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linguistic evolution January 29, 2010

Posted by t-maker in History, Miscellaneous, Science.
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According to the new study, human languages may adapt more like biological organisms, namely the more common and popular the language, the simpler its construction to facilitate its survival.

For years, it has been the reigning assumption in the linguistic sciences that languages develop is based upon random change and historical drift. But a large-scale statistical analysis of more than 2,000 of the world’s languages provides an evidence that there is a striking relationships between the demographic properties of a language – such as its population and global spread – and the grammatical complexity of those languages. Languages having the most speakers were found to have far simpler grammars, specifically morphology, than languages spoken by few people and in circumscribed regions.

Larger populations tend to have simpler pronoun and number systems and a smaller number of cases and genders and in general do not employ complex prefixing or suffixing rules in their grammars. A consequence is that languages with long histories of adult learners have become easier to learn over time.

The authors of the study insist that their results draw connections between the evolution of human language and biological organisms.

The conclusion is the following:

A consequence is that languages with long histories of adult learners have become easier to learn over time.

The full article may be found here.

It looked convincing enough for me, as a non-specialist in linguistic studies. But then I turned to the List of languages by number of native speakers From Wikipedia. The largest number of native speakers has Mandarin Chinese (estimated as 800,000,000). I don’t think that it is the easiest language to learn (not only for Europeans). Mandarin Chinese is followed by Spanish (358,000,000 speakers) and English (350,000,000) in number of speakers, comparatively simple languages. But then we have Hindi/Urdu (200,000,000), Arabic (150,000,000), Bengali (170,000,000), Russian (160,000,000)… I think the studies like that can prove only one thing: Anglocentrism of the researchers.

tempus tantum nostrum est April 8, 2009

Posted by t-maker in History, Miscellaneous, Quotes.
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At the end of his life Seneca wrote a series of letters on moral issues, so called Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, to his friend Lucilius Junior. My favorite is the first one, On Saving Time.

He wrote, in particular,

While we are postponing, life speeds by.
Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except
time. We were entrusted by nature with the owner-
ship of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery
that anyone who will can oust us from possession.
What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest
and most useless things, which can easily be replaced,
to be charged in the reckoning, after they have
acquired them ; but they never regard themselves as
in debt when they have received some of that precious
commodity, time ! And yet time is the one loan
which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

(Translated by R. M. Gummere)

Youth and Time

(John William Godward, Youth and Time, 1901)

Read it.

Ad Lucilium epistulae morales

Misanthropy March 22, 2009

Posted by t-maker in History, Miscellaneous, Quotes.
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Bias, son of Teutamus

In “History of Western Philosophy” Bertrand Russell writes about Heraclitus that “From what survives of his writings he does not appear as an amiable character. … He speaks ill of all his eminent predecessors, with a single exception.” Russell identifies, wrongly, this one exception as Teutamus. Actually Heraclitus mentioned “Bias, son of Teutamus, whose word was worth more than that of others”. According to Diogenes LaertiusHeraclitus … a man who was not easily pleased, has praised him”. In antiquity Bias was considered as one of the Seven Sages of Greece.

What is the reason for this praise? Only a few of his words have survived from ancient times. The most famous is the following.

“Most men are bad.”

A century later, after Heraclitus’ time, this point of view was already considered as a kind of misanthropy. Plato (or Socrates) thought different than Heraclitus (Bias).

Is it not obvious that such an one having to deal with other men, was clearly without any experience of human nature; for experience would have taught him the true state of the case, that few are the good and few the evil, and that the great majority are in the interval between them.

What do you mean? I said.

I mean, he replied, as you might say of the very large and very small, that nothing is more uncommon than a very large or very small man; and this applies generally to all extremes, whether of great and small, or swift and slow, or fair and foul, or black and white: and whether the instances you select be men or dogs or anything else, few are the extremes, but many are in the mean between them. Did you never observe this?

Yes, I said, I have.

And do you not imagine, he said, that if there were a competition in evil, the worst would be found to be very few?

Yes, that is very likely, I said.

(From Plato, Phaedo)


1. Bertrand Russell. History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 2004

2. Heraclitus of Ephesus – Two Parts – Part Two – Athenaeum Library of Philosophy

3. Full text of The Fragments of the Work of Heraclitus of Ephesus on Nature; Translated from the Greek Text of …

4. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of the Philosophers translated by C.D. Yonge

5. Bias of Priene

6. Internet Archive: Free Download: Phaedo