker at the 6th International Congress on Language Acquisition, organized by the Association for the Study of Language Acquisition, which took place in September at the Faculty of Philology of the UB.
I don't think we can give a general principle for it, but think of the Catholic concept of sin –if there wasn't a word for sin, we wouldn't have the concept. So I think that language, if it's habitual and obligatory, does shape the way we think about some aspects of experience.
I think those parts of language which are background, which are unconscious, habitual, which you learn from when you're very little, do change the way we think about things.
If you want to learn how to speak Japanese you have twenty-five different ways to place yourself and the person you're speaking to in terms of status and respect and you can only do that by learning the social hierarchies through language.
There are a lot of people in the world carrying out interesting research into these areas, and in some cases it's very clear that language does affect the way we think, in other cases it's clear that language does not, and there are many thousands of cases that we simply haven't studied yet.



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