English - A Very Strange Language...

Updated: Sep 29, 2020



As we are English, much like our American cousins, we have a certain undesirable pride when it comes to our language. English is a powerful language in the modern world which has grown its roots into many places in the world. Whilst an extreme view, some refer to this as a modern colonisation of the world!


Consequently, we who are born into English speaking countries are cursed with monolingualism. It is for this reason that we don’t often think about what is normal and what isn’t normal about the English language – and, quite frankly, I think we all subsequently assume that English is the norm and anything grammatically different to us in not.

It is only when we decide to learn a foreign language and look more closely at our own that we realise that English possesses certain qualities and characterises seldom seen in other languages. In fact, English has a few functions that are almost unique to itself, but also lacks certain functions that exist in many other languages.


What English is lacking:


1) Reduplication


This is surprisingly quite a common feature in other languages, especially when we consider languages beyond Europe.


When we are young children, we would often repeat words or sounds, such as "goo-goo", "choo-choo", etc. or more complicated words like "ducky-duck". Nonetheless, as we grow older, we learn that English doesn't really accept this type of speech (formally).


Other languages, like Pingelapese, use reduplications as a grammatical function to show tense. For example, if the sound was said once, it's more or less equivalent to the English simple present. If the sound is then repeated, it means a continuous action. Equally, if the sound is reduplicated yet again, it creates a sense of "still". Let's address the table of three different variations of a verb in Pingelapese:

As is demonstrated, speakers of this language use reduplications to represent differences in the present tense. In English, we use auxiliary verbs, like "I sing" and "I am singing" to demonstrate this difference.


Other languages use reduplication to show plurals (i.e saying the equivalent of "man man" to mean "men") or to intensify something.


Having said this, we do still sometimes use reduplication for emphasis or clarity, such as “is that coconut milk or milk milk?”. Nonetheless, this construction doesn’t work for everything we want to clarify like it does in other languages. Therefore, it's not really a consistent grammatical function.


By the same token, we do have a comparative construction using repetition e.g. “it’s becoming hotter and hotter”. But this uses a conjunction to reduplicate a word – a conjunction reduplication, if you will, rather than reduplication reduplication (see, using it for clarity does not always work!).


2) Different words to show politeness


In English, we have one word to refer to someone directly - this is "you". However, in other languages, it's more common to see two or more words used to express this idea - you change which one you use based on politeness, formality, and number (i.e. how many people you are addressing).


In French, for example, they would us "tu" when speaking to one friend, but "vous" when speaking to multiple people or simply one person who demands respect, like a teacher. The same thing happens in German with "du" and "Sie", or in Spanish with "tú" and "vosotros". This list could go on forever...


3) Question Particles


In English, we form questions by switching our word order around. We stick the verb "do" at the start of the sentence.

However, in nearly all other languages in the world, they form questions by adding a question participle somewhere in a sentence. For example, in French, they stick "est-ce que" at the start of the sentence and leave the word order alone. Even in ancient languages like Latin, the Romans simply added the suffix "-ne" to the first word to indicate a sentence.


Why do we make asking questions a lot more difficult than they need to be?


4) Temporarily or forever?


In English, we have one verb to describe "being". This is "to be".


Nevertheless, in other languages, like Spanish and many other languages beyond Europe, they have two. One of the verbs for "to be" is to describe a state, something that will always be true. The other version is to describe something that will change, like an emotion or a place. In Spanish, these two words are "ser" (for something permanent) and "estar" (for something temporary). If you want to find out why Spanish has these two differentiations represented in its language, I'd recommend this short answer by Oscar Tay found here: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Spanish-have-two-words-for-to-be-when-most-languages-get-along-fine-with-one.


5) Evidentials


English grammar doesn't tell us about the situation in which someone saw/heard an event when they're telling us about it. However, in other languages, they use what's called an "evidential" to show a distinction between whether the speaker saw the event unfold, heard the event unfold (but didn’t see it!), or inferred something about the event, or was simply told about it by a mate.


English can indeed indicate this through phrases such as “it seems”, the subjunctive such as “if it were the case”, epistemic modality such as “I see he’s coming” instead of “I know he’s coming”, or indeed using adverbs like “apparently”, etc. However, it has no grammatical category of evidentiality. Furthermore, it can be argued that epistemic modality in English does not show evidentiality as it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate evidence but evaluates it instead.


According to Alexandra Aikhenvald in 2014, about 25% of all world languages have a grammatical distinction for different evidences. So, perhaps English is not so weird for not having it, but I think it would be cool if we did!


What English does but other languages do not:


Nominative-Accusative Alignment (or simply 'Accusative Language')


English is a nominative-accusative language. In a nutshell, this basically means that we treat all our subjects of verbs differently to their objects, in spite of whether the verb is transitive or intransitive.


In linguistics, particularly in this specific field of study within linguistics, parts of speech of labelled as follows:

  • The subject of an intransitive verb = S

  • The subject of a transitive verb = A

  • The object of a transitive verb = O


Briefly, in an accusative language, all subject are equal and the object is separate. It can be written as this: S=A; O, separate. Therefore, the subject doesn't change its form depending on the verb, only if it is the object. For example, we would say "I eat", "I eat the dog", and "The dog eats me". The form of "I" only changes when it is the object of a transitive verb.


However, in other languages which are ergative-absolutive languages, it's a little different. One example of such a language is Basque. In Basque, you would treat subjects of intransitive verbs like objects of transitive verbs, and subjects of transitive verbs as separate. This is written as: S=O; A, separate. Therefore, if this system were used in English, we would say “I eat the dog”, “The dog eats me”, and “Me eat”.


Other things that make English odd:


  1. There are no other languages that resemble English. Other languages often share many similarities with others. For example, Spanish and Portuguese and Italian, German and Dutch, etc. English shares words, some grammar, etc. with other languages, but not to the same extent other languages do.

  2. We do not assign gender to nouns.

  3. We don’t conjugate our verbs like the rest of the world, only changing the verb for third-person singular conjugations (I eat, you eat, he/she/it eats, we eat, you eat, they eat).

Why is English Such A Strange and Different Language?


With all these differences between English and other languages, it's important to understand why. These differences have their origins deep in English language history.

A Celt relic

We start in around 55BC when the Celts decided to pay us a visit or, more accurately, invade us. The Celts gave us some of the weirdness in our language such as “do” to form a question word. Before this, we did what other languages do: use a question participle. No other known, modern languages other than English and some modern Celt languages (like Welsh, Irish, and Breton) have this.


Other factors like migration affected our language. For example, in the 9th Century, many German men migrated to England to find brides. Although we'd expect them to continue to speak German, they made the surprising switch to try and learn English.


However, without the many resources we have today like the internet and written sources, this was a tall order.


As such, many Germans never actually "mastered" English, using a simplified version. And, because they were men and the sexist social hierarchy that used to reign at this time, their version of English became more prominent. This is considered to be part of the reason we have no genders for nouns, and why English grammar can be considered a little easier than other Germanic languages, who must tackle having different words for "you" depending on levels of politeness, more prominent case systems, etc.


Another consequence of this German migration is that we dangle our prepositions. Whilst for a long time we still managed to hold on to putting our prepositions at the start of a clause, this simplified version existed alongside the formal way, but eventually became the norm. To illustrate, we say "Where are you going to" instead "to where are you going?" or "whither are you going?" The latter two are the syntactic constructions favoured by almost all other languages. For example, in Latin, the Romans used "quo" to mean "where to/whither". In French, "where do you come from?" is translated as "d'où est-ce que tu viens?" ("From where do you come?"). No other modern languages, apart from Danish and a random language in Mexico, allow a syntactic construction similar to English.


Then, in 1066 came the Norman influence. They gave us roughly 10,000 new words. Equally, the learnèd English by the 16th Century wanted to appear more intelligent by including Latin words in things they say, giving us English words like crucified, conclusion, definition, information, etc…

What does this mean for English, though? Due to Latin, French, and Old English now being included within modern English, we have lots of different synonyms with varying tones of politeness. These are called “triplets”. Here are some examples given by Linguistics Professor John McWhorter in his article “English is not normal” (link to the article): to help (from Old English), to aid (from French), to assist (from Latin); kingly (from Old English), royal (from French), regal (from Latin).


Furthermore, we have two names for animals depending on whether they’re living or going to be eaten. We say "a cow", but its meat is "beef"; we say "pig", but its meat is "pork". Other languages don't really do this.


After all these considerations, it's certain English is a strange language. However, it's important to recognise that a similar list could be made for any language. This article could've easily read "why French is a strange language" or "why Chinese is a strange language". Every language has its own peculiarities.


Despite this, it's equally important to note that English seems to be the most consistently strange, possessing more unusual qualities than other languages. Certain in the past have argued that this is a reason for English's dominance. However, this would be wrong.


Saying this would be to suggest other languages are weaker and don't possess the right qualities to reach Lingua Franca status like English has. Indeed, French once served as the popular Lingua Franca during the 19th Century. Equally, it's now become well-established that English's international dominance is simply due to the perceived, international power of the countries that speak it.

 

Bibliography and Further Reading:


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