Re: way-OT: regularity of german v. english [was: Re: OT - Programming Languages w/o English Syntax]
On Fri, Oct 24, 2003 at 04:52:35PM -0500, Ron Johnson wrote:
> On Fri, 2003-10-24 at 14:37, Tom wrote:
> > On Fri, Oct 24, 2003 at 12:11:49PM -0700, Erik Steffl wrote:
> > > english is like lego, yes there are some pieces that change shape
> > > etc. but it consists mostly of bricks and brick like pieces. german (and
> > > lot of other languages) is more like putty - you mold things together.
> > > the lego-like structure of english makes it easier to create a computer
> > > language...
> Which is also one reason why English is a successful Lingua Franca
> (pun intended).
I agree, especially to your lego example. The following attempts to
look at some possible historical reasons for linguistic differences
of these languages.
The English language is, apart from it's Romance admixture, widely
derived from the ancient (mutually closely related) Frisian / Saxon /
Anglian languages of the 5th century A.D. (Even the English people today
prove indiscernable from their continental Frisian neighbours to DNA
investigations excluding Welsh and Scottish relationships, of course.)
Up to the 12th century, English puppet actors could play without
interpreter at continental shores.
These ancient languages were known for their terse, concentrated legal
terminology: "Frisia non cantat, Frisia ratiocinatur" (Frisia doesn't
sing, Frisia counsels). The other linguistic root, the Latin language,
was equally well adjusted to legislation; the "Roman Law" is still being
studied by law-students.
(As both linguistic ancestors proved inclined rather to legal
terminologies, I wonder how far the English musical culture might be
based on Celtic influences.)
Legal terminology requires defining rock solid linguistic terms in order
to stay firm to legal disputing. On the other hand, legal terms must be
flexible in a certain way, to be able to cover individual cases through
generalized rules. In legislation, the real, practical social life is
condensed to an abstract model - quite similar to computing, I guess.
Another benefit to the English language may have been the long seafaring
history of the British nation. Sailing in rough weather condtions tends
to shorten clumsy words (the big ones get lost), an effect one can find
in the Dutch language, too.
Over the centuries, the German language had been split up into various
regional dialects - since the "Roman Empire of German Nation" was
scattered into hundreds of powerless mini-states, probably due to the
fact that the German emperors, contrary to their neighboured kingdoms,
had to permanently fight an additional war: not only against their own
vassals, but also against the popes representing the power of the Roman
Church. So, beneath the weakened power of the empire, the vassals became
more and more independent, a cause for permanent quarreling among each
other. Finally, the German empire ended up as the main battlefield for
the European powers (it was terminated during the French invasion under
Napoleon in 1806).
While the European neighbours started discovering and later ruling the
world, the Germans lead a rather regional life within small societies,
physically and mentally confined to narrow boundaries, where people were
fairly familiar with each other, where the presence of strangers meant
war and distress. Such a powerless life for centuries led to a deep
longing for that great, strong emperor, who would unify his empire, end
all feuds and take his people out of distress and misery into peace.
On the other hand, this rather poor ground grew a precious little social
flower, the subtle democratic organizing of life in co-operative ways,
e.g. leading to nationwide farmer's co-operative banking assosiations,
combined with co-operatives for buying and selling farmer's products
(Raiffeisen) as well as to exemplary trade unions with their special
retail stores (Konsum) for their working class members. Governmental
responses were (due to the power of the trade unions) the first social
insurances and, later in the 20th century, the social market economy.
(It is my opinion that the German military efficiency during the last
two centuries is more a kind of explosive reaction to the ending of the
old confinement to a small life - similar to the Irisch, who became by
far the fiercest fighters during the Civil War, after having been freed
from distress and helpless powerty of the past.)
I touched these aspects to give some hint on how the collective German
mind - and language - might have been touched in the long-term past. I
think the linguistic terms become "more like bricks" in ruling societies
staying atop of their problems compared to societies subdued to other
powers and helpless about their problems. The German language tends to
be "more like bricks", where scholars left the turf of practical reality
to deal with more abstract problems in philosophy and religion. Instead
of conquering the world, the Germans tended to develop the instruments
for such tasks.
A small German poem might illustrate aspects of
"brick-like" thinking compared to subdued seeking:
Der eine fragt: "Was kommt danach?"
Der andere: "Was ist recht?"
Und darin unterscheiden sich
Der Freie und der Knecht.
One person asks: "What' come from this?"
The other: "What is right?"
In that they will be different,
The free man and the "knight".
(In German, the meaning of the time-honoured term "knight" has
deteriorated from a king's loyal fighter to mere "slave";
another aspect of German societies having lost their claim
to ruling their own problems.)