The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence

“Evidence shows that the most insular scientific communities have led the march away from elaborated sentences in favor of complex, compressed nouns: Science articles in specialist publications such as the Journal of Cell Biology contain fewer relative clauses and more noun compounds than articles in publications like Science, which target a more diverse community of scientists. Both of these samples in turn have less syntactic elaboration and more compression than academic writing in the humanities, which presupposes even less specialized knowledge among its readers. And lagging behind all of these in the trend toward noun-heavy compression is the language of novels and plays. And, as Biber and Gray have shown, university students learn the art of compression gradually, with those in the sciences coming to rely less on multiple clauses and more on complex nouns than their peers in the arts and humanities.

“These findings highlight the extent to which languages are shaped by the structure of their communities—so much so that even a cosmopolitan globe-straddling language like English contains within it an esoteric register whose linguistic opacity has the effect of repelling outsiders and reinforcing the insularity of its community.”

Julie Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary, and is the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. She is currently writing a book about losing and reclaiming a native tongue.

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