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What are the criteria for deciding whether a language is “natural”?

Edited to add: I've been directed by the moderators to revise my earlier question (What are the criteria for deciding whether a language is "natural"?) rather than to post this one. Please go there. The only reason why I do not delete this question is because there is an answer to it. (It is a reasonably good answer, though.) If you are downvoting, please add a comment to indicate why, bearing in mind that I can no longer delete this duplicate question.


This is a follow up to my previous question (What are the criteria for deciding whether a language is "natural"?). The reason why I'm asking this question again is because I would like to dissociate this question from the purely historical question, for any particular language, of whether it has an identifiable origin. The fact that most languages of interest to linguists do not have an identifiable origin, and (dialects unwittingly created via enlightenment projects in received pronunciation and grammatical proscriptions notwithstanding) were not strongly affected by deliberate attempts to engineer, design, or otherwise modify the language, is not obviously pertinent.

For the purposes of this question, "a vernacular" means a language which it makes sense to study in a descriptivist manner: a language which is or was actually used, as opposed to a mere rule-set. I choose this word based on remarks in the other question, where it's fairly clear that regular use by a community (for whom that language is a vernacular, as opposed to a formal or ritual, language) is likely to be a key criterion.

American Sign Language is an interesting case study: while derived in large part from a pre-existing sign language which evolved in the wild in Paris, it was viewed with disdain for some time, until it was "proven [to be a natural language] to the satisfaction of the linguistic community by William Stokoe". Ignoring the reference to "natural language", this demonstrates that, historically, there have been cases where there was doubt as to whether some particular language was a genuine vernacular (as opposed perhaps to some sort of "bad gesturing imitation", i.e. a manual pidgin) but that it was possible to convince others that it was a genuine example of a language suitable for linguistic study.

Question. Is there a consensus as to what criteria a language must have in order to be considered "a vernacular" (in the practical sense of being a language within the proper domain of the study of linguistics)? If there is some debate as to what criteria apply should, what are recent articles which discuss such criteria?

  • I'm not sure how this new question differs from your previous one, other than being a bit more verbose. Rather than posting a new question every time you revise your thinking, please edit the previous one. – Alek Storm Sep 20 '11 at 17:24
  • @AlekStorm: I thought it might not be good etiquette (not to mention simply confuse discussion) to change the question in such a way as to make previous answers completely off topic. However, if you would prefer that I would do so, I will. – Niel de Beaudrap Sep 20 '11 at 17:33
  • Has it occurred to you, in the context of the answers to your last question and this one, that there is no fixed set of criteria? Since the genesis of a new language (not via evolution from an existing one) is a rare event, linguists decide about those cases as they arise. – Aaron Sep 20 '11 at 21:03
  • @Aaron: it has occurred to me, but also it occurred to me that in a discipline such as linguistics, people might be interested in thinking about what they really mean by "a language of interest" in the application to human behaviour, especially if there are going to be strong opinions about languages such as Esperanto, and reversals such as with ASL. It seems to me quite odd that there would neither be even a tentative definition, nor any discussion about what a good definition might look like (as per the last paragraph in this question). – Niel de Beaudrap Sep 20 '11 at 21:14
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As a sociolinguist, I would call the way any person speaks when not reflecting on how they're speaking their "vernacular." Of course, when people are concerned about speaking "properly," their speech is going to deviate from their unreflecting vernacular.

So, my definition of "vernacular" is defined as:

a speaker's unreflecting speech, displaying the original patterns of their language acquisition, in contrast to language usage they acquired later in their adult life.

There is the more popular use of "vernacular" to mean "language which is very different from the accepted standard." Under my definition of "vernacular," some speakers' language use is going to be very similar to the accepted standard, so they would not be called vernacular speakers under the more popular definition.

Trying to figure out how some forms of language usage get called "standard" and others "vernacular" in more popular sources a deeply social question, not a linguistic one.

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  • I'm not really asking about whether the way that someone speaks is vernacular, or about what it means for something to be the vernacular speech of a person. What I'm getting at is more what it would take for a language such as Esperanto to be the vernacular language of a person in the same way that (some dialect of) English can be. While your answer could be taken as a position on this subject (if someone can speak it unreflectively then it is a "real language worthy of linguistic study"), you might not agree with this interpretation of your answer! – Niel de Beaudrap Sep 20 '11 at 17:48
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    In that case, all it would take for Esperanto to be the vernacular of a speaker is for them to have acquired it as a normal language. – JoFrhwld Sep 20 '11 at 19:23
  • But I always pay attention to my language, and I was brought up to think before I speak. I understand why you would take this as a criterion for natural language, and I don't have a great alternative at the moment, but I think it is still a bit problematic. – Cerberus Sep 21 '11 at 1:26
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    You probably always think about what you say, but not necessarily how you say it. I doubt that you are constantly consciously deciding 1) to mark past tense on your verbs, 2) to move the tensed verb to the beginning of the sentence in a question, 3) to maintain the phonemic contrast between /v/ and /f/, 4) everything else. – JoFrhwld Sep 21 '11 at 15:04

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