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I know language is not easy to learn, so I have a little bit strange idea: would a civilization simpify their language just because it is too difficult to learn?

For example, to simplify English:

  1. Disable some words with same meaning, eg:disclose, reveal, uncover -> just use 'reveal'

  2. Unify past tense: append 'ed' to verbs,eg: past tense of 'go' become 'goed'

  3. Reduce the length of some words, eg: elephant -> elept

Would a civilization simplify their own language in order to:

  1. Let the students learn more quickly

  2. Let elderly with lower educational level also able to learn the language

  3. Visitors would more willing to learn their language

Is it practical?

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    $\begingroup$ Obligatory xkcd $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 25 '17 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix It actually made me think of this xkcd: xkcd.com/1133 $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 25 '17 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 30 '17 at 13:22

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I know language is not easy to learn, so I have a little bit strange idea: would a civilization simpify their language just because it is too difficult to learn?/

I am surprised that there are so many answers stating that is impossible and has never been tried. The best example is the reform of Turkish.

http://countrystudies.us/turkey/25.htm

With the establishment of the republic, Atatürk made language reform an important part of the nationalist program. The goal was to produce a language that was more Turkish and less Arabic, Persian, and Islamic; one that was more modern, practical, and precise, and less difficult to learn. The republican language reform called for a drastic alteration of both the spoken and the written language. This process was to be accomplished through two basic strategies--adoption of a new alphabet and purification of the vocabulary.

Many goals at once: simplification, modernization, elimination of foreign words, moving towards a more western feel for the language. You read most about the switch of alphabets (Arabic to Latin) but there was also a lot of change in the words themselves. I understand that because Turkish is now phonetic it is easy for kids to learn to write. This is exactly the sort of thing the OP was asking about.

Other examples

This re the creation of the Hangul alphabet for Korean.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_language#Differences_between_North_Korean_and_South_Korean

However, due to the fundamental differences between the Korean and Chinese languages, and the large number of characters needed to be learned, there was much difficulty in learning how to write using Chinese characters for the lower classes, who often didn't have the privilege of education. To assuage this problem, King Sejong created the unique alphabet known as Hangul to promote literacy among the common people. Hangul was denounced and looked down upon by the yangban aristocracy who deemed it too easy to learn, but it gained widespread use among the common class, and was widely used to print popular novels which were enjoyed by the common class.

Too easy to learn! I have read that once Korean kids can speak, it takes them about a week to learn the characters and they can then read and write. How cool would that be?

This as regards the standardization of Haitian Creole

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Creole Before Haitian Creole orthography was standardized in the late 20th century, spelling varied, but was based on subjecting spoken Haitian Creole to written French, a language whose spelling has not matched its pronunciation since at least the 16th century. Unlike the phonetic orthography, French orthography of Haitian Creole is not standardized and varies according to the writer; some use exact French spelling, others adjust the spelling of certain words to represent pronunciation of the cognate in Haitian Creole, removing the silent letters.

Before this, education in Haiti was done in French, a language many kids did not speak. !

These endeavors have in common an interest in education and also nationalist / political interests.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. I was surprised the first answers all say it's impossible... Hangul made Korean reading and writing available to the average people, and it's phonetic aspects made it super easy to learn. A few hours instead of years with the old Chinese symbols. French and Spanish have had academies for centuries whose goals have been to simplify the language, and keep it from getting regionalised. Etc. $\endgroup$ – Shautieh May 26 '17 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ Another example is the Simplified Chinese writing system (introduced by the Communists in China). $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner May 29 '17 at 8:10
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In short, it would not work. There already has been attempts at artificial languages, like Esperanto with the same goals and ambitions.

There is a reason why languages are complicated. Language is the way we humans symbolically represent reality and express thought. As thought and reality changes so does language.

Language shapes the speakers and the speakers shape the language. Look at pidgin and creole language forming naturally when two people groups with disparate languages come together.

IF you have a politically powerful government who was willing and able to enforce languages (i.e. monitor language like Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-four) or remove children from the home, it could be done. However, the simplification would be undone quickly, and the new simple language would evolve to fit the complexity of human thought.

Edit: My comments are directed towards spoken language. It is much easier to change a system of writing (Korean alphabet, simplified Chinese, cursive and print English) than the day-to-day language that is taught and used in a home. My comments answered the original question, can a government, with the motivation of making a language easier to learn, modify the spoken language by removing words. The example of the creation of modern Turkish, motivated by nationalistic pride, as been cited as an example of why I am wrong. The change was not made to simplify Turkish, but to make it "more pure" and less reliant upon words borrowed from other languages. The people, motivated by nationalism and civic pride, had reasons to modify their own speech patterns. And the language that is spoken there today, nearly 100 years later, will have evolved and changed over time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 30 '17 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is wrong, see Wills answer. $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 1 '17 at 7:06
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A language might be simplified when literacy is not as high as people would like. (That's not a sufficient condition, but it can be a driver.) We see this with simplified Chinese, which started in the early 20th century for use in education. The government of China has promoted simplified Chinese since the 1950s as a way to increase literacy. My Chinese coworkers (living in the US) read and write both traditional and simplified Chinese.

This isn't exactly analogous to what you're describing; Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese is a difference in how the language is written but not in the grammar itself. (The spoken language is the same.) But, from what I understand (I do not know Chinese myself), Chinese doesn't have the kinds of grammatical markers that English does; there's no equivalent to the "-ed means past tense" rule, for instance. You get tense, number, possessiveness, etc. from the way hundreds of characters are composed. What they did to try to improve literacy was to make those hundreds of characters easier to read and write. That seems similar in spirit to your idea of making English easier to understand by reducing the complexity of its grammar; instead of hundreds of complex characters you're simplifying dozens (?) of complex rules. It's an analogy, not a direct example.

I doubt that a population that is already largely literate and fluent would see a need to simplify its language. And you probably couldn't simplify all English anywhere, in the same way that simplified Chinese didn't take over in all Chinese-speaking places. But in a population with lower literacy and a government able to enforce a change (for whatever reasons), it seems plausible that simplification efforts could succeed.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a strange misconception. The "simplified" in "simplified Chinese" refers not to the language but to the shapes of the characters. The language is exactly as simple or as complex as it was; what happened in 1949 is that the shapes of some 3000 out of the about 8000 commonly used Chinese characters were simplified by reducing the number of components ("strokes"). Many examples at Simplified Chinese Characters. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 25 '17 at 6:07
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I realize that (and will edit to be more explicit), but from what I understand, the language itself doesn't have the kinds of grammar markers that English does. For example, there's no equivalent of "-ed to signify past tense"; you just have to learn hundreds of characters and how to combine them. This is what they simplified. The spoken language didn't change. (I don't know Chinese; coincidentally, just a couple days ago we were talking about this over lunch and I got a lesson in how it works from my coworkers.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 25 '17 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ The simplification of Chinese characters is conceptually similar to the simplification of the letter shapes used in Germany -- before 1930 or so they were using Fraktur in print and Sütterlin for handwriting, and then they moved to the simpler shapes of Roman type and the common cursive used in other European countries. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 25 '17 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ The 20th century Chinese simplified the writing system, but also standardized the spoken language as well, into Putonghua, or "Standard Chinese". This was less of a simplification of spoken language vocabulary or grammar though, and more of just a unification of a myriad of dialects into one "lingua franca". $\endgroup$ – TVann May 25 '17 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ This answer shows a clear misunderstanding of the concepts it attempts to explain (e.g. "simplified" vs "traditional" chinese, and also perpetrates horrendously untrue information. $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti May 28 '17 at 21:15
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Would a civilisation try to? Yes, and they continue to do so now (I'm looking at you Académie française).

Does it achieve any of the goals you stated? Nope, not a one.

There is an argument that the primary function of language is cognitive, rather than communicative. It is a system of abstract thought in which we apply a finite set of combinatorial rules (~syntax) to a finite set of meaningful symbols (~words) in order to produce an infinite set of possible complex meanings.

Serendipitously, we can also use this system to communicate with one another.

We're fully equipped with the hardware, and by extension, the fundamentals of linguistic architecture from birth. All we are required to learn is the arbitrary set of rules and symbols our native language is comprised of.

Just as a child will learn to crawl and walk, (barring developmental disorder or a catastrophic lack of input), a child will acquire language. It is fundamentally human. Compare this with other learnt behaviours, like playing the guitar, which many people cannot do (even with hundreds of hours worth of lessons; sorry Mum).

All humans are highly competent in their native language(s). Often, when we make judgements about others' lack of linguistic skills, we are merely judging their particular dialect(s) as being inferior, which is more a judgement of aesthetics, rather than complexity.

What you are proposing doesn't really make the language any easier. More regular, perhaps, but not really any easier. The really hard parts of language are largely invisible to us, precisely because we are so good at it!

It's possible that it would make the language easier to learn as a second language, but even then, that would be largely dependent people's first language, and how dissimilar it was in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax, etc.

And lastly, many many authorities have tried and failed to make speakers conform to an idealised form of whatever language. It doesn't work. Governments and institutions can lend prestige to particular usages of language, but ultimately, whatever they dictate ends up being just one in many considerations a speaker makes when considering what to say and how to say it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBUilding SippyCup! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 25 '17 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyHarder haha yes. I think the Académie française would like to have a word too. $\endgroup$ – Shautieh May 26 '17 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ The key role of the Académie française was to get everyone in the country speaking the same language, back in the day when France had a regional language for every valley, mostly it's worked and now they spend their time making up new French words to prevent too much English sneaking into the language and telling people off for not using accents correctly. The last thing they want is for it to simplify. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 26 '17 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix "The Académie française wants to keep French people French" fixed it for you. $\endgroup$ – Aron May 26 '17 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Aron, it's far more fun than that, they fail to keep track of words that English has stolen from French then get upset when they come back again. Picnic and mail being two glorious examples. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 26 '17 at 8:45
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Look at your own examples:

  • disclose: Tell others about something you know. It might or might not be new to you. Sounds a bit official, as in "full disclosure."
  • reveal: Tell others about something you know. It might or might not be new to you. Sounds a bit like a surprise, as in "the revelation at the end of the novel."
  • uncover: Find something that had been new to you. You might or might not communicate it. "I finally uncovered the facts of the case."

There is a famous novel where the English language was reduced to prevent disloyal thoughts by the population. It would have prevented critical thinking as well ...

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the 1984 reference and, also for showing the loss of subtlety that would happen in the language. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat May 25 '17 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking, as I read the question, about Newspeak... $\endgroup$ – Ghotir May 25 '17 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Newspeak is being rebranded as Simple English. It's a thing even on wikipedia. $\endgroup$ – Shautieh May 26 '17 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ I was search for someone referring to it as a doubleplus ungood idea, but nobody did $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 26 '17 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ This hardly answers the question. There's nothing about whether or how it would be done, just commentary. $\endgroup$ – user2727 May 29 '17 at 9:14
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I don't know about removing words per se, but as someone who is trying to teach his kids to read, I'd start by simplifying the alphabet and spelling rules.

For instance, get rid of the letter C, and just use the letter K or the letter S.
I don't know how often I've had to klarify a word. "No, certain is an S sound." "Cat is a K sound." etc.
An exseption might be CH, which would be like QU.

G would have to undergo an overhaul, with some changed to J. Words like Great staying the same, while Giant would be changed to Jiant. We'd finally be able to settle the Gif debate for good.

Hard and soft vowels would need to be fixed in some words. For example, Have has a problem, and so the E should be left off. Live and Liv would be readable at a glans. If we're goeing to be telling kids that an E at the end of a word makes the vowel say it's name, it should be konsistent.

Wee'd finally bee able to fix Weird, since it doesn't follow the I before E rule, which is just wierd.

Som of the borrowed foreign words should be fixed too. Resume could be fixed by changeing it to Resumay for instance, and would be different from resume.

These ar just a few of the offending examples of how words hav broken over time, and I think wee should really giv the whole system an overhaul.

I'll finish with the klassik joke (based on one made by Mark Twain):

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5- year phase-in plan that would become known as "Euro-English".

In the first year, "s" will replace the soft "c". Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard "c" will be dropped in favour of "k". This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome "ph" will be replaced with "f". This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent "e" in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the 4th yer people wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing "th" with "z" and "w" with "v".

During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary "o" kan be dropd from vords kontaining "ou" and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.

Edit: Found the version attributed to Mark Twain:

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Here is another, more serious artikle hee wrote: A Simplified Alphabet

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    $\begingroup$ btw, it's "per se". That one always makes me twitch a bit :( $\endgroup$ – Brian May 25 '17 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ "We'd finally be able to settle the Gif debate for good." Indeed, since Graphics would not be changed to Jraphics, everyone would pronounce it correctly. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder May 25 '17 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ Eliminate dipthongs (sorry, "fainali" would become "finale") and consonant blends (bring back Þ (its name is pronounced "thorn") to replace "th" , create a separate glyph to represent each phoneme. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy May 26 '17 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ Mark Twain's insights on society, education, and politics have not aged a bit since he wrote them. Thanks for mentioning him. +1 $\endgroup$ – Robert Columbia May 27 '17 at 11:58
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It can change, it does change and it should change for that very reason. The fact that you ask this question simply says that it changes so slowly that you haven't noticed it in your lifetime.


Lets look at some common objections:

We tried engineered languages and they didn't get wide adoption.

True, but they didn't work because you asked people to learn a whole new language instead of gradually changing their own.

Languages are inherently evolutionary systems.

True and they will continue to be. I'm not saying we should prevent languages from mutating naturally. But evolutionary systems tend to jump from one local extrema to the next. Over time this leaves a lot of useless and unnecessary peculiarities. There is no harm in trimming those.

There is no central authority that defines a language.

False. For languages that are official for only one country, there usually is a government body (the ministry/academy of education or equivalent) which describes what is proper grammar and vocabulary. It is the case even for some languages spoken in multiple countries. For example, Spanish has Real Academia Española.

Granted, for historical and cultural reasons, English is a bit more of a special case. Still, you can say that there are multiple authorities on it. Think about it - you do have public school English textbooks. Someone has to define what should and shouldn't go there. So in a sense there are central authorities for British English, American English, Indian English and so on. Most people would also agree that the Oxford dictionary defines the English vocabulary. If you don't, I'm interested in how use to settle your scrabble disputes!

Me red hole Okford diktiounery, yo. Dere no "swag" 'n stuf dere, yo!

Sure. There are slangs, jargon and dialects. As time passes the authority may or may not include them depending on usage and other factors. This doesn't mean that the canonical form of the language doesn't exist or that it isn't defined by said authority.

Kids are amazing at learning languages and once you are an adult, you no longer have problems with your native language. So it's a non-issue.

Kids are indeed outstanding considering that all we do to help them start is point at objects and make sounds over and over again. They still make a ton of (what we consider) silly mistakes both in speaking and writing. Imagine if 10% of that learning potential was focused at something else as early as possible.

As for adults - just ask a person with degree in philology. Also misunderstandings happen all the time with roots in language.


So what are the actual issues preventing the constant change of languages?

The main problem is the cost of the change.

New textbooks have to be printed. The public has to be informed and adoption takes time. Old documents have to be revisited or rules to interpret their meaning has to be defined. There are other case specific costs. For example if we decide to add/remove/change a letter in the English alphabet it will be a tremendous challenge in the digital age. Every related standard and implementation, be it character tables, fonts, operational systems, programming languages, hardware like typewriters and keyboards and what not will have to change as well.

The cost of migration after a non-backwards compatible change is a well understood pain in software engineering. Different schools of thought exist on how much and how often is acceptable to introduce such changes depending on context. I could write pages on it, the gist of it is that we have well tried strategies to assess if it's worth doing and ways to mitigate said cost. And my ¢2 is that we should do it more often and in greater quantities than we do today for the natural languages I'm knowledgeable in.

The other problem is social.

Paradoxically, most people don't consider their language simply a communication tool. They see it as part of their identity. To change it is to strip pieces of their identity and to acknowledge that there was something wrong with it in the first place. Some go as far as to call the language sacred. Perfect. Immutable.

As this is worldbuilding SE, I propose that you simply change the culture around it.

Lets say that every day you cross the same intersection. As you are waiting for your turn as usual, you get an epiphany. What if instead of how it is now, the periodically of this traffic light is changed in this specific way? Both ways will have to wait less and there is no other consideration that you can think of. You go home in the evening and you remember what you thought earlier. You are filled with curiosity and excitement. There has to be a reason why it is as it is. Right? It haunts your mind until you finally decide to write an email/snail mail/whatever to the authorities. A month later you get a reply. "We looked at your suggestion and you are in fact correct. This will be implemented by [date-here]." You feel proud. It's not a Nobel price, but you did use your intellect to slightly improve something people use every day. You did your civic duty. You saw something that dedicated professionals missed. You tell all your friends in casual conversations about it. They are mildly impressed and give you kudos.

What if we had the same attitude towards language? What if there were government appointed linguists that strive to make that language the simplest most expressive, consistent and unambiguous form of communication there is? After the low hanging fruits are dealt with, it will be incredibly hard to find a way to simplify some grammar rule without negative consequences. One day you could find such simplification and submit it to the linguists. If after inspection they agree with you, your name could, for example, be mentioned in the news where the change was briefly announced. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

I'm genuinely interested to read a piece of fiction where character dialog is in "perfectionalized" English, while the rest of the book is in "pain" English. But I digress...


A quick note - I don't see removal of synonyms as an improvement in the above terms. Most of the time they have slight nuances. So you would be reducing expressiveness. Making irregular verbs regular is a better example.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding ndn! Cool answer. Looking forward to your contributions. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 26 '17 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ Kudos on this well-thought-out answer, and welcome to Worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 26 '17 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding cost of the change, you might want to look at the multiple cases in the last 100 years where countries have switched alphabet to/from cyrillic - yes, many things have to be reprinted, but that's doable and has been done many times; so there's practical experience on how to do it country-wide. $\endgroup$ – Peteris May 29 '17 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Peteris, I'm not aware of any non-hieroglyphic alphabet changes since the popularization of computing and the internet. With physical information carriers, like paper, part of the migration process was just people being aware of the change and acting accordingly. For example, someone that looks up your name in a huge book that represents the pension registry will simply see that your name was affected by the change and find it with the old rule. But a system that looks for an exact match in a database will not, unless a programmer explicitly changes the codebase or the data to account for it. $\endgroup$ – ndnenkov May 29 '17 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ That is not to say it's insurmountably hard. I'm simply pointing to the fact that it poses some new challenges in the digital age. This was just one of the extreme examples. Simple grammatical changes will not have similar impact. $\endgroup$ – ndnenkov May 29 '17 at 8:56
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Things you pointed as examples are unlikely. But such reforms are real.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_reform#Examples

But more often it boils down to this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spelling_reform

I should point out that it is mostly aimed at simplifying grammar, often leaving phronouncements untouched, exactly because of practical approach.

All in all, i think, it depends on the communication technology level and government type. Tyranical governments can easily do (and did) it at a whim, but if they lack capability (due to medieval setting, or lack of FTL in sci-fi setting) to spread and reinforce such reform, new laws will be as good as splat of ink on paper. More democratic govements are likely to meet enormous counterforce to their reforms in the face of their entire population, who are unlikely to enjoy re-learning half of dictionary for the benefit of "outsiders".

Also worth mentioning that it worked better in past because of tiny amounts of educated people it affected. Nowadays and in the future, the bigger the percentage of educated people, the lesser the chance of this happening.

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Languages naturally and somewhat inevitably continually change and modify themselves over time. Usually this involves simplifying those languages and dropping exceptions. English is full of exceptions. For example, 'contemptible' and not 'contemptable'. As the OP suggested all past tense verbs could be affixed with "ed".

Changes of this sort can be witnessed in confusion between simple words such as "it's" and "its" where "it's" is the contraction of the phrase "it is" and "its" is possessive of something belonging to a thing (not a person either female or male).

The use of apostrophes is changing. Once "Tom's book" would have been correct, but now "Toms book" is correct for the possessive form of the book belonging to Tom. Persons with old brains would think "Toms" was the plural form of Tom (i.e., there was more than one Tom related to the book). This is in a transitional phase. Both usages are correct.

Useful guidance can be in this style guide about the use of the apostrophe. This discussion about the apostrophes as a common error provides background to the issues about the use and misuse of the apostrophe. A search has been unable to locate an online source for the dropping of the apostrophe from possessives. This author has actually sighted the text of a style guide that proposed dropping the apostrophe from possessive words, thereby making them indistinguishable from plurals.

Languages are continually changing. Usually those changes will simplify the language. Indeed languages in their earliest forms have remarkably precise word usages and often have elaborate and complicated grammars.

There have been a variety of artificial languages and spelling reform campaigns to both streamline language usage and make them easier to learn and acquire. The most successful example of language reform is Simplified Chinese. This was government mandated, because reforms of this kind require the highest level of authority.

Side-note: Members of the Chinese diaspora who have grown up with Traditional Chinese often detest Simplified Chinese. It would be interesting to compare their opinions with Mainland Chinese who were inculcated with Simpler version from birth.

Language change over time tends to simplify and adopt systematic forms for word usage. It is unlikely that governments will be instigating major language reforms any time soon.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 30 '17 at 21:26
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You don't see governments attempting to do this because it's really not their place. Linguists know the truth about languages: there are no rules. Nobody set the rules for how we speak. We spoke, let it evolve, and after the fact we tried to figure out what rules our brains might have been using.

The purpose of language is communication. Generally speaking they are constantly evolving to maximize communication, so any attempt to manually adjust the rules must, by definition, hurt. Instead, you simply let the language evolve.

One example of this happening is lower class dialects. In many places, the lower class speak a dialect which is easier to learn and use. Only the high class speak the "proper" language, and I put that in scare-quotes for a very good reason. In English, I find the most obvious version of this appears in the English spoken by Chinese immigrants. The English language is very hard for a Chinese speaker because all of the phonemes are different. Their ear is literally trained to hear things differently. There's also the complicated issues such as articles and plurals which are not found in the Chinese language. Thus, when you hear a Chinese immigrant speak, many of them speak a simplified English that doesn't have these nuances. No surprise, there's a general trend to treat these people as a lower class, but they do succeed in communicating with this simplified English. I wouldn't say it's their fault, but it is what it is.

Another interesting example of the language simplifying itself is in Chinese. In the younger generations, texting is very popular. However, texting in proper Hanzi characters is difficult on the input devices of today. Accordingly, many young Chinese are using pinyin, the romanized version of all of the words (instead of writing "气" you would write "qì"). This is slowly shaping their language. There's many homophones in Chinese. In speech, you have the context of the conversation to help disambiguate them and you can ask questions. In Chinese writing, the symbols represent the words, not the sounds, so there's no confusion. However, this new generation is using pinyin, which is phonetic. This is shaping the language, changing word choices and such to deal with these homophones, and what to do with the youngsters which no longer have as much of a need to memorize the same number of symbols as they used to. The Chinese government who "controls" the language, is actually in the process of trying to figure out what to do about this new shift. Obviously the traditionalists feel that the youngsters are destroying the language, but you can never destroy a language. It merely shifts.

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The concept of reducing the scope of language pretends to solve the learning experience; however, it implies drastic disadvantages towards the intellectual development of its native speakers.

The acclaimed language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein states that “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”. This bold statement reflects the importance of having a rich vocabulary, which should exist in every language.

A classic supporting reference to the idea of the danger of limiting language is Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, as Andrew Neely pointed out. This is clearly show on the quote:

“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

As a final answer, only an inattentive civilization would simplify their language in order to ease the learning process. Learning a complex language is hard, but it is definitely worth it.

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You may be interested in the Simple English Wikipedia which is written in this simplified kind of language. Other kinds of simplified English are listed here. These forms of English are much easier to understand for non-native speakers and can also help reduce ambiguity in translation. They are useful in their context. One can imagine a civilization where the official "prestige" style for communications is this sort of simplified language.

I don't think it's as well-established as some people are claiming that language shapes thought and culture. But it certainly reflects it. As soon as people had a need for more complicated gradations in vocabulary the language would start to grow more complex. Not to mention technical jargon. I do not think that people would put up with such artificial simplicity in the real world.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hello. This looks more like tangential comment than an answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 25 '17 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ I wanted to provide a concrete example to show that these kinds of simplifications can be made and do have the positive results suggested. However, the language would be unlikely to remain in its simplified form for use by a whole civilization. $\endgroup$ – Michael Curry May 25 '17 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ I came here to mention the Simple English Wikipedia. It's not a government initiative, but it's certainly done in the interests of education. $\endgroup$ – mskfisher May 25 '17 at 19:38
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Classical Greek was simplified into Koiné when Alexander the Great spread its culture across Asia Minor and beyond. The language the New Testament is written in is vastly simpler than the language of Athens (or other dialects) used in classic times. In a similar vein, Latin was watered down when it became the language of an empire: post-classic Latin is a lot simpler than what the language started with. In contrast, it is a bit surprising how little the Castilian and Portuguese carried into the Americas was watered down there.

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  • Disable some words with same meaning, eg:disclose, reveal, uncover -> just use 'reveal'

No. Diverse vocabularies are necessary in many if not all fields. A language reform that creates such immense ambiguity would be rejected vehemently by it's users.

  • Unify past tense: append 'ed' to verbs,eg: past tense of 'go' become 'goed'

Possibly. Much of a language's usage is what you could call an acquired taste. You have learned to say "go" and have used it for years if not decades. Also "go" is an extremely common verb, so learning it's strange variations is "worth" the effort. This is why uncommon verbs are far more regular. Now if all common verbs were like this (drive -> brok, sleep -> tess, eat -> lart, ...) then a simplification reform might be reasonable.

  • Reduce the length of some words, eg: elephant -> elept

Nope. There's very little benefit and a significant cost to such a change. If you went on the street and asked people what they thought an "elept" to be, you'd probably get a decent selection of answers. Now if you asked them what an "elefant" would be, things would look differently. Such simplification are often proposed in actual language reforms. German had a ton of those: notably pretty much all words containing ph were moved to f (Telephon -> Telefon). There was resistance but the move is essentially complete. If the move is obvious and makes things easier it has a chance. Similarly other idiosyncrasies were removed (ie. the German word for Chamois which had a switch from e in singular to a in plural is now using a for both forms). This again had resistance in the beginning but is largely a done deal by now.

Continuing with the German Language Reform as an example, there were many relatively small tweaks that went over really well because:

  1. they did make things simple for a lot of situations
  2. kept the accuracy of the language intact
  3. and people didn't really care one way or another

Example: When combining words where one word ends with the same letter as the next one starts with. Now all letters are written where there used to be cases where sequences of three identical consonants would be shortened to just two.

Other changes were much more fought over. In some cases the language as taught by teachers ended up displacing the old form over time. In other cases there is still strong opposition with many notable publications and users favoring the old form or a compromise.

Example: The old German used to have a difference between:

  • "to come together" (as in meeting): zusammenkommen
  • and "to come together" (simultaneously climax) zusammen kommen

The reform was supposed to move both meanings to the second form, which was and still is strongly opposed.

TL/DR: Yes, reforms are a thing IRL and actually not uncommon. Success depends greatly on:

  • ease of transition
  • simplification over "dumbing down"
  • benefits vs cost for the user/learner
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In a way, this has already happened, to English, of all languages.

If I recall correctly, Old English was about as complicated as German and Russian today, with all sorts of strict rules for conjugation, among other things.

After a series of invasions and cultural mergings, however, English grammar had become greatly simplified. To this day, I'm amazed at how simple English conjugation is, compared to French, German, or Russian.

But this "simplification" came at a cost: English has an insane number of exceptions to every rule. Indeed, it is my understanding that the best way to understand "i before e" in spelling, is to know the origin of the word. English has a nasty habit of maintaining the spelling of foreign words, even when the pronunciation of that word no longer makes sense. And English has another nasty habit of not just borrowing words from other languages -- they follow other languages down dark alleys, mug them, and then ruffle their pockets for spare words.

As others have mentioned, being able to communicate with people from the past is also important. For a little while, I was trying to create a simplified alphabet. My efforts were deflated, though, when I realized that if I succeeded in simplifying the alphabet, people wouldn't be able to read my adviser's works -- and since he is a mathematician, that means that his work may even provide a needed breakthrough in unexpected ways! I later learned that China's efforts to simplify how Chinese was written has also meant their population can no longer read some of the older works of their culture.

So, yes, it's possible, and it isn't necessarily done consciously, but there can be nasty side effects as well.

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Simplifications of vocabulary have been tried. Basic English is an example. The trouble is, it may make the language easier to learn but it robs it of expressiveness. That is okay in an auxiliary language, but only there.

Simplification of accidence (as in went/goed) is a lot less useful than beginners think. It happens of its own accord, but generally at a glacial pace. English once had the distinction between ye (nominative) and you (accusative), as in ye go but I see you. You'll see it in Shakespeare, but it was probably old-fashioned even in his day. It's gone now, and studying Shakespeare at school is the only reason people even know about it today.

Language reform usually means only spelling or writing-system reform. It normally has political rather than linguistic goals. And it is the only kind of direct language reform open to governments, because they can insist that it is taught in schools, and printed in schoolbooks, and that civil servants write letters in it. They can't legislate how people talk or what they say on Facebook.

One example of this is Turkish, where a the state substituted the roman alphabet for arabic script with the explicit intention of making old documents inaccessible.

Another is Dutch, where the postwar spelling reform, however attractive to its political sponsors, was a linguistic disaster. One result is that Dutch is the only speech community I know of where adults compete on TV in annual nationally-organized events to take dictation with the fewest spelling errors. Such a thing would be unthinkable in an English-language speech community, despite English's allegedly unworkable spelling.

In Korea it appears that the languages north and south of the DMZ are diverging in vocabulary because words that were once common to both have fallen out of use, or have acquired different meanings or connotations, in one speech community or the other, as a result of political attitudes. But this not a result of deliberate language reform; rather, some words, or rather concepts, have become be politically incorrect. This is not a minor issue: lexicographers are now beginning to doubt if it is possible to produce one dictionary that will serve both speech communities.

You see the same effect in English. When I was a child, people were considered male or female and that was called their sex. If you learnt French or Latin or German, you were taught that all nouns had a gender (not male nor female, but masculine, feminine or neuter), which then was a purely grammatical category, so in German the word das Mädchen 'the girl' had neuter gender but its referent had female sex. Today, of course, you say that a person's gender is male, female or other, and nobody is taught grammar anymore so the distinction between sex and gender no longer matters.

So, politics can influence language, but (apart from spelling) only indirectly. Direct interventions fail.

In 1960 South Africa decimalized its currency and declared that the plural of the new currency, Rand, would be uninflected. Despite having total control of broadcasting and primary and secondary education, the state couldn't make it stick. English-speaking South Africans very frequently talk about Rands. Even on the radio.

Similarly, the efforts of the European Commission to declare that the plural of euro shall be euro in all languages have failed. The rule was devised by largely French- and German-speaking accountants with a tin ear for language. What they wanted to avoid was having the same word with a dozen different inflections on the banknotes, something that famously disfigured USSR money. That was reasonable. But they went beyond their remit and tried to tell speakers of other languages how to talk.

Most English speakers say ten euros, just as they would say ten dollars or ten pounds. You can say ten pound and be understood, but that marks you as a speaker of a regional dialect. Informally, Dutch people often say euri (a common way to pluralize borrowed words in -o) and in Irish and Hungarian the word gets inflected according to the rules of the language, not the rules of the Eurocrats.

But social initiatives can work.

About 35 years ago the Dutch decided to abolish the distinction between mevrouw 'Mrs' and mejuffrouw 'Miss'. That has been so successful that mejuffrouw, for all practical purposes, no longer exists. (A similar initiative in France has failed, so far.)

Some Swedes have been trying for 50 years to introduce hen as a sex-neutral personal pronoun to supplant hon 'she' and han 'he'. Who knows, this time around it may stick.

The Dutch are playing with hen 'them' as a sex-neutral pronoun for people who don't want to be referred to as hij 'he' or zij 'she'.

But if it does work, that is because people adopt it in response to changed social or political attitudes, not because some language commission or academy says it's correct.

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Chinese language is simplified twice in recent 100 years. The first wave is to turn written form from classical Chinese (there is even no punctuation in it! Consider the difficulty and ambiguity you have to face when you read it) to modern Chinese (colloquialism?) led by activists. The second wave is to simplify Chinese characters which is led by the government.

And it is practical. These changes make learning, reading, writing Chinese much easier.

And Japanese language is also simplified in recent 100 years by reducing the use of unnecessary Chinese characters which helps everyone learn it.

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In English, many some irregular verbs become regular. More chances for those words which is used relatively rare. So went almost never become goed while learnt could be written as learned. That's what I learnt when I learned irregular English verbs ;) The trick is you must to know only limited set of irregular verbs. Even when I use blowed instead blew I may expect that people understand me.

Another example is changing gender of cofee in Russian. First кофе was strictly 'he' and later 'it' become more and more popular.


Any spoken language is live, and not-used are commonly called dead. Any live organism is developing. It reduces useless forms and creates new where needed. Most dictionaries just describe (or reflect) the current situation, but not set new rules. There are exceptions which you could find in another answers.

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I know language is not easy to learn,

Stop right there. Language is easy to learn. Children do it as easy as breathing. Kids can even learn multiple languages at once without breaking a sweat. It is just when we become adults it becomes hard.

A simpler language makes for a simpler, less capable mind. We really don't want to do that to our children.

Your only valid point is

Visitors would more willing to learn their language

Yes, adult visitors have problems, and a simplified language will help them... but is it worth the price? I don't think so.

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that languages are easy to learn. Children start speaking when they are 1 year old with lots of errors and very restricted vocabulary and are generally still learning when they start going to school. So it means that you need about 6 years to learn the language. I would not call that easy. $\endgroup$ – keiv.fly May 29 '17 at 11:23
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One practical example of rule 1 in the question is the use of a controlled language. Simplified Technical English is one example. Simplified Technical English was designed for use in the aerospace industry (specifically, for maintenance manuals). STE is a set of rules:

  • there's a list of allowed and forbidden words, designed to make all allowed words unambiguous.
  • there's a set of writing rules that are designed to make texts easy to understand. Sentences should use a simple structure, for example. No subclauses (or phrases between brackets), etc.

STE is a subset of English: it doesn't invent new words or new grammar. You can get spelling/grammar checkers for STE (there's a free plugin for Notepad++, IIRC).

STE is limited: its word list is geared towards the aerospace industry and would be inadequate for e.g. legal texts.

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I am shocked at how many clearly false answers have already been posted stating that this is impossible. It obviously isn't impossible, as it has already been successful many times throughout history.


My favourite such example is Hangul, the alphabet used across Korea since the 15th century. Prior to Hangul Koreans were writing with Chinese symbols, however the Chinese symbols were extremely difficult to learn as a Korean-speaker because they didn't fit the Korean language intuitively at all.

Korean

The language-loving YouTuber Xidnaf does a great job of explaining the origins of this language in his YouTube video on the topic, which I don't think I can beat, so I'm going to quote some his commentary explaining how this incredible language came to be:

Not too many people could read and write Korean before Hangul.

Mostly, it was just upper class academics who could read and write, and most of these academics didn't particularly mind all of the pre-Hangul insanity, because they wanted to be more like China, which, for them, was a symbol of refinement and civilization.

So, who eventually did come along to propose something different? None other than the king himself, Sejong the Great. Sejong was king of Korea during the early 1400s, and he was one of Korea's coolest kings, and not just because he personally invented Hangul.

For one thing, he was a hardcore Confucianist. He believed that it was his duty to use his power to benefit the people as best he could, and one of the major things he did was to begin appointing people to government positions based on their merit, without regard to class or wealth.

But one of the biggest confucian principals he believed in was that everyone should seek to improve themselves by studying and learning.

So, not surprisingly, he was rather deeply disturbed by the fact that almost no one in his entire kingdom could read or write, and he didn't blame this on his people either.

He knew how insanely hard the current system was. He himself actually said at one point that trying to use Chinese characters for Korean was "like trying to fit a square handle into a round hole."

Because one of his main goals was to make a system that was really easy to learn, he wound up creating probably the simplest, easiest writing system in the world.

Sejong the Great wound up creating probably the simplest, easiest writing system in the world

Seriously, if I were trying to teach you this system in this video, I would probably mostly done by now. I'll post a link to a short comic in the description that claims to be able to teach it to you in 15 minutes, but I actually think that that's a bit high. Seriously, just read the comic through and you’ll be able to read and write Hangul by the end of it.

Because it was so easy to tell how things were pronounced based on how the symbols looked, this system spread all across Korea like wildfire after Sejong invented it.

Sejong said of these symbols that "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days." And he was right. In fact, it was so effective at educating the population, that latter kings tried to abolish it because they thought it was making people too smart.

The Korean writing system, designed purposefully to be easy and fast to learn, was completely successful, as is proved by its continued use today some half-a-millenia later.

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If the official language was different from the language(s) of the common people, one might create a pidgin language. A pidgin takes things from the languages of the people trying to communicate, sticks them together, and simplifies as much as possible.

In this case, the vocabulary would probably be based on the official language, but the grammar would probably be different (more related to the commoners' language(s)). The sounds (phonology) would have to be simplified. Take the sounds of the dominant language, then take away all the sounds that don't exist in the commoners' language. For example, "s", "sh", and "j" might all become "s".

The grammar would be simplified a lot -- simple structure, no irregular verbs, that sort of thing. The number of words would be much lower than in a normal language. The pidgin language would be easier to learn for the commoners, and if they ever wanted (or were allowed) to master the "real" official language, they'd have a head start. The elite would probably still speak the original official language, since it sets them apart from the lower classes.

For extra fun, if people use the pidgin language regularly enough, people's kids will start to learn it. Once a group of children learn to speak a pidgin, the pidgin ends up as complex as any language and becomes a creole. After that, the creole would become the people's language. It would take generations before the pidgin would become a creole, though.

My biggest source for this was Advanced Language Construction by Mark Rosenfelder. It dives into real-world linguistics and how to create naturalistic languages. (If you're interested, you should probably start with his Language Construction Kit.)

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I think the answer depends on the kind of language and the degree of complexity, and also the difference from the other languages spoken by those who want to learn the language in question. So, for example, if the two languages were like Spanish and Italian, then having one simplify to resemble the other would hardly be necessary. However, if one language was Spanish and the other, say, Cherokee, well, that's a different story.

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Our language gets increasingly complicated because people look for a word that means mostly want another word means but not quite.

Or they use new, made up, words or old, redefined, words to distinguish themselves from the people who speak the other way (slang). If slang is used often and long enough, it becomes part of the official language. Gay use to mean happy.

We also live in a world of increasing knowledge and complexity. We need new words just to describe new objects, events and ways of thinking (or we could just slap words together like the Germans do).

o.m. already referenced 1984. Reducing complexity and restricting the growth of the language will force thought patterns into restricted and controlled processes.

So, as much as I think that most slang displays lazy/stupid thinking, I would never consider banning it. Messy language and messy thought processes are likely what helps us be so creative.

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Mostly, no. Under special circumstances, maybe.

After all, it's been tried before - well, not simplifying the language, precisely, but people have been trying to control and prescribe language throughout human history. We have documents from ancient Rome where writers complained about young'uns today mangling the language. France has the French Academy which attempts to provide an Official and Authoritative record of the French language, but whose decisions are widely ignored.

Centralising language appears to be generally ineffective. When humans need to communicate, they will create language that suits their needs. It happens automatically, whether a central authority wants it to or not.

So, what are these 'special circumstances'?

Basically, humans can't control language. We can use it, but we can't control it.

That doesn't mean that something more than human can't do it.

In the Culture series by Iain Banks, the Culture mostly speaks a language called Marain. It was created from scratch by, and this is important, the super-intelligent Minds, AIs, that effectively run and maintain the Culture, and was designed to be "phonetically and philosophically as expressive as the pan-human speech apparatus and the pan-human brain would allow".

It may also have been designed specifically to mold the minds of those who spoke it, to help shape the thoughts of those who spoke it, and enable them to fit better into the Culture's peaceful lifestyle.

This is what it would take to produce a widely-used artificial language - a way-more-than-human intellect.

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It generally makes sense to simplify the language and some governments have already done so as mentioned in other answers. But let us look at what is really difficult in learning the language and how it applies to English.

The number of grammar rules is significantly less than the number of words. People use about 10,000 words in everyday life and the number of words and word phrases in English on dict.cc is more than one million.

For many languages learning the words also means learning how to write them. If each time you learn a new word you need to learn how to write it then you need two times more effort to learn this foreign language.

All the reforms that I know consist of simplifying the writing system because there you can achieve more in terms of simplification without reducing the expressiveness of the language.

Let us look at the English writing system. The writing system is irregular for the first 1000 words, but as you start digging deeper and learn the rarer words you find out that they have very few irregularities in writing and almost all confirm to the writing rules of English (which very few native speakers know). So in terms of writing system English is easy for rare words which need the most time to learn.

In terms of grammar English is already simplified by being a mixture of multiple languages in its past. There are no cases and no gender. And it is easier to start speaking English than almost any other language and much easier to speak without errors.

Therefore I would say that English as an international language is partially a conscience choice. If there was an easier language in EU to learn than there are chances that another language would have been chosen as a language of communication. The most spoken mother language of EU is German which is by no means considered an easy language to learn.

There are still ways to simplify English:

  1. writing system corresponding to pronunciation (writing of not that many words is improved in English)
  2. eliminating noun and verb endings completely. (e.g. Yesterday I go to school)
  3. use constructed forms instead of distinct words (cheap could become im-much-cost (analogous to malmultekosta in Esperanto))
  4. reduce number of words in use

1 can be done without changing the way people speak so it is the easiest. 2 is done by all beginners of English language and is easily understood by native speakers. 3 will significantly change the vocabulary, make the language uglier, but can half the complexity of English. 3 will not change the number of words in use and the expressiveness of the language. 4 will reduce the expressiveness of the language. I would say that it is already partially present in international English.

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The question you need to ask is "why they haven't done that already?"

Elephant is one example, why use such long words when we haven't used all the short ones? Why they named it elephant when they could go with "af"

Why you say Q when saying Queue? There is also a song called "Gudbuy T'Jane" which you read exactly like "Goodbye to Jane" so why we still use the Goodbye? Which is short from "God be with you". So maybe you can simplify the language but you need to just pinpoint the right moment.

Also the whole futuristic movement was trying to simplify the language.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, I think it's short for "God be with ye". $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder May 25 '17 at 18:31
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Yes, one of the government's projects years ago during the Jimmy Carter administration looked into this as I recall, and it was made into this https://vimeo.com/66638573 during the time of the United States considering a conversion to the Metric System in the 1970s.

the letters ABCD would remain the same. The letters E and F would become one letter pronounced "EF". The rest of the letters are modified as shown, hopefully the video shows up, and gives useful information for this subject.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! It's generally preferred that you place any relevant information from the video inside your answer, in case the video ever becomes unavailable. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy May 26 '17 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, thank you, and that is a great point, as there are video links that eventually don't work. I will seek to do this. $\endgroup$ – rogersbra1 May 26 '17 at 18:04
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This happens all the time but as a natural process rather than being planned by some central authority.

For example English used to have gendered nouns that disappeared sometime after the Viking invasions. The theory is that Vikings, who were obviously learning English as a second language, never learned to speak it perfectly and their simplified version of it eventually became dominant.

Also take a look at pidgin languages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pidgin

When two cultures with different languages have a lot of dealings with each sometimes a new language emerges which is a simplified mix of both.

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protected by Serban Tanasa May 30 '17 at 13:22

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