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Language X is older than Y

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 Message 1 of 31
18 November 2012 at 1:31pm | IP Logged 
I often hear people say things like Lithuanian or Basque are very old languages. Or that
Mirandese is older than Portuguese.

But somehow I feel it's wrong or at least very inaccurate to put it like that. Wouldn't
"conservative" be a better word than just "old"?

Any thoughts?
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 Message 2 of 31
18 November 2012 at 3:10pm | IP Logged 
Why do you feel "conservative" is a better word? I'm certainly no historical linguist,
but when I think of older languages, particularly those that survive as a spoken
language today, that's not a word I'd associate with them.

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 Message 3 of 31
18 November 2012 at 4:06pm | IP Logged 
Because they have changed less.
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 Message 4 of 31
18 November 2012 at 4:11pm | IP Logged 
It is debatable when a language was born - it will rarely happen overnight, and there may be not even be a clear point where you can say that its predecessor died and a newborn arose from the ashes like a Phoenix bird. With that parallel in mind I have to agree with j0nas: it s better to say that some languages are conservative in the sense that they tend to stay more or less the same for a very long time. Then we avoid the question about the precise moment where they were born, and we stress the tendency not to change.

The term 'old' rests upon a false analogy with humans, where there is a clear point of depart and an identity that can't be compromised by even the most radical changes in lifestyle.

Edited by Iversen on 18 November 2012 at 4:24pm

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 Message 5 of 31
18 November 2012 at 8:39pm | IP Logged 
j0nas wrote:
I often hear people say things like Lithuanian or Basque are very old languages. Or that
Mirandese is older than Portuguese.

But somehow I feel it's wrong or at least very inaccurate to put it like that. Wouldn't
"conservative" be a better word than just "old"?

Any thoughts?

There's a bit of related discussion between three of us in "Popular misconceptions about languages". To reiterate I restrict using "old" when as it involves languages when comparing attestations or usage - i.e. specific examples that can be usefully analyzed or compared on a temporal scale. E.g. Hwæt! is the "old way" of expressing What! as deduced by examining Beowulf). Anything else I avoid because of the lack of precision and potential to make meaningless or dubious insinuation by conflating the senses of "old" (and "new/young" for that matter).

Popular misconceptions about languages? wrote:
Chung wrote:
Another one: If you know Sanskrit, you can have a basic conversation with a Lithuanian peasant.

This misconception arises when people misinterpret or fail to understand historical linguistics. Because Lithuanian appears to have been the most conservative* of Indo-European languages in Europe, there arise fallacies that Lithuanian is "old" or more worthy of respect and that it'd still be intelligible to someone who knows an Indo-European language of Antiquity such as Sanskrit. These fallacies are most commonly-held by Lithuanian nationalists or people who are not trained linguists.

*"Conservative" in historical linguistics refers to the fact that a language's grammar or phonology has changed little from what has been hypothesized in the reconstructed ancestral language. In the case of modern Lithuanian, its grammar and phonology appear closer to what has been found in attested languages such as Sanskrit or Latin and hypothesized for Proto-Indo-European. A language whose current grammar or phonology has changed relatively much since the days of the reconstructed proto-language or appears noticeably different from that of postulated cognate languages is described as "innovative" or "divergent". While Lithuanian is usually described as conservative, the kindred Slavonic languages are usually described as innovative or divergent (compared to Lithuanian) as these languages' grammar and phonology are less similar to what is observed in Sanskrit or Latin, let alone hypothesized for Proto-Indo-European.

Gusutafu wrote:
First, some pet peeves: relating to what Chung wrote, I mention the usage of 'old' in the sense of 'young'. Surely, Akkadian is a much younger language than English. English has developed and aged for thousands of years longer.

Similarly, when people call Latin and Greek "dead" languages. Both languages are studied by thousands of people every minute of the day, as well as spoken in prayers and services all over the world, all the time. They may be more or less frozen, but they are hardly dead until people stop using them. [...]

CaptainHaddock wrote:
Gusutafu, you made the same reply to me once, but I think the nuance of English adjectives might be tripping you up. 'Old'
and 'young' are evaluated in relation to the present. Akkadian is an old language, Afrikaans is a young language. The terms
'early' and 'late' work the opposite way — Akkadian is an early Semitic language, while Afrikaans has developed much later —
so perhaps that's what you're getting at. Perhaps Swedish works differently in this regard.

Regarding the main topic at hand, most people (at least in the anglosphere) are far too ignorant about languages to have any
conceptions at all, including misconceptions. "English is a Romance language" is a good example, though. Another would be
that Shakespeare and the King James Bible are "Old English", when in fact they are early modern English.

Certain cultures and circles tend to have their own peculiar misconceptions as well. A lot of Turks believe that Turkish was the original
language from which all others spread (!), and I have seen passionate arguments made to this effect on sci.lang. Then there are the
hebrewphiles, who like to think ancient Hebrew is related to almost every modern language. (There's even a crackpot "Hebrew origins of
Japanese" theory.)

Gusutafu wrote:
No, that's not it. I didn't actually mean that this was a mistake on an individual level, rather a very misleading way of using the word that has gained a foothold. It is true that it is probably less common to talk about "old" languages in Swedish, I like to think that we speak of "ancient" languages instead. Come to think of it, I am not so sure that the adjective "old" is used in English publications either, isn't it more of a colloquial term? In any case, I didn't mean that a person calling Latin old is making a bigger mistake than someone calling America a democracy, it's just the way we've been taught to speak.

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 Message 6 of 31
19 November 2012 at 1:27am | IP Logged 
The "old" thing drives me nuts—all modern languages are equally "old" if you count from the first development of
language (and even that is an assumption I make). I'm with JOnas on conservative, but with something like Basque
that's not even quite right. The thing about Basque is that it doesn't seem like anything else near it—it's an isolate
after all.

That said, I can see the pride of place a lot of minority-language speakers might have on their language. "It's not as
well known as English (or what have you), but it's old." It's also likely that most people never give this sort of thing a
second thought.
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 Message 7 of 31
19 November 2012 at 3:21am | IP Logged 
Interestingly, in terms of language age, there is the case of creole languages, which depending on which theory of their origin you subscribe to, you can argue one can assign a narrow set of dates as a marker on their birthdate (within 20 years even).

The predominant theory states that creoles are born from pidgins, when the first generation of children born from parents that spoke a pidgin to facilitate communitation adopt it as their native language. So one could assign the date of birth for that language creole to the period of birth of that first generation.

While a pidgin is a very simplified for of communication, with a clearly more simple grammar and inflection than normal languages, the first generation that pick it up standarize the grammar and to a lesser extent the vocabulary and accent and convert the pidgin to a full-fledged language (not all scholars subscribe to this theory of origin of pidgins, but many do), and somehow this process brings complexity to the new language, to the point that creoles are just as complex as any other "evolutionary" language.
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 Message 8 of 31
19 November 2012 at 12:13pm | IP Logged 
I can't see why "old(er)" shouldn't be used and replaced by "conservative". For me, these terms refer to two different things.

Ancient Egyptian began to be written around 3200 BC and died as a spoken language somewhere aroud 1100 AD. Should I refrain from saying that this language is older than French ?

"Old" might not be a good term from a historical linguistic point of view but replacing it by "A is more/less conservative than B" doesn't make much sense to me.

Edited by akkadboy on 19 November 2012 at 12:16pm

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