Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, explains why English is so weirdly different from other languages:

The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a “spelling bee” competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

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There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian.

[...]

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family — Indo-European — and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

[...]

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third-person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s — why just that? The present-tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult?

Read the whole thing.

McWhorter’s book, The Language Hoax, refutes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking.

Comments

  1. Bruce Charlton says:

    There is One language enough like English that you can get about half of it… Sort of. That is Middle English, such as Chaucer. Try for yourself.

  2. Albion says:

    Maybe this is why so many English people struggle (not all, but enough) to comprehend another language. Once you get used — or are born — to the quirks and foibles of English, logic in language doesn’t seem to make sense.

    I mean: dogs, children, sheep… they all are plural in their own unique way.

    Equally, there are a bunch of things that only the English can revel in with their language. Like saying “go on” or “alright” or “if you like” for “yes.” Maybe other languages do it too, but the English love torturing a language that has the weirdest rules.

  3. Graham says:

    Scots, of Robert Burns or even James IV.

    Scots as used by Burns is sufficiently different from 18c English [which we understand more or less as modern] to be a problem but half, sure. It’s more about vocabulary and spelling.

    Scots as used by James IV stands about in relation to Burns as the English of Henry VIII would have stood to that of George III. So as early modern English is a bit of a poser for us, so early modern Scots is more difficult than Burns.

    Scots is conventionally considered a separate language that slowly died into a dialect, some would say. But it was for centuries a separate Germanic language, parallel to modern English and derived from the Northumbrian Old English via northern Middle English, as standard modern English came from southern Old English via southern versions of Middle English. Scots also had different loanwords from French, probably more, and preserved different Germanic roots or older definitions of words. Examples:

    Gang. The verb to go, as in German. A long survivor. Preserved in dialect versions of Scottish English well into the 20th century. Survives in at least one clan motto, Gang Warily.

    Braw. “Brave”, in the older and broader English meanings familiar to Shakespeare. Courageous, bold, but also Grand, magnificent, impressive, and just an expression for “very good”. Survived in slang well past WW2. Compare Christopher Marlowe, “Is it not brave to be a King, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?” He didn’t mean, showing courage in face of danger.

    Still, as most of my Scots forebears might casually remark, he’s dead now. So’s he. Him, he’s dead too. And so on.

    For languages extant today, I’ve heard Frisian too. Willing to bet I couldn’t get half of it.

  4. Graham says:

    While I take his larger point, I am not willing to endorse McWhorter on gender. Constructing a language in which the use of definite articles requires giving gender to inanimate objects is among the stupidest things humans have come up with. IIRC English DID once have them and then wisely ditched them.

    I remember struggling with this in grade school French- my first introduction to the possibility of rejecting something on a metaconceptual level.

    I wonder if any linguistics scholars have analyzed why this is such a common feature?

  5. Jim says:

    Graham – Of course gender is a very common feature of Indo-European languages but how common is it in non-Indo-European languages?

    As for English spelling the written Chinese language has no relation at all to the spoken language. As difficult as it is to learn English spelling it is much more difficult to learn Chinese ideographs or kanji for written Japanese.

    I doubt that English is all that unique and all that complex. The morphology of English is certainly pretty simple compared say to Icelandic. While consonant clusters of up to 4 consonants occur in English, in some Caucasian languages consonant clusters of 5 or 6 phonemes are common. Tlingit has five different lateral phonemes none of which are exactly like the English “l”. For something that will drive you bat-shit crazy try to understand the “topic” syntax of Tagalog.

    One thing about English and all Indo-European languages is that they have plenty of diphthongs. Most languages have no diphthongs. But some Chinese languages have triphthongs. Also some English dialects particularly in the US have lots of rhotacized vowels which are very rare in the world’s languages in general. Only a few percent of the world’s languages have rhotacized vowels. But this small number includes in addition to American English also Mandarin Chinese.

    Going back to gender a lot of languages have “weird” features. In the languages of the Andaman Islands every word is associated with a part of the body and the grammar of these languages is organized around this association. In some languages different words and grammatical constructions are used by men talking to men, men talking to women and women talking to women.

  6. Jim says:

    Graham – Frisian is the most similar language to English and one can make up sentences in Frisian that
    sound almost exactly like the corresponding English. But in general if you were to visit a Frisian speaking community you would understand virtually nothing.

  7. Jim says:

    Graham – Yes, Scots is probably more accurately described as a separate language rather than as a dialect of English. In general what constitutes a separate language as opposed to just different dialects is pretty arbitrary. For example Norwegian and Danish are much more similar than Sardinian and standard Italian. What is called Arabic comprises something like about 30 different languages. On the other hand a Low German speaker near the border with the Netherlands can converse pretty well with a nearby Dutch speaker.

  8. Graham says:

    Jim,

    Thanks for these comments. All, especially your longer comparative thoughts, quite interesting.

    You remind me that I actually have no idea how common gender is in languages outside the Indo-European world. I am in relatively easy access to Chinese, Arabic speakers and possibly speakers of South Asian languages. Must try to raise that. More fun than just looking it up… I am curious how the phenomenon would have arisen.

    One of your comments put me in mind of a thought I recently had in some other contexts. English does seem simple to an educated native speaker once we’re past some very early hurdles. But it may hinder us with other languages [obviously not all of us, but perhaps those of us a bit deaf to languages could do better if our first language were simpler], and it sometimes seems to me that both the role of English as a lingua franca and the trends in education in English-speaking countries are moving towards simplification on utilitarian grounds. Even on a day to day basis I think something is being lost.

    It’s a trade-off. Once upon a time a relatively small number of elite pupils learned the best and most sophisticated english and were also offered the most challenging opportunities to learn other tongues. We may be democratizing both but I’m not sold on every consequence.

    I only speak English, though. So there’s that. I can force my way through Burns and wrestle inconclusively with The Kingis Quhair of James IV. So even my ancestors’ culture is closing to me. Thank goodness I don’t have to speak Gaelic. I take Gaelic poetry in nice modern English side-by-side when I can get it.

  9. Graham says:

    I also take your point on language v dialect or on dialect continua driven by geography. Low German, Dutch, Frisian, English… is all same. Or at least the lines we know might have been shaped differently by events.

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