Greek language

All hail Greek grammar school!

Globalization is a mixed blessing. And perhaps nothing has suffered more from it than world languages…

To begin with, there are around 7000 languages currently in use around the world. If you wanna find an alien language, no need to fly to Alpha Centauri: there are thousands of languages nearby that have literally nothing in common with the language you speak. And it’s not just differences in words for ‘apple’ and ‘cheese’.

Since people adore being scientists, the need for formal description of languages arose at some point of humankind history. As far as we know, Greeks were the first ones to describe their language linguistically: they have developed the perfect grammar theory for their own language. Why is it perfect? Here are some key features of Greek language:

  1. Verbicentric language. Sentences are governed by verbs that control the actants (key players) of the sentence and define the key sentence features, such as time, mood etc.
  2. The basic unit of syntax is a word. Which is some combination of letters separated from the rest by spaces, or some combination of sounds bearing a stress. A word consists of a semantic nucleus (~root) and various affixes that explore the meaning of the word deeper and define its role in the sentence. Usually, a word is perceived automatically as a single and complete unit by natural speakers.
  3. The system of personal pronouns, that are considered a separate part of the speech and behave differently than nouns in a sentence (in particular, they force a verb to inflect for them).

The Greek grammar theory considered all of those – that’s why its perfect. All wordies so familiar to us: noun, verb, adverb, preposition, case, inflection etc – all those are meant to describe the language of ancient Greeks. Then, Romans accepted their theory for their language. That was a great idea, I must say. Cause Latin and Greek are so alike: both are heavily-inflected Indo-European languages. The chain reaction started, and the Greek theory dominated the grammar niche: it was passed on from Latin to every modern Romanic language. Germanic and Slavic languages also accepted it. Again, successfully. It appears that Greek theory is universal and perfect. But… all those languages are just a bunch of Indo-European languages – all the same.

The advent of chaos happened when the theory was applied further, for non-European languages. It’s kinda trying to teach an English-speaking child math using a textbook in Russian. There are two possible outcomes:

  1. It will be a failure. Complete.
  2. The child will learn something, but under severe stress and with enormous effort.

What you expect: we are working against the nature of the child. Our child is comfortable with English, and yet we try to shove the information in Russian in its head. We ignore its strong suit, while trying to squeeze everything out of the weak one. Insignificant will be puffed up, important will be ignored.

Let’s talk about Lingua Japonica

Japanese language. So bloody amazing, so bloody alien. It has a set of features completely unknown to European tongues. Say, the notion of ‘word’. There is none. In Japanese, there are no spaces, no stress.


How many words you think are there? Some will count ten, some – seven. Some – just four…

But we are not after the ‘word’ notion. The Japanese feature most interesting to us is that there are no personal pronouns in it. At all. How possible?

Personal pronouns (I, thou, he, she, it, we, you, they) in English are in fact almost the same as nouns. Noun is a word that just refers to some object or item – isn’t it? An apple, a pie, a friend. Personal pronouns do exactly the same, and are interchangeable with nouns. Look:

I was eating pizza => The narrator was eating a pizza

You have blond hair => My interlocutor has long hair

He loves Clarisa => The guy loves Clarisa

‘I’ is just a word meaning the speaker/narrator, ‘he’ is a male person. Two almost typical nouns. Okay, their meaning is sort of vague, but so is the meaning of ‘thought’, ‘love’ and ‘problem’. There is only one reason why we, the Indo-Europeans, treat personal pronouns as a separate entity: their special syntactic behaviour. ‘Narrator’ behaves in a sentence exactly in the same manner as any noun: the narrator thinks, the chicken thinks, the lion thinks. But when we take the ‘I’ word, the article is suddenly gone, and ‘thinks‘ becomes just ‘think’.

And that’s where I come curious: why would a Japanese ever consider making them a separate category? In Lingua Japonica, so called ‘personal pronouns’ are typical nouns – no niceties at all. They are rarely used, there are lots of them (hundreds, perhaps), they never affect the syntax.

Pretend for a moment that you are a Japanese samurai who lived in Japan 500 years ago. Such words as 私, 僕, 俺, 我輩, 我, 麿, 小生 are, well, typical nouns*. Just ‘things’ such as ‘head’, ‘pear’ or ‘sword’. Nothing special about them. *btw, all seven translate as ‘I’:)

WTF is a ‘personal pronoun’ – you have no idea. Okay, sometimes it is important to stress that ‘the speaker wants to eat’, not ‘just someone wants to eat’. There are lots of nouns for that (seven of them listed above). Or you could call yourself using your first name – why not?

Then… then… Europeans come to Japan. The grammar-nerds were among them, and they immediately started to formally describe the language. And they faced a predicament: where are the pronouns. They certainly are there, obviously. “We are using the perfect grammar theory – it applied everywhere, so it will apply to Japanese. Pronouns must me there – they are essential!”

– Hello, my Japanese friend. Where are the pronouns?
– Who are the pronouns?
– Okay look, we have those: “I see a tree”, “I am from Europe”.
– So why do you use that ‘I’ word in every sentence? It’s pretty obvious that you are from Europe, not me. You’re schizo, or something?
– Hush-hush. We know better. Oh, look, what are those – 彼 and 彼女? I’ve looked at some sentences, seems to me I’ve just found “he” and “she” words…
– Okay, wait a sec. Those two mean “a man/boy” and “a woman/girl”. Yes, sometimes we put them in the beginning of a sentence, but…
– Hey, guys! It’s okay, I’ve already found “he” and “she” words, now look for “I” and “you”!
– Are you paying attention? I’m telling you – we don’t have any “he” or “she”!
– Oh, it’s okay. You will…

So grammar nerds started indoctrinating the locals. And did well – the pronouns came into existence indeed. The translators have also contributed: no-one ever told them that sentences are never translated literally. “If “he” is in every sentence of European language, shouldn’t I translate it somehow into Japanese?” Those 彼 and 彼女 became frequently used, mostly inappropriately. Even by Japanese themselves. And as for foreigners… a disaster. “Watashiwa, watashiwa!”. It’s like there are no other words in the language. In every Japanese textbook there is a “personal pronoun” paragraph, where all those ‘pronouns’ listed in a comfortable-for-european manner: three persons, singular, then plural… (‘What’s plural?’ Japanese asked). “We are used to pronouns, how could we do without them?”  Then all those ‘students’ come to Japan, shoving ‘pronouns’ in every sentence they can. In fact: total ignorance of the key features of the language, and utter reluctance to try understanding them. ” “Insignificant will be puffed up, important will be ignored.”

Welcome Riau Indonesian

The artifact in the world of languages. Some people say it’s imperfect, some say it’s corrupt. It’s features are indeed stunning:

  1. All words are inflexible. Just like in Chinese.
  2. No word order. That’s where it differs from Chinese. While Chinese relies on word order to convey the subtleties of meaning, Riau does not.

How does it convey those subtleties then? Well, it does not. Riau is a language of asyntactic type. Unlike most languages that rely on verb to govern sentence structure, Riau has no sentence structure. A ‘sentence’ in Riau is just a pile of any words. And all words belong to one part of the speech. ‘Just words’. They all have individual meaning, but their role in a sentence is undefined. The meaning of a phrase is deduced from meaning of individual words:

Phase: Honda pakai abang Elly.
Literally: Bike+use+brother+Elly
English: My brother Elly rides a bike.
The context saves in this situation. The speaker was probably pointing at his brother who was sitting on a bike. In another situation, the same phrase could mean, say: “The one standing by the used bike is my brother Elly”. Or whatever.

Phrase: Ayam makan.
Literally: Chicken+eating.
English: Who knows. A chicken eats? They eat a chicken? Food for chicken?
The meaning can be clear only if we knew the circumstances. Was the phrase said on bird farm? Or in KFC restaurant?

All seems obvious and unequivocal. Yet… there are proponents of the hypothesis that there are grammatical categories in Riau. Where? Why? I have read the article that defends the theory, and still cannot understand what it is based on. Okay, all words in language can be categorized by sense. “Chicken” is normally an animal, “use” is normally an activity, “house” is normally a place. But firstly, normally is not always, secondly – the meaning of a word has nothing to do with syntax. In every language in the world there are words that mean ‘male’ and ‘female’ individuals. Perhaps only in the language of asexual aliens, there are none. But it doesn’t mean that English has grammatical genders, like French or German. There are no genders at all – just sexes. Those who failed to understand that while studying English are easy to recognize: to them, zebra is always “she” and elephant is always “he”.

Same is Riau: there are words that mean activities and words that mean things. But it’s far from “noun vs verb” concept known to Europeans. Verb is a syntactic category, that defines the structure of the sentence. But in Riau, all words are treated the same, their differences are in meaning only. It is obvious that “house” is a place, and it unlikely would be an activity (not necessarily though: we house people sometimes).

The right thing to do: never look for something in a language. Don’t look for verbs, or pronouns. Just describe the language as it is.

Q: What other language anomalies are there?
An assortment of them. There are languages without tenses, prepositions(!), questions and negations(!!!). Looking for such weirds is a topic for an article in its own.

A final advice for those approaching a new language, particularly an “exotic” one: learn its features and irregularities. Talk to a linguist, to a native, ask a few leading questions such as “Are there real pronouns?”. Let them explain to you how sentences work in the language, what subtleties of meaning are differentiated, and which ones are omitted. That’s how you learn what you are dealing with and what you should pay attention to. Otherwise – you’ll learn a mutant language to terrify every native in your way☻


Further reads

Yoder, B. (2010). Syntactic underspecification in Riau Indonesian. Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of South Dakota, 50, 1-15.

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