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https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

Why did (generally) indo-european languages simplify?

When you compare most modern, living spoken languages in this grand family, why did the vast majority simplify in their grammar over time? I emphasize most because I am sure someone will try to nitpick my question an point at an exception. But if you look at most languages in this wide range of tongues, they have almost all simplified from their origins especially in terms of grammar.

Examples being, nordic langauges simplifying from old norse with the exception of Icelandic and Faroese, losing their conjugations and declension of nouns for the most part. And other Germanic languages, most of which, including English, simplify from proto-germanic, especially in grammar. Likewise goes for the romance languages compared to Latin, especially in noun declension. And to a certain extent, Celtic languages also. I will not comment on other cousin families as I am not familiar enough with them.

I am not asking how or in what way did they simplify. I am asking why did they get less complex in terms of grammar and why were their parent languages so complicated to begin with. Was it due to the invention of writing or the need to communicate hence creating simplified versions of their original form. I have wondering this for a while and I can't seem to figure why they were so complex to begin with and then drastically got rid of many of their grammar rules. Thanks in advance to anyone who can help me here :)

April 17, 2017

33 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

There's obviously something of a tradeoff between the degree of inflexion and the strictness of word order. Seemingly the earliest Indo-Europeans had quite flexible word order. This does allow the clear conveying of nuances that e.g. English mostly has to rely on intonation or cleft constructions for.

But undoubtedly certain word orders were predominant, and at some point a tipping point probably emerges that the order is sufficiently fixed that a certain inflection loses some of its value. Maybe it's only ever found with certain prepositions or something, so forms emerge where another case is used instead but the preposition does the work of distinguishing them. Then eventually those cases wound up merged.

This process is still going on. For instance, the literary Russian rules for declension of numbers (in something like "set sail with forty-seven thousand one hundred mariners") take pages to explicate. And, surprisingly, they're not used so very often. So simpler forms are more and more used. And people have trouble mustering up the current literary standard versions in real time. And they're neglecting them in writing. Give it a century or two more... Of course, this does leave open the question of just why the system was so complicated to begin with. I suppose at some juncture it added relatively more "communicative value" than it does now. Maybe prepositions are taking some of the semantic load now, so these inflections are less necessary, therefore less used, and gradually being forgotten by dint of insufficient exposure.

Another example: the genitive used to be much more widely used in negative sentences. This has largely switched in only the last century or so. Now those sentences take accusative. Add up changes like that, and a case gradually gets downgraded into a few now-irregular fossilized forms, and previous complexity is forgotten.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/garpike

I merely hypothesise: primitive, neolithic societies centred around small, isolated extended family groups in which dialectical differences would readily emerge, eventually forming mutually unintelligible languages.
The advent of technology (superior weaponry and transport allowing one group to control a larger territory) and agriculture (allowing far more people to be sustained in a single settlement) had the effect of greatly increasing contact between these small clans, such that a larger number of related, grammatically-complex dialects would tend to be subsumed in a single, simpler lingua franca. Things like having different case-markers would be a primary impediment to communication between speakers of closely-related languages, so it stands to reason that they would be amongst the first things to be abandoned. This would have happened long before the advent of writing. As the basic social units of mankind became less isolated from one another, the need for communication would tend to reduce those grammatical complexities that often develop in eccentric ways.

How the neolithic speakers of PIE ended up with such a complex language in the first place is an intriguing question to which I'm not sure anyone has the answer, as the processes whereby language evolved from non-language remain mysterious.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

Also a very good answer, giving me a lot to ponder on.. Deodwn who just answere moments before you, also gave a very good hypothesis. And he also gave a reason as to why the grammar may have been so complicated to begin with... Quoting Deodwn 'I remember reading somewhere that most PIE words were one syllable (with a few two syllable words) and over time the words themselves became more complex as the language needed to include more complex concepts. I imagine that as the vocabulary grew, the need for more regularity within that vocabulary grew with it.'

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/garpike

PIE word roots were mostly monosyllabic, but were subject to complex case and verb paradigms in use. Old Chinese (for example) word-roots were likewise almost all monosyllabic, but here there were practically no cases or verbal conjugation; as Old Chinese evolved through Middle Chinese to the modern Chinese languages, words did indeed become longer to express new concepts (although, arguably, more so due to phonological changes necessitating differentiation between previously distinct words), but the grammar remains as simple as it was before. The mere fact the PIE words were short does not explain the complexity of PIE grammar.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

I still side a little with Deown here. Using Chinese as an example, is a fair argument, but nonetheless, anecdotal. If you can point to other languages and give another possible reason for PIE''s complexity, that would be a fair rebuttal.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/sarefo
  • 1091

I have a similar hypothesis (and I also never found a good scholarly account on it). However, I wanted to mention that the first languages evolved AT LEAST 50,000 years ago, possibly much much earlier (up to a million years or so). So PIE, which was spoken around 6,000 years ago is by no means a primordial (and even less a "primitive", as another poster calls it) language. It is just one of the earliest languages we can still reconstruct before noise eliminates the signal.

April 19, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Rafforza

I'm sure there's tons of research on this but to me it would seem the reason PIE and other primitive languages tend to be so complex is because when languages emerged from essentially spontaneous noises there were simply less regular patterns. As generations passed language down certain regular patterns began to dominate others and this created what we would call a systematic grammar. Since we're starting from basically zero grammar (ie. 0 regular patterns) and developing into systems with ever greater regularity we would expect the earliest languages to have fewer regular patterns, therefore making them more complex by definition. PIE is dated to about 10,000 years ago and it's estimated that language first began about 90,000 years before that, so by the time we arrive at PIE we're dealing with a system that's already been through many iterations.

In short simplicity can be understood as a high degree of regularity. It's not that Proto-Indo-Europeans were a clan of grammatical wizards, but that the language they inherited (Proto-PIE) was even less regular than PIE itself, but just a hypothesis.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/AmareloTiago

It feels to me that in some way, your question is backwards, or at least you are looking at the process backwards. Going all the way back to the original Proto-Indo-European langauge, irregulars (nouns, verbs, what have you) weren't so much irregular as they just were. Nobody thought about grammar or rules for grammar, it just was. Over time, these words became simpler and related words became more similar and they became more similar in ways that became increasingly easier to predict. As people used the language and over time, these languages, it became easier to recognize related words and easier to predict unencountered forms of words.

I remember reading somewhere that most PIE words were one syllable (with a few two syllable words) and over time the words themselves became more complex as the language needed to include more complex concepts. I imagine that as the vocabulary grew, the need for more regularity within that vocabulary grew with it. This process continues today. Compare Modern English irregular verbs and nouns to Old English. More than one ox is still oxen but two goats are no longer geet. Similar examples can be found not only in the other Germanic languages but comparing Old Church Slavonic to other Slavic languages (I understand Bulgarian is the most direct descendent) or Latin to modern Italian. Even in the last quarter century, word pairings like mentor/mentee continue to creep in and bastardize our language.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/AmareloTiago

It also occurs to me - literacy.

Literacy slows the change in language. If you consider a society where very little is written down, then the language spoken 100 years ago is lost forever. Who knows how much has changed since then? In a time when the average life expectancy was about 30, then nobody alive knew how your grandfather's grandfather spoke. Innovations and changes in language could spread quickly and villages could go from different accents to different languages in two generations. If large numbers of people start writing things down, then you have some record and those words can be reproduced.

I think the internet and texting has probably sped that slowed rate of change in the language back up. The quicker and nigh ubiquitous immediate communication has had the effect of both making the English language more uniform, not only across the anglosphere but as a lingua franca of the world-wide internet, but also to segment it and create isolated dialects across new and different lines that lack precedent.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

Yes, but I am not trying to only get as to why languages change here, nor the rate or speed at which they do so. But yes I agree completely language change has most likely been drastically slowed down due to literacy and now even more so with the internet and the emergence of the lingua-franca coming from it.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

Very good answer, thanks! Btw, I was aware that the indo-europeans didn't think about grammar or grammar rules, just always confused as to how they had such complex rules compared to us. But your answer was perfect. So you're saying that as words grew and became more complex and started sounding more different from one another, a need to have a complex grammar system was no longer needed and hence these rules declined over time, would I be correct in saying that is your response to my question?

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/AmareloTiago

I don't know that I would characterize my answer that as the language grew, the complex grammar system was no longer needed, but rather as the language grew, a complex grammar system was developed.

Engineering systems that are widespread and used over a long period of time are gradually improved and simpler processes and more efficient ways of doing things are developed. I suppose we could look at language like that, widespread and having been used for around 6,000 years.

I am not communicating my thoughts as well as I sometimes do. I am still organizing my thoughts and reactions to the question. It is a whole line of thinking.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

The situation in PIE was chaotic:

In the most conservative Indo-European languages (e.g. Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Tocharian, Old Irish), there is a separate set of conjugational classes for each of the tense/aspect categories, with no general relationship obtaining between the class of a given verb in one category relative to another. The oldest stages of these languages (especially Vedic Sanskrit) reveal clear remains of an even less organized system, where a given verb root might have multiple ways, or no way at all, of being conjugated in a given tense/aspect category — sometimes with meanings that differ in unpredictable ways. This clearly suggests that the tense/aspect categories originated as separate lexical verbs, part of a system of derivational morphology (compare the related verbs "to rise" and "to raise", or the abstract nouns "produce", "product", "production" derived from the verb "to produce"), and only gradually became integrated into a coherent system of inflectional morphology, which was still incomplete at the time of the proto-language.

This description positions (at least to some extent) the later changes we're discussing here into the framework of outcomes of this disorderly reality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_verbs#Post-PIE_developments

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/zyxwvutsrqpo

I would guess that war used to be a big factor. Conquer new territories - language gets imposed. No need to say that those people won't be good at that new language, thus they tend to speak a more simple version of the language. That simple version can then also further spread, also back to the source. In modern times that doesn't seem to happen anymore as more language learning tools are available. But if you look at Dutch versus South-African, you'll notices some simplifications. Brazilian Portuguese also has a few simplifications compared to Portuguese from Portugal. Thus I think as languages spread through war, they get simplified, especially in the targeted country (both their native language and the language that gets imposed onto them). Because communication between the oppressed and oppressors would likely often be in a simplified versions of their languages. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a positive correlation between the amount of war a language was exposed to and how much it got simplified over the course of history (before 1900).

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/sarefo
  • 1091

I highly recommend the wonderful book "The Unfolding of Language" to all of you interested in language change.

April 19, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SnapeC

First of all thank you for bringing this up! Adding to what the others have already said, I'd like to mention the Theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin. Similar to evolution of species to be the best they can be over time, I feel that languages too may have adapted to the time period and the changing views of man by smoothening out the rough edges of pronounciation and the simplification of the overly complex grammar rules. Of course this does not explain why languages were complicated to begin with but merely how I think the languages simplified over time.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

Yes that's a good point, and you're welcome, but thanks to you and everyone as well for stating their opinions. But back to your point. I agree that could be a major factor but then that begs the question of why of language families whose people conquered areas of different languages etc,. But the grammar actually further became more complex as well as sounds.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/SnapeC

There may be instances where certain languages became even more complicated due to the spread and the intermingling of the language with other languages, but there also instnaces of the opposite as well. For example, I speak a language of the I-E family, a language that is descended from Sanskrit. The Aryans came and conquered the country I'm living now and rougly 1-2 centuries later Aryan sanskrit had changed so much to form distinctive new language. This new language had simplified Sanksrit grammar to a very large extent. And based on the conversations I had with speakers of other languages descended from Sanskrit, these other languages of the Sanskrit family too have simplified grammar compared to the parent language.

April 18, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Which languages had clicks and then lost them?

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

My point was the contrary. They continue to use clicks

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Jix1810

Reading this tread I think most people miss the most important part of the evolution; the change of occupation: Huntsmen became farmers and fishermen, which later became merchantmen or craftsmen, etc. Every innovation and change resulted in change of word, new comes inn, old ones changes meaning or are forgotten. Wars and religions, changes borders moving words across. Mountains and valleys separates. Roads and waterways merges. Some people tries to simplify, others tries to impress with new cool words. Literacy were low, symbols became simplified into letters and words and educations make literacy rise. But most important: You only use a fraction of the language in your whole lifetime as you do not need to know everything about other crafts. Look at the computer you have in front of you and I guarantee that you would not been able to express all the words required to describe all processes and all techniques required to create the computer from mining minerals to finished computer. As a result we all tends to simplify by organizing the words in a simple order, hence new words are regular in terms of grammar, words we do not use/know automatically become sorted into regular forms. Those old words we use in everyday use becomes irregular. Trade makes us simplify even more, as we accept foreigners mistakes. Mass immigrations result in sudden changes in even more simplified means. This has always happened, and will continue to do so. As crafts get more specialised, people moves more, dialects and languages dies, their influence on the rest of languages also dies and we get more simplifications. Long distance mass communications like TV or internet, require the communication to be clear for everyone. Therefore even more simplification. First grammar, then splitting (or merging) words. Words like this Norwegian word (No it is not the longest Norwegian word, but the longest I could translate): "fylkestrafikksikkerhetsutvalgssekretariatslederfunksjon" (The function as head of the secretariat for the county traffic safety committee) will at one point be split into "fylkes trafikk sikkerhets utvalgs sekretariats leder funksjon". And that is after the word by itself is a simplification of its multiple grammatical origins to one grammatical term.

So back to your question: Specialization and communication makes the need and capability to remember complex grammatical structures across all possible variations hard, since one word can mean different things in different crafts and even have different genders based on origin. It becomes to complicated and words rarely used will be simplified first. We are in the middle of a simplification process that will not be over in a century or two. They were diverse because they had to be able to separate two different jobs done by same person apart by few words. It was an old form of simplification...

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

I would have to disagree with the assertion that all new words are regular. Google Ngrams shows "curriculum" increasing in frequency massively from about 1845. 45 years later, it gets a plural form, but, note, it's not the "regular" expected "curriculums," it's "curricula." English literally borrowed inflectional morphology from a language more than a millenium after that language ceased to be anyone's native language. Bacteria weren't discovered until over two millenia after the language from which their name was sourced evolved into a different form. Oh, and "millenia" didn't overtake "milleniums" until 1935, 170 years after the first observations of a plural form for "millenium" are observed.

And often neologisms based on "irregular" words simply result in... more irregular words. The plural of "aircraft": "aircraft." In Russian, "at the airport" takes the same "fossilized" case form as "at the port."

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Jix1810

Hi, I think you missed my points:
"You only use a fraction of the language in your whole lifetime as you do not need to know everything about other crafts." - Your do not control new words outside your craft, those who use them regularly do.

"Those old words we use in everyday use becomes irregular." - They follow the old rules because they are in naturally use by everyone using the language. Same applies to words deriving from them: Airport is derived from air and port and takes the rules determined by the beginning or the end of the new word based on the general rules within the language.

"Some people tries to simplify, others tries to impress with new cool words." - If a group that can decide new word and control them sets the rules. They chose the words used within their group, but if it becomes common used outside they loose control and simplification is likely to occur. Borrowing words from other languages, or deliberately using a specific language for constructing new word (as done within medicine) is a choice of the constructor. You point in time to a period when Latin were "rediscovered" and "reconstructed"/simplified for educational purpose in universities across Europe. Medicine is one area where a constructed simplified form of Latin (actually Greek base words) is used in order to use a common descriptive word across all languages, where everyone is equally distant to the word.

"As a result we all tends to simplify by organizing the words in a simple order, hence new words are regular in terms of grammar, words we do not use/know automatically become sorted into regular forms." - Regular depends here on the language of choice, if no one corrects your grammar when you read or hear the word in one part of the grammar, and you use it as another part of the system, you will automatically use the simple form you expect it to be. Over time the strongest and most common used version will take over. Written has a stronger force when the word is rare where oral takes precedence if common used.

Google Ngram is doubtful at best to be used for the following reasons: OCR - Scanning old books tends to give many errors due to discolour and fonts been used. Long s and f is a common known mistake. If handwritten it becomes even worse. Scientific books takes precedence of other uses: Letters, documents, notes, fictional books etc. Therefore is a lot of the usage missed.

"Curriculum" - "curricula" and not "curriculums" - a case of "cool" to use the old form because "we know it" and "uneducated" don't, it sticks as it is not common used in writing by anyone outside academia. It's the same for all languages shown in Google Ngram except of Russian and Hebrew.

I'll leave your mistake of the "millennia", "millenniums", "millenia", "milleniums" for the typos occur simultaneous as the main forms. It follows the same case as for "Curriculum".

As for Russian "в аэропорту" ("at the airport"), I guess you also can confirm that ports were so common in Russia and the earliest planes were seaplanes, so it became natural to use naval terminology. Hence "В порту" ("at the port") is still the same word and "В морском порту" ("at the seaport") and "В речном порту" ("at the river port") became "в аэропорту" ("at the airport"). You might arrest me if the Russian words are wrong as I used Google Translate and I don't speak Russian. My point is that it is not a new word just a modification of an existing Russian word. So I'll give you this: I should have given clearer allowance for these words in my first statement.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

I thank you for pointing out the spelling issue with millenium/millenia; the millennium/millennia graph shows the phenomenon I'm referring to even more strongly: "millenniums" had a solid lead for a hundred years; then "millennia" overtook it in 1938 and hasn't looked back.

My point is not to contest anything else you've said, but to point out that any theory is going to be insufficient if it doesn't consider cases where its predictions don't hold. Maybe "in group" academic folk dynamics explain "bacteria" and "curricula," but "millenniums" vs. "millennia" looks like a different storyline. There's also the well-known case of "snuck" sort of arising out of nowhere to provide a strong challenge to the regular "sneaked."

And just as cases fall out of use, they can also arise again. There's now a Russian "neo-vocative" which has nothing to do with the historical Indo-European vocative case, except, well, fulfilling the same grammatical function.

But, overall, the dynamics you're describing apply I think to every language. Technical progress and specialization isn't limited to Indo-European languages, but I don't think this phenomenon of grammatical simplification is universal. Any explanation has to point to what's unique about Indo-European speakers vs. speakers of those other language families.

April 18, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Jix1810

Millennium: As I pointed out Google Ngram has it's problems based on database failure and should be carefully used and only as an indicator within the frames set for the database. A rise in use of the word around 1900 coincidence with the religious claim for end of world resulting to the word becoming more frequent in religious texts. At same time industrialisation were at it's height and we had two world wars. Everyone were pointing into the distant future being year 2000. Later the space and computer technology also pointed to year 2000. It is all academic papers that dominate which are the most conservative writers. Newspapers are not included in Google Ngrams database, but they will eventually, it will alter the database slightly, especially when looking at typo errors as you gave a good sample of. As I claim: Millennium/millennia (as most Latin words) were controlled by academic groups and use the same notation across the languages in Ngram (German slightly offset) and even they made the grammatical simplification when using a foreign word until a cross border unification were made. The newspapers turns naturally to the same bodies for information and corrections.

My description of dynamic were meant to be universal, but it will have various impact based on the society's willingness to change at the time of change. Political and religious streams play a role. Nationalism versus internationalism have an impact. Immigration another. Trade yet another. As I pointed out the languages developed a complex system in order to separate meanings in few words. This was a simplification in its time. Nowadays its simplification through grammatical reduction as word order is more fixed to serve same purpose, and we need more words to describe more things. The direction of simplification pending on purpose, need and external impact. Internet is a major external force.

And the uniqueness for the Indo-European is indicated in the Human Development Index (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index). Almost all top countries are from same language group, which indicate (but not prove) the interaction between language, society and development. So the combination of development, trade, political and religious impacts etc. all having the right mix at the same time changes the language and for now that is grammatical reduction in countries with Indo-European languages and Latin alphabet.
Exceptions are found everywhere due to group dynamic within a minority with power to change the word. A national body of language can be such a group.

April 18, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/estudianteMTI3

If you notice how a lot of the words change, you will notice that a lot of times they start with Slang words or abbreviations of longer words often originating from teenagers trying to be cool or from the less educated working class often changing words or phrases to make them easier to say. That's my theory anyway. Languages are still changing gradually every day in small ways that often go unnoticed.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

Yah that's true, and that's what I thought was the reason also for a while. With some dialects saying 'I is, you is, we is, they is etc.. But then I realized that in many other language families, grammar is getting more complex so that might not be the reason. And why would these parent languages be so complex to begin with, considering almost everyone was less educated and less academically intelligent than today.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/estudianteMTI3

I would have to disagree with you on the theory that we are more academically intellligent today than what people were several thousand years ago. Just look at their many amazing engineering marvels that have not been surpassed even in the computer age.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

There are a few cases of those, but in general they have to rescale achievement and intelligence tests on a regular basis even on the scale of decades because otherwise the averages would continually increase over time. This is called the Flynn effect. Presumably its effects are even greater on the scale of millenia.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/estudianteMTI3

So basically what you are saying is we just keep on getting increasingly smarter and have to change our intelligence tests to accommodate the gradual change?

April 18, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Yes.

April 18, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/CaptainCIarky

there is usually 2 reasons. the first is slang where people say different things because they are easier or more cool. the second is where official bodies change the language intentionally, for example a few decades ago the german language authority changed the rules defining capitalisation.

April 17, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Shanow22

I think the second possibility you mentioned is very plausible. But I don't know if slang necessarily makes languages always easier. Sometimes it can complicate languages. Creating extra vocab, many of which, others may not have been familiar with. And in terms of grammar, some times, but less commonly, slang may complicate grammar, ex,'innit' or 'aint,' adding the word 'like' where it previously would not have been etc.

April 17, 2017
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