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“one”为什么是“一”?语言中的词义谁说了算?

“one”为什么是“一”?语言中的词义谁说了算?

我们翻译这篇文章的理由

从牙牙学语开始就在使用语言,上学之后又学了这么多年语言,现在关注取经号,很可能也是为了更好地学习语言——但还是不知道语言究竟是什么?天是蓝色的,但什么是天,什么又是蓝色?

德里达说,‘寂静’(le silence)是一个不是词的词,它吹拂着不是对象的对象。

——伍豪

?

语言中的词义谁说了算?

作者:lane gereene

译者:黄倩霞 & 邓小雪 & 张力文

校对:张松

策划:黄倩霞 & 李攸然

Who decides what words mean?

谁决定了词义?

Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge

语言受到规则的约束,但又不断地改变,它可能是一套极其自我规范的体系,不受任何人的掌控。

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

社交媒体兴起几十年之前,对语言的讨论就两极分化了。总体而言,如今也依旧如此。任何关心语言这个话题的人都会被官方要求在两派之间选择一方站边。一些发现语言中格格不入的错误而自鸣得意的人,也就是规范主义派;相对地,那些炫耀自己对语言变化的了解,从规范主义派事实种找漏洞的人,就是描述主义派了。选择其中一派是强制的,同时这两派之间没有任何交集。

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying The Economist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.

但也并非如此不可。我在工作中扮演两种角色:编辑和语言专栏作家。这两项工作多多少少需要我同时扮演规范主义者和描述主义者的双重角色。如果我收到的稿件有语法或结构错误,我会纠正(并统一成《经济学人》特有的文字规范)。但写专栏的时候,我会学习实际应用中混乱的语言,而不是批评这样那样的错误,我尝试教自己(也教读者)一些新东西。这是一种分裂的人格吗?又或者说,这两派可以融合到一起呢?我相信可以。

Language changes all the time. Some changes really are chaotic, and disruptive. Take decimate, a prescriptivist shibboleth. It comes from the old Roman practice of punishing a mutinous legion by killing every 10th soldier (hence that deci- root). Now we don’t often need a word for destroying exactly a 10th of something – this is the ‘etymological fallacy’, the idea that a word must mean exactly what its component roots indicate. But it is useful to have a word that means to destroy a sizeable proportion of something. Yet many people have extended the meaning of decimate until now it means something approaching ‘to wipe out utterly’.

语言从未停止过改变。有些改变确实是混乱的、颠覆的。就拿“decimate”这个词来说,它是一个规范主义者的陈词滥调,源于古罗马时镇压暴乱军队的旧俗:杀掉每十个士兵当中的第十个人(因此就有了“deci-”这个词根,意思是“十分之一”)。现在我们不需要一个词来表示摧毁某样东西每十个里的第十个,这就是“词源谬论”——一个词必须和组成它的词根表示完全相同的意思。但是,如果有一个词能表示摧毁某样东西中很大一部分,那会非常有用。于是很多人拓展了“decimate”的意思,现在这个词的词义更接近于“完全摧毁”。

Descriptivists – that is, virtually all academic linguists – will point out that semantic creep is how languages work. It’s just something words do: look up virtually any nontechnical word in the great historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which lists a word’s senses in historical order. You’ll see things such as the extension of decimate happening again and again and again. Words won’t sit still. The prescriptivist position, offered one linguist, is like taking a snapshot of the surface of the ocean and insisting that’s how ocean surfaces must look.

描述主义者,其实包含所有语言学家,会指出语义延伸是语言运作的原理。语义延伸只针对词而言:如果你在牛津英语字典里查任何一个非技术词汇的意思,你会看到这个词所有意义的历史衍变。从而发现,像“decimate”这样的词义衍生一而再、再而三地发生过。词义不会静止不变。一个语言学家提出,规范主义的立场就好比是在海面上抓拍了一张照片并坚称这是海面应有的样子。

Be that as it may, retort prescriptivists, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Decimate doesn’t have a good synonym in its traditional meaning (to destroy a portion of), and it has lots of company in its new meaning: destroy, annihilate, devastate and so on. If decimate eventually settles on this latter meaning, we lose a unique word and gain nothing. People who use it the old way and people who use it the new way can also confuse each other.

话虽如此,规范主义者会反驳,语义延伸还是一样令人恼怒。Decimate这个词的传统意义(摧毁一部分)并没有贴切的同义词,但它延伸出的新含义却有很多类似的词可以表达,比如destroy annihilate, devastate等等。如果“decimate”这个词的词义最终固定成了后一种延伸意义,我们就失去了一个独一无二的词,但不会获得什么新东西。有些人用它的传统意义,有些人用它的延伸意义又会造成误解。

Or take literally, on which I am a traditionalist. It is a delight to be able to use a good literally: when my son fell off a horse on a recent holiday, I was able to reassure my mother that ‘He literallygot right back in the saddle,’ and this pleased me no end. So when people use literallyto say, for example, We literallywalked a million miles, I sigh a little sigh. I know that James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and many others used a figurative literally, but as a mere intensifier it’s not particularly useful or lovely, and it is particularly useful and lovely in the traditional sense, where it has no good substitute.

再拿“literally”这个词来说,对此我是个规范主义者。能够使用好“literally”是一件令人高兴的事情:我儿子最近的假期摔下了马,我对母亲说,“他确确实实(“literally”)立刻又回到了马鞍上”,使母亲安下了心,这让我感到非常满意。因此,当人们用“literally”说,例如,“我们简直是(“literally”)走了一百万英里”,我轻叹了一口气。我知道詹姆斯·乔伊斯,弗拉基米尔·纳博科夫和其他许多人把“literally”用作一个修饰语,但作为一个语气增强词,它并不是特别有用或可爱,但用作传统意义时却尤其地有用又可爱,因为没有更好的词来替代它。

literally (past) figurative 的的确确 =I can assure you that

literally (now) intensifier 简直、毫不夸张地(未必是真实的情况)

There is another fact to bear in mind: no language has fallen apart from lack of care. It is just not something that happens – literally. Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

还要明确另一个事实:没有一种语言因缺乏维护而崩溃。毫不夸张地说,这是不可能发生的事情。描述主义者列举不出哪怕一种语言,是因为人们没有恪守传统词汇和语法而无法使用或者变得表意困难。今天存在的每种语言都具有极佳的表现力。虽说这是个常识,不过这简直是个奇迹,这点不仅所有语言都具有,而且所有使用语言的人也都知道。

How can this be? Why does change of the decimate variety not add up to chaos? If one such ‘error’ is bad, and these kinds of things are happening all the time, how do things manage to hold together?

怎么会这样呢?为什么“decimate”这样的词义变化没有造成混乱?如果一个这样的“错误”是坏的,并且同样的事情一直在发生,那么语言如何还能维持平衡呢?

The answer is that language is a system. Sounds, words and grammar do not exist in isolation: each of these three levels of language constitutes a system in itself. And, extraordinarily, these systems change as systems. If one change threatens disruption, another change compensates, so that the new system, though different from the old, is still an efficient, expressive and useful whole.

答案是语言是一个系统。语音、单词和语法不是孤立存在的:语言的这三个层次本身就构成了一个系统。而且,惊人的是,这三个系统的变化也是系统的。如果发生了一个有破坏性威胁的变化,另一个变化会作出补偿,因此新系统虽然与旧系统不同,但仍然是一个高效、富有表现力且有用的整体。

Begin with sounds. Every language has a characteristic inventory of contrasting sounds, called phonemes. Beet and bit have different vowels; these are two phonemes in English. Italian has only one, which is why Italians tend to make homophones of sheet and shit.

先从语音开始说起。每种语言都有一个独特的对比音目录,称为音素。“Beet” 和“bit”元音不同;这是两个英文音素。意大利语只有一个,这就是为什么意大利人会创造“sheet” 和“shit”这样的同音词。

There is something odd about the vowels of English. Have you ever noticed that every language in Europe seems to use the letter A the same way? From latte to lager to tapas, Italian, German and Spanish all seem to use it for the ah sound. And at some level, this seems natural; if you learn frango is ‘chicken’ in Portuguese, you will probably know to pronounce it with an ah, not an ay. How, then, did English get A to sound like it does in plate, name, face and so on?

英语元音有些奇怪之处。你是否注意到欧洲的每种语言似乎都以同样的方式使用字母A?从latte(意大利语拿铁)、lager(德语啤酒)到tapas(西班牙语小吃),意大利语,德语和西班牙语似乎都用它“A”来代表“ah”(译者注:类似英音的/ɑ:/)的声音。在某种程度上,这似乎很自然;如果你知道“frango”在葡萄牙语里是是’chicken’(英语:鸡)的意思,你可能就会知道这里的“a”发“ah”,而不是“ay”(译者注:类似英音的/eɪ/)。那么,字母“a”在plate, name, face等等英语单词当中的发音是哪里来的呢?

Look around the other ‘long’ vowels in English, and they seem out of whack in similar ways. The letter I has an ee sound from Nice to Nizhni Novgorod; why does it have the sound it does in English write and ride? And why do two Os yield the sound they do in boot and food?

看看英语中其他“长”元音,它们似乎都有这样的错乱。为什么“i”这个字母在英语中可以发“ee”这个音,如“Nice”(英文名:尼斯)或“Nizhni Novgorod”(俄罗斯地名【英】:诺夫哥罗德),还可以发“write”和“ride”当中的音?为什么“oo”会是“boot”和“food”里的发音呢?

The answer is the Great Vowel Shift. From the middle English period and continuing into the early modern era, the entire set of English long vowels underwent a radical disruption. Meet used to be pronounced a bit like modern mate. Boot used to sound like boat. (But both vowels were monophthongs, not diphthongs; the modern long A is really pronounced like ay-ee said quickly, but the vowel in medieval meet was a pure single vowel.)

答案是元音大推移。从中古英语时期到现代英语早期,整套英语长元音经历了彻底的颠覆。“meet”以前的发音有点像现在的“mate”。“boot”以前的读音更接近于“boat”。(但两个元音都是单音,而不是双元音;现代英语中的A很像很快说ay-ee,但这个音在中世纪是一个纯粹的单元音。)

During the Great Vowel Shift, ee and oo started to move towards the sounds they have today. Nobody knows why. It’s likely that some people noticed at the time and groused about it. In any case, there was really a problem: now ee was too close to the vowel in time, which in that era was pronounced tee-muh. And oo was too close to the vowel in house, which was then pronounced hoose.

在元音大推移期间,ee和oo开始向今天的发音变化。没人知道其中的原因。当时有些人可能注意到了这一点,并抱怨不已。在很多情况下,确实存在一个问题:当时ee的发音太接近“time”里的元音发音了,那时的发音为tee-muh。“oo”的发音和“house”中的元音也太过相似了,当时读成“hoose”。

Speakers didn’t passively accept the confusion. What happened next shows the genius of what economists call spontaneous order. In response to their new pushy neighbours in the vowel space, the vowels in time and house started to change, too, becoming something like tuh-eem and huh-oos. Other changes prompted yet more changes, too: the vowel in mate – then pronounced mah-tuh – moved towards the sound of the modern vowel in cat. That made it a little too close to meat, which was pronounced like a drawn-out version of the modern met. So the vowel in meat changed too.

说语言的人并没有被动地接受混乱。接下来发生的事情印证了经济学家所说的自发秩序多么天才。由于这些极度相似的元音,“time”和“house”中的元音也开始改变,变得像tuh-eem和huh-oos。其他一些变化也引发了更多的变化:“mate”中的元音 – 当时发音是mah-tuh – 朝着现代元音“cat”变化。这使它有点太接近“meat”,像现在“met”的延长版。所以“meat”中的元音也发生了变化。

Throughout the system, vowels were on the move. Nobody in a 15th-century tavern (men carried knives back then) wants to confuse meet, meat and mate. So they responded to a potentially damaging change by changing something else. A few vowels ended up merging. So meet and meat became homophones. But mostly the system just settled down with each vowel in a new place. It was the Great Vowel Shift, not the Great Vowel Pile-Up.

在整个系统中,元音在不断改变。在15世纪的小酒馆(那时男人带着刀),没有人想混淆“meet”(见面)、“meat”(肉)和“mate”(伴侣)。因此,他们通过改变其他途径来应对潜在的破坏性变化。一些元音最终融合在了一起。所以“meet”和“meat”变成了同音词。但大多数情况下,系统将每个元音重新安排在了新的位置。这是元音大推移,而不是元音大堆积。

Such shifts are common enough that they have earned a name: ‘chain shifts’. These are what happens when one change prompts another, which in turn prompts yet another, and so on, until the language arrives at a new equilibrium. There is a chain shift underway now: the Northern Cities Shift, noticed and described in the cities around the Great Lakes of North America by William Labov, the pioneer of sociolinguistics. There is also a California Shift. In other words, these things happen. The local, individual change is chaotic and random, but the system responds to keep things from coming to harm.

这种转变很常见,它们有一个名字:“连锁转变”。就是说,一个变化推动了另一个变化的发生,另一个变化又引起了下一个变化,以此类推,直到语言达到新的平衡。现在正有一场连锁转变:北方城市转变,它描述了北美五大湖周围的城市情况,由社会语言学先驱威廉·拉博夫提出。同时还有加州转变。换句话说,这些事情在发生。当地的、个人的变化是混乱、随机的,但语言系统对此作出回应,防止事态发展到有害的地步。

In researching Samuel Johnson’s dictionary for my new book, Talk on the Wild Side (2018), I made a startling find. Johnson, in describing his plan for the dictionary to the Earl of Chesterfield in 1747, wrote that

为我的新书《在野外谈话》(2018年),我研究了塞缪尔约翰逊的字典时,有了一个惊人的发现。约翰逊在1747年向切斯特菲尔德伯爵描述他编著字典的计划时写道

[B]uxom, which means only obedient, is now made, in familiar phrases, to stand for wanton; because in an ancient form of marriage, before the Reformation, the bride promised complaisance and obedience, in these terms: ‘I will be bonair and buxom in bed and at board.’

Buxom,只有顺从的意思,现在(译者注:1747年)在近似的语境中则表示为淫荡;因为在在宗教改革之前古老的婚姻形式中,新娘会承诺谦顺、顺从,她会说:“无论在(厨房)台面上还是在床上,我都会在谦卑和服从

Bonair: 古英语,complaisant; yielding; obedient. 已过时。

When most people think of buxom today, neither ‘obedient’ nor ‘wanton’ is what comes to mind

大多数人今天想到“buxom”这个词的时候,既不会联想到“顺从”,也不会联想到“淫荡”。

Turning to the OED, I found that buxom had come from a medieval word buhsam, cognate to the modern German biegsam, or ‘bendable’. From physical to metaphorical (the natural extension), it came to mean ‘pliable’ of a person, or – as Johnson put it – obedient. Then buxom kept on moving: a short hop from ‘obedient’ to ‘amiable’, and then another one to ‘lively, gay’. (William Shakespeare describes a soldier of ‘buxom valour’ in Henry V.) From there, it is another short jump to ‘healthy, vigorous’, which seems to have been the current meaning around Johnson’s time. From ‘good health’ it was another logical extension to physical plumpness, then to plumpness specifically on a woman, to big-breasted.

通过翻阅牛津英语词典,我发现buxom一词(意为“丰满的”)来源于一个中世纪的词汇“buhsam”,与现代德语中“biegsam”一词(意为“可弯曲的”)同源。buxom从原本的对身体的形容发展出了比喻的含义,就像约翰逊指出的那样,开始用来形容一个人“柔软或顺从”。之后,buxom继续引申出其他含义:从“顺从的”到“和蔼可亲的”,再到“有活力的,愉快的”(莎士比亚在《亨利五世》中描述一个士兵时就用到了“buxom valour”)。再后来,buxom的词义又跳转到了“健康、有活力的”,这似乎已经是约翰逊的时代所使用的词义了。从“健康”出发,buxom延伸到身体丰满的意义也是合乎逻辑的了,然后就特指为女性的身材丰满,也就是大胸。

The leap from ‘obedient’ to ‘busty’ seems extraordinary until we look at it step by step. Nice used to mean ‘foolish’. Silly used to mean ‘holy’. Assassin is from the plural of the Arabic word for ‘hashish(-eater)’, and magazine from the Arabic word for a storehouse. This is just what words do. Prestigious used to be pejorative, meaning glittery but not substantive. These kinds of changes are common.

从“顺从”变为“胸脯丰满”,如果我们不这样一步一步地找出buxom词义的演变过程,我们会觉得变化很大。“Nice”(好的)曾经意为“foolish”(蠢笨的), “Silly”(傻瓜)曾经意为“holy”(圣洁的)。“Assassin”(刺客)来源于一个阿拉伯语单词的复数形式“hashish(-eater)”(大麻/大麻食用者),而“magazine”(杂志)则来源于阿拉伯语中的仓库。词汇就是这么演变的。“Prestigious”(有名望的)原本带有轻蔑的意味,有华而不实的意思。这种变化是很常见的。

Two paragraphs ago, I used the words ‘leap’ and ‘jump’. But we see the ‘leaps’ only when lexicographers, looking back, chop up a word’s history into meanings for their dictionaries. Words change meaning gradually, as a small number of speakers use them in a new way, and they in turn cause others to do so. This is how words can change meaning so totally and utterly; mostly, they do so in steps too small to notice.

两段之前,我使用了“leap”(飞跃)和“jump”(跳跃)。但是,只有当词典编纂者在回顾一个单词的历史、并将其各种含义编入字典的时候,我们才能看出词汇跳跃式演变的过程。当一小部分人开始以全新的方式来使用一个词汇,并且使得周围的人也这么使用,词义就开始逐渐改变了。通常人们在不知不觉中逐步修改了词义,日积月累词义就产生了彻底的改变。

Again, no chaos results. Every time buxom changed meaning, it could have theoretically left a hole in the lexicon for the meaning it had left behind. But in each case, another word filled its place: in fact, the ones I have used above (pliable, obedient, amiable, lively, gay, healthy, plump and so on). For useful concepts, it seems, the lexicon abhors a vacuum. (I don’t know how we did without hangry so long in English, because I spent about a third of every day hangry. But sure enough, someone coined it.)

这也并没有造成混乱。每次buxom改变意思,从理论上来说都会留下之前那个词义的空缺。但是每一次都会有另一个词来填补空缺:也就是我在上文中使用的那些词语(pliable柔软的, obedient顺从的, amiable和蔼可亲的, lively生动活泼的, gay愉快的, healthy健康的, plump丰满的,等等)。对于生活中经常使用的概念,一般都有对应词汇。(我不知道为什么英语中这么长时间都没有“hangry(饿怒,即因饥饿而发怒)”一词,因为一天中我有三分之一的时间都在饿怒。好在已经有人造出了这个词。)

There are several predictable ways that words change meaning. Some people insist that nauseous means only ‘causing nausea’. But going from cause to experiencer is a common semantic shift, just as many words can be used in both active and agentless constructions (consider I broke the dishwasher and The dishwasher broke). Yet true confusion is rare. For nauseous’s old meaning we have nauseating.

这里有几种方法可以预测词汇意义的变化。有些人认为“nauseous”(感到恶心/令人恶心的)只表示“令人恶心的”。但是从指代引起感觉的原因到指代感受者,这是常见的语义演变过程,就像很多词汇既可以用于主动语态也可以用于无指代主语的句子结构一样(比如“我弄坏了洗碗机”和“洗碗机坏了”)。这一般不会引起歧义。“nauseous”过去的意思是“nauseating”(令人恶心的)。

Words also weaken with frequent use: The Lego Movie (2014) was on to something with its song ‘Everything Is Awesome’, because Americans really do use this word rather a lot. Once powerful, it can now be used for anything even slightly good, as in This burrito is awesome. It can even be near-meaningless, as in Steven Pinker’s lovely example: ‘If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.’

词汇也会随着频繁的使用而变弱:在2014年的乐高大电影中有一首歌叫“Everything Is Awesome”(一切都很棒),因为美国人确实经常用这个词。awesome这个词曾经语气很强烈,现在则被用于形容某些东西还不错,比如“这个玉米煎饼很棒”。有时候它甚至几乎没有什么具体的意思,就好像史蒂文·平克(Steven Pinker)举的例子:“如果你能帮我拿下那个鳄梨色拉酱就好了。”

But do we really lack ways of communicating that we’re impressed by something? No language does, and English-speakers are spoiled for choice from the likes of incredible, fantastic, stupendous and brilliant. (All of which have changed from their etymological meanings of ‘unbelievable’, ‘like a fantasy’, ‘inducing stupor’ and ‘shiny, reflective’, by the way.) When those get overused (and all are in danger of that), people coin new ones still: sick, amazeballs, kick-ass.

但我们真的会缺乏用来形容印象深刻的词语吗?不会的,所有的语言都有这些词,英语使用者可以选择的词更是丰富,比如incredible(极好的), fantastic(了不起的), stupendous(惊人的) 和 brilliant(精彩的)。(顺便一提,而以上这些词都经过了词源上的意义变化,它们的原意是unbelievable(难以置信的), ‘like a fantasy’(如梦似幻的), ‘inducing stupor(令人头昏的)’ 与‘shiny, reflective(闪耀和反光的)’)。当这些词被过度使用的时候(上面这几个词就差不多了),人们又会造出新的词,比如:sick(牛逼), amazeballs(666), kick-ass(屌爆了)。

The thousands of words in the language are a swirling mass constantly on the move. Again, when one piece moves, threatening a gap or an overlap, something else moves too. The individual, short-term change is random; the overall, long-term change is systemic.

语言中的几千个词汇不停地绕来绕去,乱成一团。当一个词汇改变意思,就会留下空缺或与其他词的意义重复,所以别的词汇也会跟着改变。单独的、短期的改变是随机的,而长期来看则是成体系的。

At the level of grammar, change might seem the most unsettling, threatening a deeper kind of harm than a simple mispronunciation or new use for an old word. Take the long-term decline of whom, which signals that something in a question or relative clause is an object (direct or indirect), as in That’s the man whom I saw. Most people today would either say That’s the man who I saw or just That’s the man I saw.

语法层面的改变可能是最让人不安的,比简单的发音错误或老词新用的影响要深得多。比如whom一词(用于在问句中或关系从句中指代某事作为宾语,直接或间接都可以)的使用在逐渐减少,例如“That’s the man whom I saw.”(那就是我看到的男人)。大部分人现在都说成“That’s the man who I saw”或者干脆直接省略为“That’s the man I saw”。

What word is the subject in a clause, and what is the object, is a deeply important fact. And yet, precisely because this is so, even radical grammatical change leaves this distinction intact. Readers of Beowulf are in no doubt that virtually every word in that epic poem is vastly different from its modern counterpart. What those who can’t read Old English might not realise is how different the grammar is. English was a language like Russian or Latin: it had case endings everywhere: on nouns, adjectives and determiners (words such as the and a). In other words, they all behaved like who/whom/whose does (there was even a fourth case).

分清从句中什么是主语,什么是宾语非常重要。主宾区别的存在,即使是巨大的语法变化也没有改变。《贝奥武夫》的读者确信这本史诗巨制中基本每个单词的意思都发生了改变。那些不懂古英语的人难以意识到语法的不同。英语就像俄语或拉丁语,变格词尾很常见:名词、形容词和限定词(the和a)。这些变化的作用与who/whom/whose类似(甚至还有第四种情况)。

Beowulf《贝奥武夫》,讲述了斯堪的纳维亚的英雄贝奥武夫的英勇事迹。是迄今为止发现的英国盎格鲁—撒克逊时期最古老、最长的一部较完整的文学作品,也是欧洲最早的方言史诗,完成于公元八世纪左右,它与法国的《罗兰之歌》、德国的《尼伯龙根之歌》并称为欧洲文学的三大英雄史诗。

Today, just six words (I, he, she, we, they and who) change form when they are direct or indirect objects(me, him, her, us, them and whom). In a longer view, modern Anglophones speak godawful, brokendown Anglo-Saxon, lacking all the communicative power that those endings provided. How, one can imagine Alfred the Great asking, do English-speakers know what is the subject of a sentence and what are the objects without those crucial case endings?

现今,只有六个单词(I, he, she, we, they and who)在作直接宾语或间接宾语时改变形式(me, him, her, us, them and whom)。从更长的时间线来看,现代英语使用者讲的是令人生厌且支离破碎的盎格鲁-撒克逊语,它缺乏词尾变化对交流的助力。我们可以想象阿尔弗雷德大帝这样问道,如果没有这些关键的词尾变化,说英语的人怎么知道句子的主语是什么,句子的宾语是什么?

The answer is boring: word order. English is a subject-verb-object language. In I love her, case is evident by the form of I (a subject, in the nominative case) and her (a direct object, in the objective case). But the meaning of Steve loves Sally is just as clear, despite the lack of case endings. Subject-verb-object order can be violated in special circumstances (Her I love the most) but it is expected; and that expectation, shared by all native speakers, does the work that the case endings once did.

这个问题的答案很平常:词序。英语是一种主谓宾结构的语言。在“I love her”这句话中,语法的格由“I”(主语,主格变化)和“her”(直接宾语,宾格变化)表现出来。“Steve loves Sally”这句话尽管缺少变格词尾,但含义同样清晰。在特殊的情况下(Her I love the most),主谓宾的顺序是可以改变,这是被允许的;所有以英语为母语的人都接受这种结构的改变,它可以起到变格词尾的作用。

Why did the case endings disappear? We don’t know, but it was probably sped up as a result of two waves of conquest: adult Vikings and Normans coming to Britain, and learning Anglo-Saxon imperfectly. Then as now, things such as fiddly inflections are hard for adults to learn in a foreign language. Many adult learners would have neglected all those endings and relied on word order, raising children who heard their parents’ slightly stripped-down version. The children would then have used the endings less than earlier generations, until they disappeared entirely.

为什么变格词尾消失了?我们不知道答案,但两次入侵可能加速了它的消亡:成年维京人和诺曼人来到英国,却并未完整地学会盎格鲁-撒克逊语。和现今一样,成年人学习外语中的词形变化总是很难。许多成年学习者会依赖词序学习而忽略了变格词尾,他们的孩子也就听着父母简化后的语言长大。这些孩子长大以后更少使用变格词尾,它们也就完全消失。

Once again, the grammar responded as a system. No civilisation can afford to leave the distinction between subjects and objects to guesswork. Word order was relatively flexible in the Anglo-Saxon period. Then the loss of case endings fixed it in more rigid form. The gradual disappearance of case signalling resulted in a potential loss of information, but the solidification of word order made up for it.

这时候,语法便会形成体系。没有谁会去猜测主语和宾语之间的区别。在盎格鲁撒克逊时期,词序相对灵活。随着变格词尾的消失词序变得更加固定。变格的逐渐消失可能导致信息丢失,而固定词序可以弥补这一点。

We now have a framework in which both the prescriptivists and the descriptivists can have their say. Sound changes can be seen as wrong, understandably, by people who learned an older pronunciation: to my ear, nucularsounds uneducated andexpresso is just wrong. But in the long run, sound systems make up for any confusion in a delicate dance of changes that makes sure the language’s necessary distinctions remain. Word meanings change, by both type (a change in meaning) and by force (a change in how powerful a word is). To my six-year-old, everything is epic, which strikes my ear the way awesome must have done to my parents. A lunch just cannot be epic. But when epic is exhausted, his kids will press something else into service – or coin something new.

在现在的框架下,规范主义者和描写主义者都可以发声。可以理解学习旧时发音的人会认为声音的变化是错误的:nucular听上去不舒服,expresso本身就是错误的。但是从长远来看,声音系统可以避免由于语言的改变造成的混淆,这些细微改变确保语言中仍然存在必要的区别。单词的意思会随着类型(意思的变化)和强度(单词的表义程度)而变化。对我六岁的孩子来说,一切事物都是“epic”,我听到他这么形容时的感受一定与当年我父母听我说“awesome”一样。一顿午餐不可能是“epic”。当“epic”过时后,我孩子的孩子们会用别的单词或创造新的单词表达他们的感受。

Nucular is a commonly used metathetic form of the word “nuclear”.

Expressois a misspelling of the word espresso.

Even the deepest-seeming change – to the grammar – never destroys the language system. Some distinctions can disappear: classical Arabic has singular, dual and plural number; the modern dialects mostly use just singular and plural, like English. Latin was full of cases; its daughter languages – French, Spanish and so on – lack them, but their speakers get on with life just the same. Sometimes languages get more complex: the Romance languages also pressed freestanding Latin words into service until they wore down and became mere endings on verbs. That turned out OK, too.

即使是语法中巨大的变化也不会破坏语言系统。一些特征可能会消失:古典阿拉伯语有单数、双数和复数,而现代方言中大多和英语一样只使用单数和复数。拉丁语中有很多变格,而属于拉丁语系的法语、西班牙语等语言则没有,但它们使用者的生活并无二致。有时语言会变得更加复杂:罗曼语系的语言中使用独立的拉丁语词汇,直到它们消失并变成动词词尾。这样改变的结果也不错。

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

自发的秩序不受人们的欢迎,人们大多认为复杂的系统需要温和而坚定的管理。但是正如市场经济好于计划经济那样,语言系统过于复杂且被太多人使用,不适合遵循管理模式。个人的决定也许很糟糕,需要纠正。但是乐观一点,从长远来看改变是不可避免的,一切都会好起来。很难去相信人类的智慧可以维持秩序,但这是唯一的方法。语言有自我调节的属性,它可是一个没有天才的天才系统。

“one”为什么是“一”?语言中的词义谁说了算?

  • 本文原载于 Aeon

  • 原文链接:https://aeon.co/essays/why-language-might-be-the-optimal-self-regulating-system

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