Re: Languages, "modern" and otherwise

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Wed, 21 Aug 1996 21:58:48 -0400

In message <19960821142757.AAA20234@LOCALNAME> Robert Snower writes:

> Speaking French: Est-ce que le chat noir est . . . ? (hope it is good
> French--I put the t in the wrong place above) I am trying to show that in
> French, unlike English, the "is" does not come out of the middle of the
> sentence when turning it into a question.

Right. French has a different rule for question-formation. Rather than move
'be' to the front, French inserts 'is it that' in front. The example I gave is

> Not responsive to my question. In your argument from Chomsky I thought you
> were arguing that innateness was proved by an order, which I am suggesting
> does not apply to the Latin and Greek, so cannot prove innateness.

Again, no. I was probably unclear. The innateness argument has to do with
speakers' apparent awareness, prior to experience, of underlying phrase
structure and constraints on movement, which according to Chomsky would apply
equally to Latin or Greek, although in different particular ways but always
within the boundaries of what is a possible human language.

> What is the consensus rationale for this great change [from Latin to Spanish,
> French, etc.]? Or isn't there one?

A lot of language change is probably analogous to genetic drift: change from one
generation to another which builds up, over time, and which is the result of
what one might call sampling error. No generation of native speakers of a
language speaks exactly like their parents, much less like their grandparents,
and so on.

At the same time, some processes of change may have a physiological
underpinning. For example, in the English Great Vowel Shift tense mid front and
back vowels rose as follows:
'keep' [ke:p] --> [ki:p]
'moon' [mo:n] --> [mu:n]

Already high tense front and back vowels became diphthongs:
'wife' [wi:f] --> [wayf]
'mouse' [mu:s] --> [maws]

And so on. William Labov suggested (don't have the ref handy) that this was
part of a natural phonological process in which tense vowels, which are
pronounced with exagerrated tension of the tongue muscle, would end up higher
over time. To make way for these rising vowels, the already high tense vowels
fell into the center and diphthongized.

And, of course, some changes are due to borrowing, creolization, etc.

Gotta go.

Ron Kephart