Happiness and the medium

Mark Liberman notes that Nuer is considerably more irregular than English, which leaves me wondering how to measure linguistic irregularity. For example,

  1. Can we include orthography as one of our criteria? Nuer orthography looks pretty rational, and certainly has none of the ghoti-ness of English.
  2. What about actual use? I’ll bet Nuer isn’t as rich in ers and ums, carefully cultivated stammers, and ‘orrible obfuscations as English.
  3. What about context, and thus perceived complexity? Nuer may score highly in objective terms, but – and I’m making this up – the development of Arab-vernacular pidgins and the comparative inability of the Sudanese state – despite its genocidal policies – to regulate language use means that Nuer might seem less chaotic to non-native speakers in the region than English (wassat?) to someone formed by the heavily centralised, rule-driven French education system.

What I’m hoping is that the pros will develop a formula that will enable us to optimise languages for chaos and thus for popularity. For, in all these things, what we are surely seeking is a happy medium.

(Speaking of which, Gypsy Eric recently spent a week touring in a bus with a musical ensemble of some nature. Heading towards Tangier to take the boat back to Spain, Eric was cheerfully smoking the group’s collection of herbal souvenirs when it occurred to him how nice it would be if the rest of the band woke up to a clean and tidy bus. Unfortunately, one of the bags of rubbish which he threw out of the skylight contained his colleagues’ passports, which had been collected together in one place to speed up encounters with officialdom. Reports on the aftermath constitute yet more evidence that chaotic discourse is not an automatic crowd-pleaser.)

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