The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence by Julie Sedivy is one of those long, meaty articles that make too many points to summarize briefly, so I’ll just quote a few bits and urge you to read the whole thing: Languages with very simple sentence structure are, for the most part, oral languages. It’s the languages that have a culture of writing, developed over a long span of time, that display a fondness for stacking clauses onto one another to create towering sentences. This pattern raises the possibility that the invention of writing, a very recent innovation tagged on to the very last millennia of human evolution, can dramatically alter a language’s linguistic niche, spurring the development of elaborate sentence structure, and leading to the shedding of other features, on a timescale that cannot be achieved through biological evolution. If that’s so, then the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence. The development of intricate sentences in modern European languages has unfolded slowly. These languages now churn out relative clauses with boundless enthusiasm but their common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, may […]

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