The sci.lang FAQ: 30

30 Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex?

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This question starts with an observation: the classical Indo-European languages, such as Latin, Greek, Old English, and Sanskrit, were highly inflected, while their modern descendants are not. For instance, French nouns have entirely lost the Latin case system, and French verbs have lost entire classes of forms, such as the passive voice.

It's natural to ask: how did the classical languages get so complex in the first place? Why are there inflecting languages at all; why don't they all become isolating, like Chinese?

The answer is that there are also complicating tendencies in language. Habitual idioms can become particles, which can become inflections-- a process called grammaticalization.

For instance, the future and conditional tenses in Romance languages don't derive from classical Latin, but the infinitive plus forms of 'to have'. French has rather complicated verb clusters (je ne le lui ai pas donné) which are perhaps best analyzed as single verbs showing both subject and object agreement.

Another example is the plethora of cases in Finnish, many of which derive from postpositions. Roger Lass has pointed out a cycle in Germanic languages where perfectives are developed, merge with the imperfect, and are developed anew.

Chinese is not immune from this phenomenon-- Mandarin already has verbal particles like perfective le, or nominal particles like the possessive/adjectivizing de. The diminutive -r even merges with the preceding syllable; e.g. diân + -r --> diâr 'a bit'.

31 Where did (some word or phrase) come from?

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If you get a snarky response to such questions on sci.lang, it's because some people think you ought to look in a dictionary first. The American Heritage Dictionary traces words back (where possible) to Proto-Indo-European; and the massive Oxford English Dictionary, available at most libraries, contains not only etymologies but illustrative citations through the centuries.

When it comes to word and phrase origins, most people's standard of proof seems to be "Doesn't violate the laws of physics!" But a plausible story is not a proof. The three most important types of evidence in etymology are citations, citations, citations. If you have some amusing theory that "the whole nine yards" derives from haberdashery, or baseball, or mortuaries, you'd better have appropriate examples from those fields in the right historical period.

Anyway, here are brief notes on a few terms that have been asked about more than once on sci.lang. (Also see the alt.usage.english FAQ.)


There's half a dozen explanations for this, but only one correct one, demonstrated with hundreds of citations by Allen Walker Read in 1964: OK stands for oll korrect, and dates to a fad for humorous mis-abbreviations which started in Boston newspapers in 1838. It spread nationwide when supporters of Martin Van Buren organized the "OK Club" during the 1840 presidential campaign (giving the term a double meaning, since Van Buren's nickname was Old Kinderhook).


Some people have wondered if the Spanish formal second person pronoun Usted came from the Arabic honorific 'usta:dh. It doesn't; it's a well-attested abbreviation of vuestra merced 'your mercy'. There are transitional forms such as vuasted, vuesarced, voarced as well as parallel constructions like usía from vuestra señoría, ucencia from vuestra excelencia. Compare also Portuguese vossa mercê --> vosmecê --> você, as well as Catalán vosté and Gallego vostede. Finally, note that the abbreviation Usted doesn't appear until 130 years after the Moors had been kicked out of Spain.

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