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Old 20 Nov 2017, 05:18 PM   #680688 / #1
lpetrich
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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.
Quote:
“[[[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:
Quote:
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).
Quote:
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".
Quote:
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:
Quote:
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):
Quote:
[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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Old 20 Nov 2017, 07:35 PM   #680700 / #2
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In fairness, sentences written by committee have a way of growing.
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Old 20 Nov 2017, 10:33 PM   #680719 / #3
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Why does this happen? Julie Sedivy thinks that the difference is in how the language is consumed, for lack of a better word. Readers can do things that listeners cannot easily do, like go back and reread something. So they can more easily interpret complicated syntax.

Furthermore, one can improve by practice. The more one does of it, the better one can do. But one does need practice in doing so. If one does not get such practice, one will have difficulty doing so.

Over the last few centuries, however, this trend has been reversed.
Quote:
In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.
JS suspects that this is a side effect of literacy becoming more widespread. This means that people with less interest in written language have to use it, and that means simplifying syntactic complexity for them.
Quote:
Oral languages may avoid pushing the limits of syntax not just because they are bound to speech, but also because they have other ways to express complex meanings. Linguists take great pains to point out that languages with simple sentences erupt with complexity elsewhere: They typically pack many particles of meaning into a single word. For example, the Mohawk word sahonwanhotónkwahse conveys as much meaning as the English sentence “She opened the door for him again.” In English, you need two clauses (one embedded inside the other) to say “He says she’s leaving,” but in Yup’ik, a language spoken in Alaska, you can use a single word, “Ayagnia.” (Ayagniuq, in contrast, means “He says he himself is leaving”; Ayagtuq means, more simply, “He’s leaving.”)
I can recognize an evidential affix there: -ni- for hearsay.

A curious leader of this trend is specialized scientific communities.
Quote:
Evidence shows that the most insular scientific communities have led the march away from elaborated sentences in favor of complex, compressed nouns: Science articles in specialist publications such as the Journal of Cell Biology contain fewer relative clauses and more noun compounds than articles in publications like Science, which target a more diverse community of scientists. Both of these samples in turn have less syntactic elaboration and more compression than academic writing in the humanities, which presupposes even less specialized knowledge among its readers. And lagging behind all of these in the trend toward noun-heavy compression is the language of novels and plays. And, as Biber and Gray have shown, university students learn the art of compression gradually, with those in the sciences coming to rely less on multiple clauses and more on complex nouns than their peers in the arts and humanities.
But those complex words have a purpose. They are a convenient shorthand, and it is usually easy to find out what they mean.

Also, such technical prose is essentially utilitarian, not artistic. Convoluted syntax can get in the way of readability, so that's another reason to avoid it.
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Old 20 Nov 2017, 10:49 PM   #680722 / #4
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Hmmm...I used to write like that all the time. My teachers and professors used to critique my writing style by pointing that I seemed to have a love affair with the comma. I was repeatedly told I needed to change my style by setting myself a goal of making my writing shorter and choppier. More periods; fewer commas.

When it was brought to my attention, I assessed it and viewed it as an extension of my thought processes, which tend to be 'parenthetical', with terms used needing explication within the sentence itself....in my view. Yes, it's cluttered.

I would think that writers attempting to be painfully explicit might revert to such tools...particularly if it were multiple educated writers involved in the successive drafts of the text.
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Old 28 Nov 2017, 02:11 PM   #681307 / #5
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I feel like we (English speakers) have also allowed language to become dumbed down. Text-speak has led to widespread shortening of actual words, "what r u doin' 2nite?", for example.

Between interactions with skilled writers and my own interest in the words of the Founding Fathers, I came to realize the importance of using specific words to convey specific, precise meanings to effectively and efficiently get a point across. Having an extensive vocabulary helps you to get away from using words like 'very' and dropping excessive uses of 'that' from both writing and speech.
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Old 28 Nov 2017, 05:23 PM   #681325 / #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Shake View Post
I feel like we (English speakers) have also allowed language to become dumbed down. Text-speak has led to widespread shortening of actual words, "what r u doin' 2nite?", for example.
After sending some text messages on a cellphone, I find that rather understandable. Typing on one is pressing a number key until the right letter appears, sometimes 3 or 4 times. I'm careful enough to write in full length, and doing so is very time-consuming.
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Old 31 Dec 2017, 01:50 AM   #682457 / #7
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Ogg hunt mammoth, Ogg make fire. Ogg live simple life. Ogg not need fancy talk.

As civilization has become more complex, more complex language structures have been developed to allow transmission (or sometimes obfuscation) of more complex ideas.

Most of the simple language examples given were tribal languages that have few native speakers and are dying out. If they survive, they will almost certainly become more complex over time out of necessity.
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Old 31 Dec 2017, 06:02 AM   #682459 / #8
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espritch, that's a very unjustified stereotype. Languages of "primitive" people often have formidable grammatical complexity, even if their speakers seldom use very complicated syntax.

As just one example, form (Wikipedia)Inuit grammar:
Quote:
tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga
I can't hear very well.

This long word is composed of a root word tusaa- – to hear – followed by seven suffixes (a vowel-beginning suffix always erases the final consonant of the preceding consonant-ending suffix):

-tsiaq-: "well"
-junnaq- (or -gunnaq-): "be able to"
-nngit-: negation
-tu(q): indicative third-person singular (in fact a nominal form)
-alu(k)-: augmentative ("very")
-u-: "be"
-junga: indicative first-person singular (itself composed of the indicative morpheme -ju- and the first person mark -nga)
tusaa-tsiar-unna-nngit-tu-alu-u-ju-nga
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Old 31 Dec 2017, 12:05 PM   #682460 / #9
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Originally Posted by espritch View Post
Ogg hunt mammoth, Ogg make fire. Ogg live simple life. Ogg not need fancy talk.

As civilization has become more complex, more complex language structures have been developed to allow transmission (or sometimes obfuscation) of more complex ideas.

Most of the simple language examples given were tribal languages that have few native speakers and are dying out. If they survive, they will almost certainly become more complex over time out of necessity.
yes, isolated languages often become extremely intricate, but tend to simplify when they come in contact with other cultures. In this case cultural complexity leafds to simplification.
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Old 31 Dec 2017, 11:34 PM   #682470 / #10
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To my knowledge, all languages have subordinate clauses and complex nominal modifiers such as relative clauses. I know of no exceptions. And generative linguistic modeling is somewhat hampered by the fact that it tends to focus on single-sentence discourse rather than multiple-sentence discourse. That focus derives from Chomsky's bias against mixing syntactic structure with semantic function. My impression is that all languages have the capacity to construct very lengthy, complex structures such as those found in literary languages, especially in oral traditions that rely on the mnemonic advantages of poetry to record lengthy narratives.

Before I retired, one of my specializations was (Wikipedia)Simplified Technical English (STE), a writing standard that the aerospace industry developed to simplify technical language in maintenance manuals. One of the most effective rules in that standard limits procedural sentences to no more than 20 words in length. Another limits sentences in descriptive text to 25 words, and another limits compound noun clusters to no more than 3 words. (The noun cluster limitation is extremely difficult for engineers and does not apply to nomenclature that is "baked in" from design and engineering phases of manufacturing, where the STE standard does not apply.)

I was the original author of the Wikipedia entry, but it has been changed considerably since I first wrote it (and not entirely to my liking). There are a number of reasons for the creation of STE, but the main one was a need for non-English commercial airline carriers to compete with English-speaking ones. They did not want to bear the expense of translating extremely complex technical language, so they wanted the English to be clearer for readers with a limited command of English. It turned out that the standard also improved the understanding of native speakers, because technical authors had to think more clearly about the information that they intended to convey in order to satisfy the constraints of STE.

The US government also has a language simplification standard known as (Wikipedia)Plain English. It is similar to STE in that it requires short sentences, but it does not restrict vocabulary as much as STE. It does restrict sentence length, which tends to cut down on the use of relative clauses and subordinate clauses.

When you reduce the complexity of sentence structure in text, the overall effect is that information gets presented much more slowly, making it easier to digest. The writer, however, has to expend more effort in constructing the narrative. So some information inevitably gets pruned out of the narrative in order to conserve energy. Hence, people tend to think that simplification standards "dumb down" text. An alternative view is that they prune away unnecessary information "weeds" that choke off the flow of nutritious communication.

Regardless of that, one should bear in mind that communication is always a compromise between producers (speakers and writers) and consumers (listeners and readers). The former prefer to pack as much information as possible into the fewest words possible. Fitting everything into a single breath is better than taking many breaths to convey the same information. Consumers are more interested in extracting as much information as possible from a narrative. So they would like the chunks to be fed to them in more digestible nuggets of information, even if it takes a little more time to get to the end of the narrative.
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Old 02 Jan 2018, 01:38 AM   #682513 / #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
To my knowledge, all languages have subordinate clauses and complex nominal modifiers such as relative clauses. I know of no exceptions. ...
Yes, but how much do they get used? Especially in complicated multiclause sentences, like "When in the course of human events..."

Here's another juicy example:
Quote:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
Sir William Jones' third annual discourse before the Asiatic Society on the history and culture of the Hindus (delivered on 2 February 1786 and published in 1788)
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Old 02 Jan 2018, 01:56 AM   #682514 / #12
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That's a one-sentence paragraph. I'll break it down, and modernize some of the language.

The Sanskrit language, whatever its antiquity is, has a wonderful structure. It is more complete than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either. It has a resemblance in its verb roots and in its grammar, a resemblance too strong to be an accident. No philologist could examine those three languages and not conclude that they have sprung from some common source. A source which may not exist anymore. There are similar reasons, though not as strong, for supposing that Gothic and Celtic also had this source, and maybe even also Old Persian.
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Old 02 Jan 2018, 08:32 PM   #682523 / #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
To my knowledge, all languages have subordinate clauses and complex nominal modifiers such as relative clauses. I know of no exceptions. ...
Yes, but how much do they get used? Especially in complicated multiclause sentences, like "When in the course of human events..."
How often do sentences grow so long in English? It depends on the type of discourse, I think. Ritualistic, formal language tends to yield lengthier sentences. Written language is different for the reasons stated in the article--the ability for readers to abandon linear order--and the fact that spoken language depends on lung capacity. Phrases and sentences are broken up into intonation chunks or breath groups in speech. Writers do not face that physical impediment to extending phrasal length.

Linguistic expressions have the potential of infinite repetition that comes in two forms: iteration (conjunctions) and recursive subordination (sentence complements and relative clauses). For recursion, we even have language games like (Wikipedia)The House that Jack Built. In terms of writing style, we often talk about "run-on sentences" that are essentially strings of conjoined sentences, but the reality is that conjoining sentences is little different from just starting a new sentence. There is an art to planning narratives so that they are easy to understand. Lazy writers just tend to blurt out their thoughts as they occur to them, so they may tend to produce more turgid prose.

One thing to bear in mind about nominal modifiers is that they do play a significant functional role in discourse. They help to identify antecedent and contextual referents, which may not be obvious in complex narratives. Generative grammarians tend not to worry about associating communicative function with structure, so they are more taken with the fact that phrases can have potentially infinite length. However, just as programmers know to worry about the limiting cases of recursion, speakers have limiting factors that apply to linguistic recursion.

Are you familiar with Grice's concept of (Wikipedia)implicature? Grice was a philosopher who developed some important rules governing conversation. He came up with four "maxims" under what has come to be known as his (Wikipedia)Cooperative Principle (Quality, Quantity, Relation, Manner):

Quote:
Maxim of quality

Supermaxim: Try to make your contribution one that is true.

Submaxims:
  • Do not say what you believe to be false.
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of quantity
  • Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of relation
  • Be relevant.
With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, "Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work."

Maxim of manner

Supermaxim: Be perspicuous.

Submaxims:
  • Avoid obscurity of expression.
  • Avoid ambiguity.
  • Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  • Be orderly.
Some speakers are much better than others at mastering these rather intuitive restrictions on ideal discourse interactions.
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