Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars
Navajo as Default
1. The Problem
The concept elicits little objection when observed in passing. Dalby (1998, 391) hardly considers it a venturesome statement that “a lingua franca needs to be easy to grasp, and Malay has a more approachable structure than its relatives.” When Trudgill (1996, 8–9) proposes that Alpine Romansch and Faroese have accreted unusual and complex sounds because as isolated languages, they have rarely been subjected to adults’ diminished capacity for imitating unfamiliar phonetic segments, the argument is not received as controversial.
That is, that heavy second-language acquisition decreases structural complexity is thoroughly intuitive to most linguists on a certain level. Yet in response to a specific argument that non-native acquisition has rendered a given language less complex overall, linguists tend toward a visceral skepticism. This skepticism is founded upon an assumption considered a hallmark of informed linguistic thought, that human grammars are all equally complex. Some examples of this commonplace assumption among linguists include Edwards (1994, 90), Bickerton (1995, 67), O’Grady et al. (1997, 6), and Crystal (1987, 6–7). We are to keep in mind, for example, that English may appear a “simplified” Germanic language in lacking Icelandic’s inflectional paradigms, but has do-support, and a mixed phonology with different rules for Germanic words than Latinate ones.
Responses to complexity arguments are especially vehement when it is proposed that a creole language is less complex than older languages. Reactions tend to fall upon a cline ranging from sharp objections suspecting sinister sociopolitical motives (various writings of Michel DeGraff) to studious disinterest (e.g., Roberge 2003, 343: “I will not be losing any sleep over the coherence of the field if creoles are not a linguistically definable class”)...