Great Ideas in Linguistics: Paradigm Levelling

One of the great things about being human is our ability to figure patterns and then apply them in new situations. In fact, that pretty much describes the vast bulk of scientific inquiry– someone notices a thing, notices other things like it, figures that they must be motivated by some underlying process and then tries to figure it out. From gravity to DNA to the fact that maybe DDT wasn’t such a panacea after all, all important scientific discoveries have sprung from that same general process of recognizing patterns.

And that process is at work in language as well. Let’s take a look at the following way of conjugating English verbs.

I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walks                    They walk

Now, if you’re the noticing type of person you might find that there’ s a glaring problem that’s messing up an otherwise nice, predictable pattern: that odd out-of-place “s” in “She walks.” Why, it’s downright irksome. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to get rid of it entirely and have a nice, lovely, completely predictable conjugation like this one:

I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walk                   They walk

Of course it would. And in fact, there are some speakers of English who do just that. Dropping the third person singular “s”, as it turns out, is a common feature of African American English. And if similar processes in other languages, such as Latin, are any guide, we may all one day adopt this entirely sensible practice, which is commonly referred to as “paradigm levelling”.

In fact, English has already undergone a massive process of morphological simplification, including a lot of paradigm levelling, once before. During the transition from Old English to Middle English, we lost a whole bucketful of cases and person markings. This was partly due to language contact in the Danelaw, where Viking settlers interacted and intermarried with the local English-speaking population. Being no-nonsense second language learners, they did away with a lot of the odder patterns and left us with something that much more closely resembled the comparatively morphologically streamlined English of today.

And the same process has occurred over and over again the world’s languages.  People notice that something isn’t what you’d expect, given the pattern in place, and choose to follow the pattern rather than historical precedent, tidying away some of the messiness that inevitably creeps into languages over time. Paradigm levelling is a powerful force for linguistic change and a useful theoretical tool in historical linguistics.


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