English: US vs. British

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by leopold, Apr 16, 2011.

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I think that's very unlikely in any nation where almost everyone listens to radio and watches TV. The media have been a powerful force for leveling dialect differences in America, but also in the U.K. and even in sprawling, multinational hispanophone Latin America.
    There's no "system" of tonal differences. The differences between the meaning of the same one-syllable morpheme with the four tones (in Mandarin; other Chinese languages have as many as twelve) are utterly arbitrary. Not to mention with only 1,600 syllables possible in Mandarin phonetics, each morpheme has, on the average, three homonyms. There are no patterns here.
    Indeed. Cantonese, Shanghai and Fujian are the three besides Mandarin that we might conceivably encounter, since the people from those regions are all travelers. But there are several more.
    It's completely impossible. They are different languages. Since they're closely related (same words, same grammar, same syntax) it's not as hard for a speaker of one to learn another as it would be, say for a German to learn Vietnamese, but probably harder than for a Norwegian to learn Danish or a Finn to learn Estonian. If Chinese people want to communicate across language boundaries they have to do it in writing, which is the same for everybody.
    Since the communist takeover, making the entire population fluent in Mandarin has been a primary goal of the government--which, of course, is located in Beijing, the center of the Mandarin-speaking region. The people in Beijing call Mandarin guo yu, "national language," but people in other regions often simply call it bei jing hua, "Beijing speech."

    So currently all schools teach Mandarin and in non-Mandarin regions many classes are taught in Mandarin to encourage the children to adopt it as their primary language.
    Long before that happens, everyone under 40 will be fluent in Mandarin so the problem will have gone away.

    At this point they will be able to institute the phonetic writing system that has been waiting in the wings for decades. It will no longer be necessary to write in han zi in order to be sure that a person in Sichuan and a person in Liaoning can understand each other.

    Chinese is far more expressive, adaptable, and easier to speak and understand than English. It's a tremendous resource for the country as it tries to catch up from so many years of incompetent leadership. They'd be fools to adopt English, and if we've learned one thing about the Chinese people, they are not fools.
    You're reading a whole lot more into tonality than is there. It is not a system of inflections like, say, first tone means infinitive and second tone means past tense. They are totally arbitrary. Ji in first tone means "chicken," and ji in third tone means "how many?"
    Ain't gonna happen. You're on the wrong track with tonality.

    Besides, even though tones are not phonemic in English, they do express meaning. You use them to indicate happiness, anger, sarcasm, irony, impatience, etc. In Chinese you have to add more words to your sentence to compensate for the lack of oral bandwidth. Frankly I appreciate that since I often misunderstand subtle tones of voice. When my Chinese girlfriend was frustrated with me, she simply had to say so. When my wife is frustrated with me she gives "clues" that I can never figure out, or even get wrong!

    So to turn English into a tonal language, everyone would have to stop using tone to communicate feelings. What are the odds of that happening?
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  3. quadraphonics Bloodthirsty Barbarian Valued Senior Member

    ! Shocking... Why don't people demand their eggs be flipped during frying? I've never known anyone to prefer sunny side up to over easy (or medium or hard, if you prefer) on any grounds other than an inability to flip the egg without breaking the yolk. It baffles me that sunny side up persists anywhere, frankly... although I guess there must be people out there that prefer their fried eggs with a tough, chewy bottom and a runny, undercooked top. I just can't see why though.

    The one that kept getting me was in Germany. Apparently the convention for counting on one's hands there is that the thumb is "one," and then you add fingers from index to pinky to get 2-5. So we were always getting one more beer than we thought we'd ordered, along with insistence that we had ordered that many. This went on for days before someone noticed and explained it to us.

    I maintain that the standard (?) method of hand-counting wherein the index-through-pinky are used for 1-4, and the use of the thumb signals an even 5, is superior, if for no other reason than the ergonomics of producing a "4."
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  5. universaldistress Extravagantly Introverted ... Valued Senior Member

    Ah, ok Fraggle Rocker. So do you really think the Chinese language is more potent? Why? Their culture hasn't been as globally potent as the English speaking world's.

    Is there something more we could take from them lingually, and vice versa?
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  7. universaldistress Extravagantly Introverted ... Valued Senior Member

    The psychology a language fosters/creates would seem to me to be a fundamental issue in particular language's success?
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Any musician can move his fingers with considerably greater independence than the average person. It's just one of those things you gain control over with practice, especially if you start young when your whole body is more flexible. Apparently the Germans have been counting that way forever so they can all do it.

    I can give the Vulcan Finger. Index and pinkie down, other two up, spread into a V.
    You're joking. They brought Iron Age civilization, including Buddhism, Confucianism and the Bronze Age technology of writing, to all of East Asia. Without killing anybody or overthrowing their governments!
    The primary meaning of "lingually" is "with our tongues." I do enjoy their food.

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    I think we're doing okay with English. It's certainly a close second-best and it has a few handy tricks that Chinese doesn't, like the ability to assimilate words from other languages. Its grammar, while still recognizably Indo-European, has been streamlined so well that it's not a big impediment to learning. Like French, it's almost as compact as Chinese so it can be spoken slowly enough for non-native speakers to learn by immersion.

    And it's evolving nicely. I keep touting the noun-adjective compound because it proves that we can not only invent new words when we need them, but new kinds of words.
  9. universaldistress Extravagantly Introverted ... Valued Senior Member

    Not joking. While I agree that Chinese have had periods of pioneering endeavour. I do believe they went off the boil.

    So I would glean from your answer that it was more to do with social conditions than it was to do with the language spoken (many believe the oppressions of islamic religion caused the arab world to slow its scientific endeavours), the reason Chinese culture and development seemed to stagnate?

    What effects does a language feedback into a culture? Seems that the English language is a very potent scientific tool?

    The promise of ancient China was never fulfilled. While I really do respect their history and past achievements, I would be fascinated to know what happened within their culture to slow it down so much.

    Seems to me adaptability is a big asset. But also the inventiveness of speakers of the English language is a hard thing to compete with in modern times (I mean the biggies).

    What do you know of the relatively new study of the language a person speaks, and the effect it has in the brain? The psychological effects of the language spoken; the wiring in the brain of individuals who speak certain languages and the possible benefits or weaknesses this hardwires into the mind? It makes sense that there are differences. Is it possible that one language in particular has evolved to the point where it bestows a creative advantage to its speakers?

    Or is there too much more to these differences to pin them down to one tool of humanity (given it is a possibly the most potent application of mind at present)?
  10. universaldistress Extravagantly Introverted ... Valued Senior Member

    PS I do enjoy their food too. I just love trying new things, exotic flavours, etc.
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    So what great nation hasn't? Sumer? Egypt? Greece? Olmec? Rome? India? Persia? Bulgaria? Spain? Ottoman? England? The other dozen or two that didn't spring to mind? When the formula is discovered for indefinite renewal of one's fifteen minutes of fame, whether an individual, corporation, culture, or other entity, that will be quite a milestone in the history of civilization.

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    China has endured as a continuous political and cultural entity for more than three thousand years. I'd say that's quite an accomplishment, especially considering that for most of that time it has been the world's largest such entity, in both area and population.

    In order to do this, it has developed the ability to withstand foreign conquest, assimilating the new motifs that it finds valuable and sloughing off the rest, and ultimately assimilating the invaders themselves. The Mongols married into Chinese families, began speaking Chinese and adopting Chinese mannerisms, and eventually vanished by absorption. The Manchurians did the same thing, and it wasn't just the occupying force that was absorbed, but the entire country of Manchuria. Now it is dealing with its greatest challenge, the invasion of communism from neighboring Russia. And once again China prevails, crafting a form of communist government and industry that actually works, by hybridizing it with Confucianism.

    It was the Confucian culture that inhibited the development of science, because respect for one's ancestors and living elders damps the urge to find revolutionary new ways of doing things. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," could be the country's motto. But instead they have one that I love, although to be precise it is a curse: "May you live during interesting times." Don't we Americans, and perhaps all Westerners, feel right now like some Chinese guy must have put that curse on us?

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    They've maintained a continuity with their revered ancestors, back to a time when the Romans were a Neolithic tribe experimenting with agriculture, which gives them a comforting sense of family, community, and predictability, even during the worst times. It sure ain't our way, but it works for them.
    Actually the flowering of Arab science occurred at the beginning of the Muslim era. It has been persuasively argued that, on the contrary, it was Christianity in Europe that suppressed scholarship, research and innovation during the thousand years of ignorance and squalor that we affectionately call the Dark Ages. (Which are more than a little exaggerated but the name is not unwarranted.) The Arabs kept Greek proto-science, mathematics and philosophy alive (including the books themselves) while we waited for our Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment. Which, to cite another persuasive argument, was suspiciously coincidental with the importation of coffee from Ethiopia to a population that had been drunk on beer round-the-clock because their water was too polluted to drink.
    I have wondered about that as much as anyone, as my posts on SciForums frequently indicate. I've given a few examples.
    • A language that uses fewer syllables to express an idea can be spoken more slowly, allowing more thought to go into each word and making it easier for people from further away, who speak a different accent, dialect or language, to understand and build a larger community to pool its intellectual energy.
    • A language that does not compartmentalize the universe into arbitrary predefined compartments, such as present-past-future or noun-verb-adjective-adverb-preposition-whatever--allows thoughts to expand in new directions.
    • A language that makes it easy to create new words allows new ideas to be shared more readily.
    I'm sure Chomsky writes about this stuff, but at my age I'm not patient enough to wade through deep non-fiction while Alan Dean Foster is writing novels faster than I can read.
    And who are we to define its promise? Continuity is a great source of emotional comfort, and here we sit in a country that is only in its third century and may be on the verge of ruin, as its retired citizens uncaringly roam around in four-ton recreational vehicles with bumper stickers declaring, "We're spending our children's inheritance."
    You don't seem to regard continuity as an "achievement," but they sure do. Slowing down progress also slows down dissolution. Regardless of our degree of spirituality, all of us in the West live in an Abrahamic culture, which teaches us to trust in fate. The Confucian culture of the East teaches its members to trust in the wisdom of those who came before. That attitude wrestled the communist bear to the mat and ultimately domesticated it, so there must be something to it.
    Although as an (amateur) linguist I think that Chinese is a more adaptable language than English, for practical purposes English is nonetheless adaptable enough to be a resource in a rapidly changing world. Over the centuries we have simplified our grammar to loosen the constraints of the Proto-Germanic language of the Bronze Age. But now we are even changing the grammatical paradigm itself, for example by inventing a new kind of word, the noun-adjective compound, which loosens the constraints of the entire Indo-European way of viewing the world, which was formed in the Stone Age.
    Sounds like Chomsky's territory again. Nonetheless, it's clear that like a muscle, the brain can be shaped by exercise. The classic example is the brain of the London taxi driver, which has more cells than ours in the area that stores geographical information, so they can take you from any point in the city to any other by the most efficient route without stopping to ponder and plan.
  12. universaldistress Extravagantly Introverted ... Valued Senior Member

    I think you make a very moving and thoughtful response to what I said. And while I can see room for pushing my previous agenda (last big post) I think I would like to leave it there. Who AM I to cast judgement on such a successful story

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    I think anyone with savvy can reach their own conclusions here, pros and cons (personal opinion on what is more desirable).

    Who knows how long the Western way of life will be able to be maintained.

    May just have to book that flight to China one of these days

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    I think there will be a lot of discoveries in the psychology of languages, in the future. Will have to wait and see.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The next step in the evolution of civilization (which takes place at a higher level than the evolution of the individuals that are merely the cells of this super-organism) is clearly the long-awaited merge into one single world community. Our tribal conflicts won't automatically disappear, since our Inner Caveman still has his tribal instinct. But they will be damped by an overarching structure, just as today conflicts within a (non-dysfunctional) nation/tribe are usually less severe than conflicts between nations/tribes.

    For evidence one need only recall the wave of grief among Americans over the real-time cellphone video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying in the street in Iran, a country that we claim not to even like very much. The internet will save civilization by turning anonymous strangers into faces with names, families, hopes and dreams just like ours.

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    Anyway, the global civilization will take the best (and of course some of the not-so-good) from each of its components. Much of the Western way of life is admired in much of the world, so much of it will make the cut. But obviously other civilizations have their strong points too.

    The fundamental rule that makes civilization possible is: You may never kill anyone except in defense against an immediate threat of violence. Without this, we would all have to devote so much of our time, energy and other resources to protecting ourselves from each other that we would never produce the surplus wealth or "capital" that is the foundation of civilization. So one important part of the Western way of life that will endure is the rule of law and the prohibition against non-defensive killing. Hopefully by then including killing by the government. No more honor killings or capital punishment, much less testosterone-crazed SWAT teams with surplus military hardware.

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