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Richness of a language

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Richness of a language

Postby Lavrentivs » Sun Feb 12, 2012 10:16 pm

There was a discussion of this a while ago, where someone maintained that no language is inhærently richer than another. And I just had this idea: could one not make the mean number of manners of expressing the same thought a measure for such richness?
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby adrianus » Mon Feb 13, 2012 12:29 am

Try it with a single thought, Laurentius.
Sic facias, Laurenti, cum sententiâ singulâ.
I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Sinister Petrus » Tue Feb 14, 2012 7:32 am

In a real sense, all languages are equal. Think about it: does learning Latin fundamentally change how you experience the world? Do you see new colors? Do you hear new sounds? Sure, you may divide up what you see and hear in different ways, but the actual sensory perception is the same. Only the words hung on it are different.

Alternately, if Latin is richer than English, why do people continue to speak English? Is an English speaker somehow less human for speaking English and not Latin? (And of course vice versa.) That seems to be to be one possible argument that can be made out of the notion of any language being inherently richer than another.

But I'll listen to you wax poetic about the awesome that is Latin tongue. She's my love.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Carolus Raeticus » Tue Feb 14, 2012 3:03 pm

Salve!

Sinister Petrus wrote:In a real sense, all languages are equal.

I definitely do not agree with you. I believe in Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous quote "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.". And languages do indeed differ in their limits, both as far as vocabulary and grammar are concerned. Some (aboriginal) languages, for example, hardly have any words for larger quantities. Is such a language really as "rich" as a modern language when dealing with an environment and reality in which "quantities" are very important? In their own environment these aboriginal languages certainly do the job well enough, but outside of that they simply don't work. At that point vocabulary and sometimes entire grammatical structures have to be imported into these languages (or what probably happens more often, these languages start to wither). So, in a very real sense, these languages are poorer than the modern ones (and please don't come up with complaints about xenophoby). They put constraints on what people can express (and even what they can think). And that certainly is prove enough for languages not being equal.

Sinister Petrus wrote:Think about it: does learning Latin fundamentally change how you experience the world? Do you see new colors? Do you hear new sounds? Sure, you may divide up what you see and hear in different ways, but the actual sensory perception is the same. Only the words hung on it are different.

I disagree. What about the example of the Inuit and their large vocabulary for snow and ice? Their vocabulary reflects their specific relationship with the environment. Someone from the tropical regions does not need this knowledge, so their languages are not suited to deal with the subtle variations of snow. I would go so far as to say that their language makes them blind to these variations (at least to a certain degree). Of course, given time they (and their language) would adapt and create a vocabulary for this environment. But the Inuit's language already provides the tools for this environment. So, in this case their language is richer.

Another example, I like to go hiking. And I have often noticed that I do not really see flowers unless I know their name. Only once I have "identified" them, they become real. Before that I find it very difficult to differentiate between similar looking yellow flowers, for example. Vocabulary, in my opinion, is a nifty tool to compress information about the world. To me, vocabulary is not merely a sequence of letters pointing to an image. Instead, it is a huge categorization scheme. Words often represent entire "concepts" (just look at all those objects which can be represented by the word "table"). Some languages have a greather depth than others. And where they have greather depth, they are "richer".

So far, I have dealt mostly with vocabulary because that part of language is easy to see. Structures of language (which tenses exist? capabilities of the plural?) are far more subtle. I leave it to more competent people to deal with those, but I am confident that the same is true for that aspect of language.

What does "richness" mean in the context of languages? In my opinion, the less constraints the structure of a language sets (too few tenses are constraints, for example), the richer it is. The greater its vocabulary, the richer it is. I am sure that there are relatively "impoverished" languages (which work fine in their own environment but are not good at handling different contexts). This claim of mine may not be popular but I assure you that it is not intended to be racist or xenophobic. Every language has its specific strengths and weaknesses. That's okay. One shouldn't negate the existence of these differences, however.

Vale,

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Re: Richness of a language

Postby thesaurus » Tue Feb 14, 2012 8:27 pm

This discussion seems to come up periodically with regards to Latin/English.

At the end of the day, languages are in continuous flux, and users will always change their languages so that they can express whatever they want to express. English, Latin, and "aboriginal" languages have all undergone this process and will continue to do so.

The debate is essentially about whether "linguistic relativity" and its extreme formulation, "linguistic determinism" (which Wittgenstein supports), are legitimate arguments. This idea of relativity was propounded by Benjamin Whorf, but his claims have turned out to be too strong/speculative. For example, he believed that the Hopi language's grammar relating to time determined their conception about the passage of time, and that they viewed/understood the world in a fundamentally different, non-linearly way because of this. It turns out that this isn't really true.

Although some research has suggested that languages may constrain/affect the way we think and interperet the world, most empirical studies have downplayed the significance. There have been a number of studies on how speakers of different languages perceive color, because some languages conceive of many discrete colors, while others may only acknowledge a handful of colors. The question, then, is whether someone whose language only recognizes five colors can even perceive as distinct a color that falls between these categories. Similar studies have also been done with counting and spatial relations. I also recall studies dealing with the use of grammatical gender/formality in languages.

Ultimately, I think languages may affect the way we think about/perceive the world, but probably only in very subtle ways. I think we are too quick to ascribe many differences to language, when these differences are actually the result of many other cultural and social factors. It doesn't help that languages are strongly associated with specific groups of people. I think this is the same sort of tendency by which we assume that there is something "inherent" or "natural" to a group of people that makes them act or think a certain way, rather than attributing this difference to something circumstantial.

By the way, the claim that eskimos/inuits have many words for snow is a common but apocryphal claim. The concept, though, that different languages may have richer vocabularies in certain areas, is certainly true.
Horae quidem cedunt et dies et menses et anni, nec praeteritum tempus umquam revertitur nec quid sequatur sciri potest. Quod cuique temporis ad vivendum datur, eo debet esse contentus. --Cicero, De Senectute
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Lavrentivs » Wed Feb 15, 2012 6:49 pm

A countryman is a rusticus. To live in the country is rusticari. I have a feeling that in Lt. and Gr. paronyms can generally be coined rather inconspicuously. And I have a feeling that this is something that makes them richer and more alive, and better suited for litterature. Cicero could not write "at haec studia .. pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur" without this flexibility. Of course, we can write "rusticate", but I think it is more general in Gr. and Lt. Looking forward to read more of your intelligent replies.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Nooj » Wed Feb 15, 2012 9:21 pm

Some (aboriginal) languages, for example, hardly have any words for larger quantities. Is such a language really as "rich" as a modern language when dealing with an environment and reality in which "quantities" are very important? In their own environment these aboriginal languages certainly do the job well enough, but outside of that they simply don't work. At that point vocabulary and sometimes entire grammatical structures have to be imported into these languages (or what probably happens more often, these languages start to wither). So, in a very real sense, these languages are poorer than the modern ones (and please don't come up with complaints about xenophoby). They put constraints on what people can express (and even what they can think). And that certainly is prove enough for languages not being equal.
When languages need to do something, they invent it. Vocabulary is the best example. Latin had few terms relating to technical fields like philosophy or linguistics until Cicero started creating them on the analogy of Greek. Aboriginal languages are no different.

Many Aboriginal languages in my country didn't have words for numbers beyond four of five. An Australian Aboriginal language I studied for example, had one, two, three, four, five (the word for hand), and then another word for 'lots'. For whatever reason, they simply had no need of more number words. I'd hardly call that poorer, since it communicates effectively in its own context, probably more so than English could. If this language had to be a language used by scientists, then obviously more number words would be invented.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by the way, is generally not accepted in the linguistics community. For some reason, it seems to have taken on a life of its own in the general public.
Dolor poetas creat.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby timeodanaos » Wed Feb 15, 2012 10:12 pm

How is this actually relevant for anything or anyone?

Of course there are differences between different languages and how they express different concepts. Some of these differences (mostly lexical) are culturally determined. That is interesting, if one intends to communicate with a person of this other linguistic/cultural sphere or make some sort of comparative research. But the need to rank languages according to some arbitrarily conceived notion of richness is something for people who are interested in hit album charts, rankings of the richest people in the world - and think there is something significant to be drawn from those rankings about the human worth of those ranked. Wake up, we're not in the nineteenth century anymore, friends!

This is just my opinion, of course. I respect the right of every man to pursue his happiness in the way he sees most fit. Even if it be ranking languages according to richness. beatus ille qui procul negotiis.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby adrianus » Thu Feb 16, 2012 6:47 pm

I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Sinister Petrus » Sat Feb 18, 2012 2:33 am

Carolus Raeticus wrote:I definitely do not agree with you. I believe in Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous quote "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.". And languages do indeed differ in their limits, both as far as vocabulary and grammar are concerned.


Sorry. Wittgenstein is wrong on this. I *think* I understand what he is trying to get at, but from a linguistic standpoint it is untrue. (If you get the sense that I really dislike the notion of some languages are inherently better than others, you'd be right. If you sense that I dislike strong interpretations of Sapir-Whorf, you'd be right. Nevertheless, I do love Latin and Ancient Greek out of proportion to the others—but that's personal.) http://www.polysyllabic.com/?q=navigati ... o/equality

Carolus Raeticus wrote:…sometimes entire grammatical structures have to be imported into these languages…


Like the future tense in English. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/language ... 05471.html

Carolus Raeticus wrote:I disagree. What about the example of the Inuit and their large vocabulary for snow and ice?


Myth. http://www.derose.net/steve/guides/snowwords/ (And he even ties in Greek.)
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Lavrentivs » Sat Feb 18, 2012 9:53 pm

It's annoying that people assume that this has anything to do with the worth of individuals and take it as an opportunity to engage in polemy. When I posed my quæstion, I took it for granted that the purpose of a language is beauty and spirit, not communication. Is there anything provocative in claiming or asking whether the piano is a more subtle instrument than the synthesizer? Which is admittedly not a particularly interesting quæstion -- you take it for granted that it is -- until someone claims that all instruments are æqual.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby timeodanaos » Sun Feb 19, 2012 12:33 pm

Lavrentivs wrote:When I posed my question, I took it for granted that the purpose of a language is beauty and spirit, not communication. Is there anything provocative in claiming or asking whether the piano is a more subtle instrument than the synthesizer?
But the purpose of language is communication in its widest sense <1>. Beauty and spirit - those are concepts I know nothing of in any sort of linguistic discourse, but they would appear to be aesthetic in nature. "de gustibus non disputandum" is my personal answer to any such question.

The real question is, now that you have cleared up that this is an aesthetic question, whether any object or concept can be inherently beautiful. Can they? Are there markers that can be detected positively and measured that any thing takes part in beauty and spirit (a term I'm afraid I really don't understand)?


<1> the widest sense of communication I agree includes appeals to human emotion, something that might be argued to have to do with a person's sense of aesthetic concepts, but that sort of communication works mostly in ways that are not inherent in the language, cf. the somewhat vague notion of 'pragmatics', or communicates concepts of value that are not in themselves linguistic.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby jbutle04 » Mon Mar 05, 2012 10:00 am

@ Laurentivs, æ is not a grapheme used in contemporary English orthography. Nor does it serve any phonetic purpose. Your word "quæstion" (not to mention "æqual" [!]) is misspelled. And obnoxious.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Lavrentivs » Mon Mar 05, 2012 6:51 pm

Oh, sorry, I never noticed that before. On the other hand, what about "æsthetic"?
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Baker » Fri Mar 09, 2012 1:18 pm

jbutle04 wrote:@ Laurentivs, æ is not a grapheme used in contemporary English orthography. Nor does it serve any phonetic purpose. Your word "quæstion" (not to mention "æqual" [!]) is misspelled. And obnoxious.


Lavrentivs wrote:Oh, sorry, I never noticed that before. On the other hand, what about "æsthetic"?


:D jbutle04, your comment, I think, drives to the heart of the matter. Dissecting language with words like grapheme, orthography, and phonetic, purposefully avoids the more difficult and interesting questions such as one on the richness of a language. Physics has done the same thing, following from Descartes, Galileo, Newton, et al., by avoiding questions of true causes and focusing more on mathematical descriptions of motion.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Grochojad » Fri Mar 09, 2012 4:55 pm

Baker wrote:purposefully avoids the more difficult and interesting questions such as one on the richness of a language.


We can start with such interesting topics as purity of race and superiority of a certain religion, as it makes as much sense as "richness of the language"(sic!).
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Lavrentivs » Sun Mar 11, 2012 2:15 pm

How, pray, does my comment "drive to the heart of the matter"?

As to your comparison: if I am not mistaken, you are referring to the fact that on Newton's time it was difficult to accept a force pulling without direct contact. Similarly, it is still difficult for some to accept that consciousness does not require some mysterious addition to the material brain to exist. But I fail to see how this thought is obviously parallel to anything that is to do with the richness of a language, so if you would condescend to a slightly more pædagogical sophism, I'd be grateful.

Praeterea La Rochefoucauld memento:

Une des choses qui fait que l'on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c'est qu'il n'y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu'il veut dire qu'à répondre précisément à ce qu'on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l'on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu'on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu'ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c'est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu'on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Baker » Mon Mar 12, 2012 1:21 pm

Lavrentivs wrote:How, pray, does my comment "drive to the heart of the matter"?

As to your comparison: if I am not mistaken, you are referring to the fact that on Newton's time it was difficult to accept a force pulling without direct contact. Similarly, it is still difficult for some to accept that consciousness does not require some mysterious addition to the material brain to exist. But I fail to see how this thought is obviously parallel to anything that is to do with the richness of a language, so if you would condescend to a slightly more pædagogical sophism, I'd be grateful.

Praeterea La Rochefoucauld memento:

Une des choses qui fait que l'on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c'est qu'il n'y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu'il veut dire qu'à répondre précisément à ce qu'on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l'on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu'on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu'ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c'est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu'on puisse avoir dans la conversation.


It wasn't your comment, by the way, but the one of jbutle04.

I was trying to make a statement about how jbutle's technical focus on the letters you use completely avoids any comment on the more difficult question of richness. Modern science, beginning most completely with Newton, avoids the questions about true causes and instead focuses on mathematical descriptions of what is happening. It is a poor analogy, I admit, and unlikely to be fruitful here.

Perhaps a better analogy is this. What jbutle said about your letters is like when I say to my teenager, "You won't be able to afford the apartment you want if you keep spending your money rather than saving it," and she answers, "It isn't an apartment, it's a townhouse!"
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Lavrentivs » Mon Mar 12, 2012 3:14 pm

Pardon, Baker, I thought you were iste impertinens, maybe because you quoted me instead of him; I read your @ @ him as your name. And consequently I read about the reverse of what you meant. But now I see the point of your comparison, except I'm uncertain whether you mean to say that the quæstions Newton avoided shouldn't be? Regardless of that, I think you're right.
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby rustymason » Mon Mar 12, 2012 6:04 pm

This is a little punny:

The Agamemnon Rag
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/171199
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Re: Richness of a language

Postby Lex » Fri Mar 16, 2012 2:43 am

"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him."
- Saul Bellow

I gotta side with Saul and Carolus on this one. English is a Creole of Anglo-Saxon and medieval French, both of with had some literature of their own. That, together with a liberal sprinkling of Latin without the mediation of the Gauls, and some Greek, all thanks to linguistic pedants of an earlier age. Not to mention that it is the inheritor of the combined thought of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. I can't help but think that perhaps English is therefore a bit more subtil than languages that don't have such a pedigree.
I, Lex Llama, super genius, will one day rule this planet! And then you'll rue the day you messed with me, you damned dirty apes!
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