Tuesday, 25 December 2012


Anthony Burgess (in A Mouthful of Air) argues that ancient language was more complex and synthetic, grammatically speaking; and that modern languages tend towards the simpler, atomistic and (he doesn't say this, but it's rather implied) degraded form.  He notes for instance that
'They will be loved' is the Ebglish for the Latin amabuntur. The English way -- and English is a progressive, self-simplifying language: the technical term is syncretic -- is to analyse a complex experience into irreducible particles: four words to the Latin one. [15]
Anyone who has studying the Classics must have been struck by how much more difficult the older languages seem to be. But Burgess hypothecates from this a radically different mode of being-in-the-world for our ancestors.
We [moderns] think of the conscious creation of a structure out of verbal atoms: our unit is the smallest possible verbal form. But the unit of primitive man would be more like a phrase, a clause, a total statement. He would learn to associate a segment of the flow of speech with a particular experience to be described or expressed. When we see a sunrise, we instinctively analyse into particles: sun, east, sky, red, gold, rising. Primitive man would see the process as a single experience, indivisible.
Is this right, I wonder? I mean, is there any evidence for it? Attractive notion, certainly.

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