How to learn languages – story so far

We have established so far that all major national languages in Western Europe are derived from Indo-European, a language which was itself of extraordinary complexity by modern standards. Its phonology was marked by aspiration, strong and various <h> sounds, and probably tonal distinction – making it in many ways quite unlike even its daughter languages such as Classical Latin and Old Norse. Grammatically it was also quite distinct, exhibiting distinction by case, use of postpositions as often as prepositions, distinction primarily by aspect rather than tense, and a wide range of declensions and conjugations. Nevertheless, core vocabulary and basic aspects of grammar are already in some ways familiar.

We took at the oldest script in any Germanic language, the 4th century Bible translation into Gothic, to see how Germanic had developed in the centuries after Christ; and notably we also looked at Vulgar or Late Latin, which itself already demonstrated half the changes from Classical Latin to modern Latinate languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. These languages are more markedly modern phonologically, as they have generally lost tonal distinctions and the range of <h> sounds. They are also grammatically a little closer, distinguishing more definitively by tense rather than aspect and beginning to shift decisively towards using prepositions (rather than postpositions or case). However, they remain strange; in spoken form they would be utterly unrecognisable, and even in written form they look familiar but are still distant.

We also saw, through Middle English, how modern written standards are often based on Medieval pronunciation (we will see how remarkably often this is the case as we go on). Here, as one correspondent noted, we also see how inadequate the so-called “Latin” alphabet really is to represent the complexity and combination of sounds actually used in modern speech. This is so complex that even the invented language Esperanto, with 28 letters, failed to deliver on its own avowed objective of one sound to one letter. We have also seen how social disruption (such as the Black Death) or technological disruption (such as the invention of the Printing Press) can have dramatic effects on language change – either encouraging it or stalling it (although, as one correspondent noted, these effects generally speed up or stall processes already ongoing, rather than causing new ones).

I am always grateful for correspondence on this series – next up, we are moving to the modern day with a look at contemporary Standard Italian.

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2 thoughts on “How to learn languages – story so far

  1. korhomme says:

    The English alphabet with 26 letters struggles with the 42 – 44 different sunds in spoken Engish. There have been at least three attempts to improve on this; the International Phonetic Alphabet, the simplified spelling of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, and most curious of all, the Shavian Alphabet with 48 letters established by the will of George Bernard Shaw. None has had widespread, universal success.

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