Monday, 18 February 2013

A Plea for simplicity

Recently a correspondent sent me a message in which he said that a simple grammar is an illusion, and that the wish to simplify the language is a poison. That not having six different forms for the six persons of the verb would never be accepted by Spanish speakers, that it is ugly, heavy and furiously similar to English, and that simplifying the grammar meant fighting for English …
(I hope I have summed up my correspondent's criticisms well enough; in any case I can always send the original message to anyone who might be interested).

Here is my answer.

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OK, I confess I like simplicity; simplicity is the key to happiness for mankind: giving food to those who are hungry, clothes and a roof to those who are cold, giving work to those who have a family to feed; what could be simpler ?

But let's get back to languages. At the age of 16, I got acquainted with the common roots of Indo-European languages, and it changed my life, it opened my mind to the others. It changed the way I saw the world, and later on, the way I taught. I'm no fanatic, neither for English, nor for French, Spanish, Italian, nor for any other language… I'm standing at the crossroads between all those languages. For example, it seems important to me, instead of making students learn the English irregular verbs only, to show them the link with German "strong verbs" and also - why not ? - with Dutch and Scandinavian verbs, instead of always focusing on the complexity of the gerund for instance, or of the genitive or of the modal verbs.
Complexity is a booby-trap. I hate the commonplace "c'est plus compliqué que ça", (it's more complicated than this), which our "experts" and "intellectuals" at court always use to mask the vacuity of their thought behind fine words which are not particularly clear.

How can you claim that Uropi is not a "language bearing the various treasures of European languages" ? (Just take a look at the page Proverbs of Europe on the Uropi website). Uropi is growing constantly richer through a permanent comparison with all Indo-European languages without any exception. The richness of a language doesn't come from its grammar, but from its vocabulary, its words. In Russian they say весна - тепло "viesnà - tieplò" (lit. Spring - warm), meaning We are in Spring; it's warm, or повторение мать учения "povtoriènie mat' oochènya" (lit. repetition mother teaching), meaning repetition is the mother of teaching - two phrases practically without any grammatical form. Does this prevent the Russian language from being rich and beautiful and of giving birth to Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov ?
What beauty is there in the agreement of the French past participle, in the six Esperanto participles, or the X Russian participles for the students taking A'levels and who still write j'ai manger in French, hence I have to eat in English instead of I have eaten ?

This leads me to make four essential remarks:

1) Learning a foreign language, whether auxiliary or not, should not be reserved to a small elite, especially for us in Europe, where over 28 different languages are spoken. However, some of the difficulties of European languages, be it English or Spanish or German or French (not to mention Russian, Chinese, Arabic or Gaelic …) seem impossible to overcome for a great many students. (I have a long experience of teaching languages).

2) The natural evolution of Indo-European languages, from Sanskrit to today's languages, has always been towards a simpler grammar and a greater richness of vocabulary. You only have to compare Sanskrit and Hindi, ancient and modern Greek, Latin and Italian, etc… to see it. (For example a simplification of verbal forms, the disappearance of declensions). This is what the linguist Otto Jespersen found, CF 

Uropi only follows this trend. The verbal form which remains the same whatever the person was not invented by Esperanto or Uropi: it is the rule in Scandinavian languages: Danish: jeg, du, han, vi, I, de skriver, Swedish: jag, du, han, vi, ni, de skriver = I write, you write, he writes, etc… Are Scandinavian languages uglier & heavier than Spanish or Portuguese ? Judging from Bergman's films, I shouldn't think so. (Or should we say, paraphrasing Orwell that all languages are equal… but some languages are more equal than others ?).

All languages are beautiful; you only have to let yourself be charmed.

3) Uropi grammar is simple, but not simplistic.
For example you can use the durative (progressive) form, if you want to insist on the duration of an action: i se sopan = estoy durmiendo, sto dormendo, I am sleeping. From the old Indo-European declensions, Uropi has kept the genitive, as in Greek, Rumanian, Albanian, Armenian, and Scandinavian languages (+ German, Slavic and Baltic languages which have complete declensions), but which has disappeared in Romance languages, being replaced by prepositions, the use of which is not always very clear (CF di & da in Italian). Are Romance languages, which have got rid of declensions, "ugly, heavy and furiously similar to…" French ?

4) You cannot create an IAL for Romance speakers only ( for instance, the imperfect doesn't exist outside Latin languages and Greek). It is of no interest: each Romance speaker can learn enough Spanish, Italian or French to make himself understood, but what about the others ? Half the world population speaks an Indo-European language. What about our Chinese friends ? Will they appreciate those grammatical complexities which do not exist in their own language ? (The difficulties of Chinese lie elsewhere).

Is Uropi beautiful or ugly ? It's difficult to judge when you haven't heard the language, but only seen it written.

One of my correspondents, who learnt Uropi very fast, has translated the first 4 chapters of La sombra del Viento (the shadow of wind) by C.R. Zafón, whose style is not particularly simple, and whose vocabulary is not particularly poor, and yet, the translation in Uropi is beautiful. Personally, I like poetry very much and I translated poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Prévert, Apollinaire, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Goethe, Hermann Hesse, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, etc… I find those translations rather good and beautiful, and many people agree with this. You can find some of these poems on the Uropi website.

Fighting for English, for Spanish, for French or Chinese ? When will world citizens understand that it is high time to lay down arms ? Put an end to all types of wars, including the economic war, raging at the moment, and, in any case, not start a linguistic war ? Over 5000 languages are spoken in the world today, all of them are beautiful, but some are threatened like endangered species; all those languages are mankind's riches: shouldn't we try to preserve them, create a link between each other so that we might learn how to live together?

To see this article in its original context, in three languages: Uropi, English and French:

Uropi Website:


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  2. A simple grammar may be an illusion, but a necessary one. I think the wish to simplify the language is the expression of a need. The peoples continually simplify their languages, but those simplifications may be labelled as "colloquial" and kept away from the standard.

    I think that the Spanish "usted/es" probably was an attempt to get a simpler verbal conjugation based on the 3rd person.
    English is quite simple but the 3rd singular person stays different, for instance.

    "Simplifying the grammar means fighting for English"? Well, other languages have got a similar level of simplification: modern Persian and Bulgarian. And Chinese and the creole languages have a grammar simpler than the English one.

  3. I think you are quite right.

    The funny thing is that this criticism was made by a supporter of the Spanish language who said that personal inflexion for the verb was necessary.

    From this point of view, as far as conjugation is concerned, Uropi (although it is 100% Indo-European) is much closer to Chinese than it is to Spanish or Hindi (with an invariable verb form and the use of personal pronouns), as the following example shows:

    The Madarin verb xiĕ = skrivo (to write)

    wŏ xiĕ, nĭ xiĕ, tā xiĕ, wŏmen xiĕ, nĭmen xiĕ, tāmen xiĕ
    = i skriv, tu skriv, he skriv, nu skriv, vu skriv, lu skriv
    = I, you write, he writes, we, you, they write