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Old 20 Nov 2017, 05:18 PM   #680688 / #1
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Default The Rise and Fall of Convoluted Syntax

The Declaration of Independence Is Hard to Read
Titled "The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence", though I prefer my title.
“[[[When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people [to dissolve the political bands [which have connected them with another]] and [to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station [to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them]]], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires [that they should declare the causes [which impel them to the separation]]].”
—Declaration of Independence, opening sentence
Author Julie Sedivy:
An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude.
Noam Chomsky has pointed to such recursive clause combination as a hallmark of human language. However, speakers of many languages prefer to string together simple clauses, and they may lack multiclause features like relative pronouns (which, that) and clause connectors (if, despite, although).
Many of the world’s oral languages are quite unlike European languages. Their sentences contain few words. They rarely combine more than one clause. Linguist Marianne Mithun has noted some striking differences: In English, 34 percent of clauses in conversational American English are embedded clauses. In Mohawk (spoken in Quebec), only 7 percent are. Gunwinggu (an Australian language) has 6 percent and Kathlamet (formerly spoken in Washington state) has only 2 percent.
So how might the first sentence in the US DoI go with such syntax? JS doesn't try, but I will try. I also modernized a bit of the language.

In the course of human events, some big things may become necessary. A people must dissolve the political bonds between them and another people. This people must then assume a status equal to the other powers of the Earth. The laws of Nature and Nature's God give them that right. This people must then have a decent respect for the opinions of humanity. They must declare the causes of their actions. These causes made them separate.
Back to the article, JS noted that some New-World languages have borrowed clause-connector words from European languages, sometimes a lot of them. Their speakers have also invented such words, like for "and".
According to linguist Guy Deutscher, the earliest clay tablets (about 2500 B.C.) of the ancient language Akkadian reveal few embedded clauses. The same is evidently true of the earliest stages of other ancient written languages such as Sumerian, Hittite, or Greek.
JS quotes this text from Hittite in 14th cy. BCE:
I drove in a chariot to Kunnu, and a thunderstorm came, then the Storm-God kept thundering terribly, and I feared, and the speech in my mouth became small, and the speech came up a little bit, and I forgot this matter completely, but afterwards the years came and went, and this matter came to appear repeatedly in my dreams, and God’s hand seized me in my dreams, and then, my mouth went sideways, and …
But when writing has done for a long time, we start getting multiclause texts like these (Hammurabi's law code, 18th cy. BCE):
[If, [after the sheep and goats come up from the common irrigated area [when the pennants announcing the termination of pasturing are wound around the main city gate], the shepherd releases the sheep and goats into a field], the shepherd shall guard the field].
Similar things have happened much more recently, like in Finnish and in Somali.
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