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  1. #1
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
    Frank Antonson is offline Senior Member
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    Default "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    At some point I heard the gradual disappearance of the case endings from Old English to Modern English described as the "decay" of the cases, this coming after a time when, I believe, Proto-Indo-European had seven (or maybe eight cases). I believe that the same word could be applied to the reduction of the importance of gender; and, in a related thread, the suggestion that "If I were" and "If I was" carry the same meaning strikes me as a decay in the use of subjunctive mood.

    I start this thread with some trepidation, but I would like to see a discussion. English, I believe has BY FAR the biggest vocabulary of any language, but does it have the same GRAMMATICAL ability to deal with nuances as other languages do?

  2. #2
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    English, I believe has BY FAR the biggest vocabulary of any language, but does it have the same GRAMMATICAL ability to deal with nuances as other languages do?
    Thanks for starting this potentially fascinating thread.

    To start with your question: My personal view, not supported by any serious research on my part, is that speakers of all languages can say anything and everything they might conceivably wish to say in their own language. If new concepts are introduced from outside, there may be a borrowing* of lexis, but the speaker's language will handle the grammar.

    English grammar has been, and will continue to be, influenced by the grammar of other languages. AmE, for example, has been influenced by Yiddish, and that influence is having its effect on other dialects. But this is part of the 'same GRAMMATICAL ability to deal with nuances as other languages'.

    The grammar of English has changed, and continues to change. To take one example, the progressive (continuous) aspect has been a comparatively recent addition to our range of tenses/aspects. A need was (not consciously!) felt, and the form appeared to satisfy that need.

    The 2011 grammar of English will not be able to cope with the needs of the speakers of 2111. But, by the time we get to 2111, the 2111 grammar of English will be able to cope with it.

    As you, rightly, point out, case endings in English have almost disappeared, as has the importance of grammatical (not natural) gender. Philo, if he joins this thread, will disagree, but I think that the subjunctive is 'decaying' in BrE.

    I think that's enough for a first response.


    * 'borrowing'. What a silly word. We are going to use it for a time and then hand it back?

    (And notice the American/Yiddish influence on that last [asterisked] sentence.)

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    orangutan is offline Member
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Perhaps this might be a good place to recommend Jean Aitchison's book Language Change: Progress or Decay?

  4. #4
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
    Frank Antonson is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Well, this thread is off to a good start.

    I worry a little, though, that dazzling academics could stand in the way of understanding.

    I would like to present myself as someone, somewhat simple-minded, and ask that the forthcoming exchanges be made "user friendly" to those not knowledgeable but wanting to understand, e.g. could you sum up Aitchison?

  5. #5
    NikkiBarber's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    An English teacher once told me that when part of a population moves to a different area then the language will develop slower in the new settlement. Is this true? Would this mean that British English is developing (decaying/progressing) quicker than American or Australian English?

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    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by NikkiBarber View Post
    An English teacher once told me that when part of a population moves to a different area then the language will develop slower in the new settlement. Is this true? Would this mean that British English is developing (decaying/progressing) quicker than American or Australian English?
    AmE appears to be more conservative (developing more slowly) in some areas of grammar*, but it appears to be quicker to take on new lexis. Other threads in this forum indicate that American rules about punctuation are stricter (more conservative?) than British.

    * In preserving the present subjunctive and objective whom, for example.

  7. #7
    orangutan is offline Member
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    Well, this thread is off to a good start.

    I worry a little, though, that dazzling academics could stand in the way of understanding.

    I would like to present myself as someone, somewhat simple-minded, and ask that the forthcoming exchanges be made "user friendly" to those not knowledgeable but wanting to understand, e.g. could you sum up Aitchison?
    Just meant as a tip for those who don't regard reading books as a dangerously academic activity. That is all I have time for at the moment.

  8. #8
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    "decay"
    If we are to discuss "decay" (or "progress", for that matter), we first need to establish how it might be measured.

    What would be your criteria, Frank?

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  9. #9
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    To take one example, the progressive (continuous) aspect has been a comparatively recent addition to our range of tenses/aspects.
    Yes; the establishment of the progressive passive was particularly recent (early to mid 19th century), and delayed by claims of barbarism; the same meaning would previously have been expressed with an active form. Thus where now we would say e.g.

    1. The house is being built.

    our great-great-grandfathers might have said:

    2. The house is building.

    (Examples can be found in e.g. the works of Jane Austen.)

    On the question of subjunctives and their supposed decay, it may be worth observing that our current conditional forms are themselves products of similar processes. Thus in the if-clause of the so-called 3rd conditional,

    3. If I had done X, Y would have happened.

    the apparent indicative derives from the (now assimilated) past perfect subjunctive; while in the 2nd conditional,

    4. If X were the case, Y would be the case.

    the verb in the main clause would once have been subjunctive:

    5. If X were the case, Y were the case.

    Hence the absurdity of supposing that early to mid 20th-century linguistic habits are in some sense particularly worthy of conservation. It's a little akin to suggesting that birdsong or the grunts and squealings of livestock are somehow not what they were.

    MrP

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  10. #10
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Decay" in aspects of English grammar

    Regarding my criteria...
    I am not sure.
    I am going to have to take my time with this thread. I did not create that term "decay". Maybe "abandonment" would have worked as well.
    If there has in fact been something lost, it may be hard for us, now, to realize it. Today, for example, I was thinking about the drift away from such words as "thither" or "whither" or "hence", "whence" etc. Or the distinction between "shall" and "will" (something that I believe has been written about extensively). In "Much Ado about Nothing" two adjacent lines go "I will be heard. And shall."
    At present, I am quite ready to accept that language must serve its users and that something can be said periphrastically that might otherwise be said with a single word e.g "to where" as opposed to "whither". In this particular example only two syllables are used in either case. But, now that I think of it, the "to" in "to where" would probably not be spoken, so that "where" is now serving two functions.

    Perhaps the most profitable example of what I am wondering about is what has happened to the second person pronoun in English, as compared to, say, for example, in Spanish -- or almost any other language. (I believe that Swedish, however, has also experienced the kind of "decay" that appears to have happened in English.)

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