Chapter Fourteen: LANGO Grammar

Since the international auxiliary language will be taught to children in every school of the world, the difficulties of grammatical redundancy and irregularity will have to be addressed. This is because, as researchers have discovered (and experience shows), children prefer a certain level of grammar to a minimal grammar; and they tend to spontaneously regularise grammar where it is is irregular. Thus creoles are essentially created by children who, learning pidgins as mother-tongues, gradually elaborate them by the addition of grammar and vocabulary.

The reason for this tendency is evident. Pidgins developed to facilitate transactions exclusively between adults. In a context where the ground rules of social interaction are mostly understood, and the purpose is mundane rather than transcendent, no more than a minimal grammar is necessary. But children are primarily concerned to orient themselves in an unfamiliar world, and to establish the precise meaning of a situation - as indicated by the syntax, tense, mood, voice and inflections of speech.

The corollary of this finding is that children are deterred less by complex grammar than by redundancy and irregularity. For example, the Turkish inflectional system is fairly intricate, but Turkish children normally master it well before the age of two because it is completely regular and straightforward . An oft-quoted illustration combines the noun "el" ("hand") with the inflections "-im" (first person possessive), "-ler" (plural) and "-de" (locative):

el   "hand"

elim   "my hand"

elde   "in hand"

elimde "in my hand"

eller  "hands"

ellerim   "my hands"

ellerde   "in hands"

ellerimde "in my hands"

Similarly, relative clauses (i.e. those beginning "who, which or that" in English) are so straightforward in Serbo-Croat that most Serbian and Croatian children have likewise mastered them by the age of two. Other languages also have grammatical features of exemplary regularity which children learn to use without difficulty. The international language committee will no doubt look at all such instances in order to assemble the best grammar from all sources.

An interesting fact about the above two examples is that their converse shows some of the worst grammatical practice. Both Turkish relative clauses and Serbo-Croat inflections are incoherent and excessively complicated. The children of these nations struggle to make sense of them, and do not normally use them competently until about the age of five. This conjunction between the regular and straightforward and the confusing and opaque is typical of national languages. For instance, in English we see a relatively simple grammar conjoined with a relatively difficult orthography, and in Finnish and Hungarian the reverse. There appears to be an inherent shibboleth function in national tongues, seemingly designed to identify foreigners and/or those who have not mastered the language properly.

The same psychological constraints will inevitably apply within the international auxiliary language, so any reforms will have to take cognizance of conflicting considerations: firstly, that the international pre-eminence of English is related to its current level of grammar, and secondly that English-speakers who use a rather different grammar should be represented or catered for as far as possible (according to the wisdom of Webster's dictum "Grammar should derive from language, rather than language from grammar").

The present controversy about black American English or "Ebonics" illustrates this tension. Defining Ebonics as a separate language solves nothing, but neither does the non-accommodating status quo. Sensible grammatical reform would align itself with such dialects as far as mainstream opinion and historical continuity allowed. Moreover, grammatical irregularities which presently cause children problems might be rationalised by adopting the best practice elsewhere.

The English-based creoles provide some ideas in these simplifying and rationalising directions. The operation of the word-order principle in English has rendered superfluous all noun cases except the genitive, as well as adjectival agreement etc.. However, the creoles have pushed the principle harder in order to achieve further economies, including the abolition of the genitive. Some of the more promising creole constructions, with reference to their possible use in the revision of English, include the following (in order to illustrate the grammatical point they are artificially written in Standard English - in practice an orthographic rendering of creole speech should be spelt very differently [e.g. "the" would normally be "de" etc.]):

(1) The third person singular does not alter verb declension in the present tense: e.g. "he run, she sing". (It is difficult to find grounds for objecting to this one.)

(2) Possession may be denoted by juxtaposing nouns rather than using the genitive with the apostrophe: e.g. "this woman child, that man field". (The context normally distinguishes the genitive from the adjective; the more rigorous use of hyphens and compound words would help to distinguish them on the page. Other languages dispense with the genitive, e.g. Welsh: "llyfr John, llyfr coch" "John's book, red book".)

(3) A plural is often not marked by an [s]: e.g. "two house, them rabbit". (Determining whether "sheep, deer, fish, cod, grouse, Portuguese, Swiss, Maori" etc. are single or plural is hardly a problem in English. Chinese usually does without plurals. Eliminating the plural would abolish irregular forms like man/men, child/children, mouse/mice etc.. Plurals can often be identified by numerals or pronouns; a plural definite article like the French "les" [the plural "the"], or the Chinese plural marker "xie" ["some"], might help.  

(4) Verbs are negated by the word "no": e.g. "he no work today". (Old English used the same construction with the prefix "ne-" for "no", exactly as in Scottish English, Russian, and other languages. Also "ne-" might replace "un-"/"in-". English already uses "never" in a similar way.)

(5) Adjectives are used as adverbs: e.g. "he walk silent, she sing soft". (Word order allows this. Words are entities which may often be used interchangeably as noun, verb, adjective or adverb: e.g. arm, foot, back, up, right, top, shine, love, dog, plant, air, etc., etc..)

(6) Auxiliary verbs like "be" or "do" are often omitted: e.g. "the sun hot, he old man, them hungry, why you bring this?". (There seems to be little problem with this one if the omitted auxiliary or copula is understood to be in the present tense. Russian also does without the copula in the present tense e.g. "he engineer".)

(7) Serial verbs are commonly used in creoles: e.g. "she go try find it, he start run escape". (This would be a most useful reform if it could be done without introducing ambiguity between the infinitive ("to" escape) and the noun. In English the "to" is sometimes omitted from the infinitive as being understood. The infinitive is essentially a self-directed imperative.)

As previously emphasised, no more than an offspring or copy of English would be reformed, though the main body of the language might be influenced indirectly. Moreover, it is likely that the pidginising influence of the global media would be transferred on to this grammatically-simplified and orthographically regular language. For the dynamics of the market economy, and the high capital cost of launching any new media product, whether an advertisement, film, TV show, pop record, computer game or other fashion item, are such that the multinationals are concerned above all to maximise global access. A pidginised international language might well be irresistible for this very reason. Thus English, and the other mother tongues, might be freed from the trivialising influence of these things.

It is probable, then, that the international auxiliary language, towards which LANGO is proposed as an initial stage, will have a grammar of the utmost simplicity so that it might permeate everywhere with the aid of the mass-media. But what will happen to the mother-tongues meantime? It is certain that they will continue, for a very long time, as custodians of speech and grammar. For instance, the English-speaking peoples, with their tradition of individual purposefulness, have a grammar replete with tenses, moods and voices (though poor in inflected nouns and adjectives). Conversely the Finns, that poised and musical race, have a language which is very emotionally expressive in its wealth of noun cases denoting different states of being. (Finnish also possesses a useful personal pronoun which denotes either sex.) Briefly, the grammar and vocabulary of every tongue reflect the characteristics of its native speakers.

A complex grammar has as many advantages, for philosophical or literary purposes, as has a simple and straightforward grammar for universal access. An increased grammatical range would give every national tongue greater logical capacity, and better receptiveness to translation and transliteration. For example, a third-person reflexive pronoun for English, as in Esperanto and many other languages, would prevent the ambiguity in sentences like "Eric told Mark about his wife". However, it is unlikely that there will be any more direct transfer of grammar between developed national tongues than there has been in the past. Creoles and languages at early stages of development can do this, but every partial tongue reaches a point at which it resists change.

However, it is certain that the grammatical level of the international pidgin would be gradually raised, once it had an established status world-wide. This would have to be done with the greatest care: the timing of any change closely related to the general level of literacy, and nothing that had not been exhaustively tested in one language or another. Thus, in the distant future, having developed an unsurpassed grammatical, lexical and phonological capacity, there is no reason why the international auxiliary language should not absorb all other languages.

The advantage of a complex grammar for elucidating abstruse subjects on the intellectual level is essentially that of economy: not the simplicity of the pidgins, but the brief representation of a phrase or a clause in the same way that the right word might encapsulate a circumlocution. For example, the use of the gerund in English often obviates a pronoun and predicate, or noun and preposition. In view of the proliferation of knowledge currently taking place in the world, brevity and concision are vital.

However it can be argued that a still more advanced grammar is that of poetry, where understanding exists "between the lines" in the ratiocination of images and thoughts, as well as from words themselves and the tension between grammatical structures. Moreover, the alienation between simple and complex grammar is inherent to prose: at the level of poetry it disappears along with the innate distinction between words and their groupings. For this reason poetry will expand greatly in influence, reciprocally with the global tongue. This is yet another matter which, although of great import to the international language, is mostly dependent upon factors outside its sphere of influence.

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