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为什么广泛使用的语言,语法却更简单?

时间: 2019-08-18 18:39 作者:admin 来源:转载 点击:

Big and basic

语言的至大而简

 

Why widely spoken languages have simpler grammar

为什么广泛使用的语言语法却更简单?

 

Stalin spoke Russian as a second language. The Georgian dictator of the Soviet Union had a noticeable accent and is said to have mumbled his case-endings. The tale indicates two things. One is that learning new languages is hard, even with a great deal of exposure. (Stalin started learning Russian at around ten and spoke it all his adult life.) The other is that languages are more complex than they need to be. Not having mastered all Russian’s finer points didn’t keep Stalin from ruling the Soviet Union with a murderously effective iron hand. Russian really is hard for learners, and a casual comparison might serve the conclusion that big, prestigious languages like Russian are complex. Just look, after all, at their rich, technical vocabularies, and the complex industrial societies that they serve.

 

俄语是斯大林的第二语言。这位出生于格鲁吉亚的苏联领袖说俄语带着浓重口音,据说他词尾的发音一直模糊不清。这则轶事表明两个道理:其一,即使长时间沉浸在语言环境中,学习新语言也十分不易(斯大林10岁左右开始学俄语,成年后也一直使用俄语);其二,语言的复杂程度超出了实际需要。没有完全掌握俄语的细枝末节,并不妨碍斯大林以可怕的铁腕统治苏联。俄语的确是一门比较难的语言,随便对比一下就可能会得出结论:像俄语一样著名的、庞大的语言都非常复杂。毕竟你只要看一看它那丰富的专业词汇和所服务的复杂工业社会就能想象得到。

 

But linguists who have compared languages systematically are struck by the opposite conclusion. They tend to find that “big” languages—spoken by large numbers over a big land area—are actually simpler than small, isolated ones. This is largely because linguists, unlike laypeople, focus on grammar, not vocabulary. Consider Berik, spoken in a few villages in eastern Papua. It may not have a word for “supernova”, but it drips with complex rules: a mandatory verb ending tells what time of day the action occurred, and another indicates the size of the direct object. Of course these things can be said in English, but Berik requires them. Remote societies may be materially simple; “primitive”, their languages are not.

 

但是,作过系统对比后,语言学家惊奇地发现得出的结论是相反的。他们发现,大语种——覆盖较大地域、使用人口较多的语言——比孤立的小语种更加简单。归其原因,主要是语言学家不同于外行人,他们关注的焦点在语法,而非词汇。比如只在巴布亚岛东部的几个村子里使用的贝里克(Berik)语中虽然没有像“supernova(超新星)这样的单词,但是却拥有复杂的语法规则:动词尾必须有一个表明该动作发生时间的后缀,和一个表明直接宾语物体大小的后缀。当然,英语里面也有类似的语法结构,可对于贝里克语来说,这些语法结构必不可少。偏远地区社会的物质条件可能相对简单,但他们的语言并非如此。

 

Systematically so: a study in 2010 of thousands of tongues found that smaller languages have more Berik-style grammatical bits and pieces attached to words. By contrast, bigger ones tend to be like English or Mandarin, in which words change their form little if at all. No one knows why, but a likely culprit is the very scale and ubiquity of such widely travelled languages.

 

系统性地来看确实如此2010年的一项针对上千种语言的研究发现:小语种的词汇带有更多类似贝里克语的语法词缀。相反,像英语和普通话这样的大语种,词汇形式要么不变,要么变化的很少。没有人知道原因,但这可能与大语种的规模性和普遍性有关。

 

As a language spreads, more foreigners come to learn it as adults (thanks to conquest and trade, for example). Since languages are more complex than they need to be, many of those adult learners will—Stalin-style—ignore some of the niceties where they can. If those newcomers have children, the children will often learn a slightly simpler version of the language from their parents.

 

随着语言的传播,学习语言的成年外国人越来越多(比如由于征服和贸易)。因为语言的复杂程度远远超出了实际需求,很多成年语言学习者会像斯大林那样忽略一些语言细节。如果这些外来人士有子女,子女从父辈那里学到的语言会是更加简化一点的版本。

 

But a new study, conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Nijmegen in the Netherlands, has found that it is not entirely foreigners and their sloppy ways that are to blame for languages becoming simpler. Merely being bigger was enough. The researchers, Limor Raviv, Antje Meyer and Shiri Lev-Ari, asked 12 groups of four strangers and 12 groups of eight to invent languages to describe a group of moving shapes on the screen. They were told that the goal was to rack up points for communicating successfully over 16 rounds. (They “talked” by keyboard and were forbidden to use their native language, Dutch.)

 

然而,位于荷兰奈梅亨的马克斯普朗克心理语言学研究所进行的一项新研究表明,语言趋向简化并不完全归咎于外来者和他们偷懒的说话方式。语言使用范围扩大化本身就是个充分的缘由。研究人员,利摩拉维夫(Limor Raviv)、安杰迈耶(Antje Meyer)和希里列夫-阿里(Shiri Lev-Ari把互不认识的志愿者分成十二个四人一组的小组和十二个八人一组的小组。实验内容是让这些志愿者发明一套语言来描述屏幕上一组移动的图形。他们的目标是在16轮信息传递中获得较高的累计得分。(他们用键盘交流,且不得使用母语荷兰语)

 

Over time both big and small groups got better at making themselves understood, but the bigger ones did so by creating more systematic languages as they interacted, with fewer idiosyncrasies. The researchers suppose that this is because the members of the larger groups had fewer interactions with each other member; this put pressure on them to come up with clear patterns. Smaller groups could afford quirkier languages, because their members got to “know” each other better.

 

随着时间的推移,无论是八人组还是四人组,在交流沟通上都越来越顺畅;然而,八人组在互动中使用的语言更加系统,个人特征较少。研究人员认为,这是因为八人组内彼此间互相交流的次数较少,迫使他们采用更清晰的语言模式。四人组则可以忍受更加难懂的语言,因为他们成员间相互了解得更透彻。

 

Neither the more systematic nor the more idiosyncratic languages were “better”, given group size: the small and large groups communicated equally well. But the work provides evidence that an idiosyncratic language is best suited to a small group with rich shared history. As the language spreads, it needs to become more predictable.

 

对不同大小的群体而言,系统性更强的语言和特质化更强的语言之间没有优劣之分:大群体和小群体内部的沟通效果不相上下。但这项研究同时表明,特质化的语言最适合那些拥有丰富共同经历的小群体。随着语言的传播,它需要变得更具有规律性。

 

Taken with previous studies, the new research offers a two-part answer to why grammar rules are built—and lost. As groups grow, the need for systematic rules becomes greater; unlearnable in-group-speak with random variation won’t do. But languages develop more rules than they need; as they are learned by foreign speakers joining the group, some of these get stripped away. This can explain why pairs of closely related languages—Tajik and Persian, Icelandic and Swedish, Frisian and English—differ in grammatical complexity. In each couple, the former language is both smaller and more isolated. Systematicity is required for growth.Lost complexity is the cost of foreigners learning your language. It is the price of success.

 

结合先前的研究,这项新研究给出了导致语法规则建立和退化的两大原因。随着群体壮大,对系统性语言的需求随之上升;小群体使用的语言模式无法学习且缺少规则,所以不再适用。然而,产出的语法规则数量超出了实际需要;当加入的外来者开始学习这门语言时,会导致一部分语言规则丧失。这一点可以解释,塔吉克语和波斯语、冰岛语和瑞典语、弗里西语和英语等亲属语言对,在语法复杂性方面有所差异的原因。在上述几对语言中,前一种语言使用人数更少,也相对独立。系统性是语言扩张的前提。语言复杂性的丧失,是外来者学习该语言所带来的代价,也是该语言取得成功必须付出的代价。

 

注:Frisian 弗里西语

弗里西语,一门由居住在荷兰弗里斯兰省、弗里西群岛及德国北部石荷州北弗里斯兰地区的当地人使用的语言,使用总人口约为50万人。弗里西语为荷兰两大官方语言之一,在德国作为少数民族语言受到保护。

 

翻译组:

Frank,男,小硕,经济学人的死侍

Nikolai,子承父业,蛋糕厂员工,AKB49

Zoey,女,材料专业在读博士生,英语语言爱好者

 

校对组:

Alex,男,工科研究生,文学与科学爱好者,经济学人忠实读者

Helen,女,坐标武汉,职业翻译,翻硕已毕业英语二笔二口,爱好陶笛洞箫古诗词

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