Adam Smith was an eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and proto-economist associated with helping to lay the foundations of modern capitalism. His best known theoretical contribution is probably the invisible hand, and he’s lionized by right-wingers everywhere, especially in America – or rather a somewhat mythologized version of him is. One thing he is definitely not widely known for is his writings on language. But write about language he did! And, in particular, some of his ideas anticipate Peter Trudgill’s theory of sociolinguistic typology by 250 years.
|Left hand side: the invisible hand. Right hand side: depiction of Smith.|
Language would probably have continued upon this footing in all countries, nor would ever have grown more simple in its Declensions and Conjugations, had it not become more complex in its composition, in consequence of the mixture of several Languages with one another, occasioned by the mixture of different nations. As long as any Language was spoke by those only who learned it in their infancy, the intricacy of its declensions and conjugations could occasion no great embarrassment. The far greater part of those who had occasion to speak it, had acquired it at so very early a period of their lives, so insensibly and by such slow degrees, that they were [p468] scarce ever sensible of the difficulty. But when two nations came to be mixed with one another, either by conquest or migration, the case would be very different. Each nation, in order to make itself intelligible to those with whom it was under the necessity of conversing, would be obliged to learn the Language of the other. The greater part of individuals too, learning the new Language, not by art, or by remounting to its rudiments and first principles, but by rote, and by what they commonly heard in conversation, would be extremely perplexed by the intricacy of its declensions and conjugations. They would endeavour, therefore, to supply their ignorance of these, by whatever shift the Language could afford them. Their ignorance of the Declensions they would naturally supply by the use of Prepositions; and a Lombard, who was attempting to speak Latin, and wanted to express that such a person was a Citizen of Rome, or a benefactor to Rome, if he [sic] happened not to be acquainted with the Genitive and Dative Cases of the word Roma, would naturally express himself by prefixing the Prepositions ad and de to the Nominative; and, instead of Roma, would say, ad Roma, and de Roma. Al Roma and di Roma, accordingly, is the manner in which the present Italians, the descendants of the antient Lombards and Romans, express this and all other similar relations. And in this manner Prepositions seem to have been introduced, in the room of the antient Declensions. The same altera-[p469]-tion has, I am informed, been produced upon the Greek Language, since the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. The words are, in a great measure, the same as before; but the Grammar is entirely lost, Prepositions having come in the place of the old Declensions. This change is undoubtedly a simplification of the Language, in point of rudiments and principle. It introduces, instead of a great variety of declensions, one universal declension, which is the same in every word, of whatever gender, number, or termination.A similar expedient enables men, in the situation above mentioned, to get rid of almost the whole intricacy of their conjugations. […]
In general it may be laid down for a maxim, that the more simple any Language is in its composition, the more complex it must be in its declensions and conjugations; and, on the contrary, the more simple it is in its declensions and conjugations, the more complex it must be in its composition.