As a non-native speaker that learnt English through unusual methods, I have an intuitive understanding as to what words are supposed to go where, yet, I don’t really know the rules. If I stop to analyze what I just wrote, I’m just impressed I managed to churn that out, because English is so different than Portuguese, for example.
I’ve always looked for an explanation as to why this happens, and this article provided me with it.
Interesting. I should research how Portuguese turned out the way it is now, similarly to what was done in this article.
One of the fundamental and deep phenomena of human language is that fluent speakers have tacit knowledge of a great many grammatical rules that they would be surprised to be told about, and would usually have to stop and analyze before being able to explain. Congratulations on being fluent in English.
I was disappointed at this article’s focus on European languages, because that “mongrel” status is unusual but definitely not unique, especially if one doesn’t limit oneself to looking at currently-extant languages. Blending of languages when two groups of people interact economically is not at all rare. I do buy the argument that attaching prestige or anti-prestige to words based on their etymology is uncommon.
Unfortunately, I’m not a linguist and don’t have good examples to hand.
One of the fundamental and deep phenomena of human language is that fluent speakers have tacit knowledge of a great many grammatical rules that they would be surprised to be told about, and would usually have to stop and analyze before being able to explain.
Very true. It’s why some of the more practical methods of learning languages don’t really delve deep into grammar rules, but get you to internalize the grammar rules through copious amounts of examples and repetition.
And yes, it’s not just English. The Mandarin word 了 (le) comes to mind: it’s used to make things in Mandarin “past tense”, but ask any Mandarin learner and they’ll tell you that learning where to put it and how to use it is one of the bigger challenges for learners of the language. For English speakers, it can also be used in ways that are strangely unfamiliar. For example, you can say something like 他胖了, where 他 (tā) means “he” and 胖 (pàng) means “fat”, but it doesn’t mean “he was fat”, it means “he became fat”. Trying to understand all the rules on how to use it is likely to drive you crazy, so a lot of times it’s best to just drown yourself in examples and let your brain sort it out.
Haven’t read the article yet, but:
I do buy the argument that attaching prestige or anti-prestige to words based on their etymology is uncommon.
You shouldn’t. In many European languages (Germanic and Slavic), vocabulary derived from Greek or Latin sounds fancier, smarter and more scientific/artistic than the native words. In Russian, Serbian (well, Church Slavonic) words have a higher register than Ruthenian (East Slavic) ones. Same in Yiddish with Hebraic vs. Germanic words.
Oh. Well, thank you. :)
The example they gave about English diverging isn’t so bad, as long as you’re familiar with the TH letter (þ, known as ‘thorn’), which fell out of style because imported printing presses didn’t ship with it.
In Old English, however, ‘Ving-Thor was mad when he woke up’ would have been Wraþmod wæs Ving-Þórr/he áwæcnede
Rewritten using the modern alphabet: ‘Wrathmod was Ving-Thor / He awaecnede". Not so bad; “Wrath” and “Mad” no longer compound, and “When” is missing, but it seems reasonably close to me.
Wráþmod is a compound of wrath and mood; it’s the same construction as bliðemod, meaning happy (blithe + mood). In addition to mood compounds, there’s also heart compounds (e.g. gramheort, also meaning angry). Anglo-Saxon’s rad.
I’m curious if there’s a reverse way to look at diversity. So German and Dutch are somewhat intelligible to each other, or Spanish or Italian perhaps. Which is why we call them Germanic languages or Romance languages. What if we called English dialects the “English languages”? Like if English were even more internally divergent, it would somehow move up a level. Few people talk about learning “the Romance languages” in general.
Well, that’s kind of what happens as-is. On the one hand, English has no real peers the way most other languages do. The article is fairly Euro-centric, but even within that sphere, there’s a gradual continuum of intelligibility through the Slavic languages, for example: Russians can understand Ukrainians can understand Poles can understand Czechs, for example (though, interestingly, this does not run in reverse). You could so similar traces with Chinese and modern Arabic (which, despite the protestations, are really more collections of related languages than one single language).
On the other extreme, there are things called “language isolates”, which are languages such as Finnish that seem to have their own grammar and lexicon that is genuinely fully distinct—not merely weird—among all other languages we know about.
English is in the middle. We have a bunch of weirdness that makes us stand out from the other Germanic languages, but our grammar is still, at the end of the day, unapologetically German. Conversely, there are no real English dialects so extreme that they really stand out as a language.
So yes, what you’re proposing is indeed exactly how things work. It’s just that English isn’t diverse enough to get sibling languages, and isn’t anywhere near unique enough to be a language isolate.
English grammar isn’t that Germanic anymore. We usually put the infinitive right next to the helping verb, but German always puts it at the end. I will read that vs ich wurde das lesen. In other respects, though, certainly closer than not germanic languages.
There’s a lot more to what makes a Germanic language than that. It’s the combination of all the little things—things like putting adjectives before nouns, favoring compound noun phrases over adjectival ones (even if we don’t write them that way in English orthography), using the present tense for things in the future (“I’m going to the mall tomorrow; wanna come?”), the use of “to + verb” for the infinitive, a lot of our short common base words (we, him, fish, flesh, water, blue, red, cow, hand, etc.), the retention of a genitive case, —that make us Germanic. This is probably an area where having exposure to more languages, so that you can see how insane constructions can get, would make English and German seem a lot more similar than they might otherwise.
English is pretty German except for our word order.
He ran to the store.
To the store he ran.
In simple German sentences the word order is similar (“He ran to the store”). What you mean is compound sentences, like “He said, that he to the store run wants”.
Isn’t the Hungarian language similar to Finnish in some aspects?
There is some similarity, but Hungarian and Finnish being in the same language family is under slight dispute. They are considered Uralic languages, but if you heard the term Finno-Ugric, that’s more misleading. Why? Because the Finno-Ugric category was based on a handful of similar old word stems, like Hungarian “ver” for blood and its Finnish equivalent “veri”, or “mes” for honey corresponding to the old Finnish word “mesi”. Estonian is also so much closer to Finnish that Hungarian seems the odd man out when looking at the three major languages. Hungarian is spoken in a similar rhythm and tone, though, despite them having more sz-type sounds.
I think someone mentioned Finnish being an isolate language, but that’s not entirely true. There may be some “unwarranted” tie-ins to Samoyedic languages that are further away in the Uralic languages than Hungarian, but Finnish is not entirely isolated as it has similar languages as Estonian and the near-dead Karelian.
AFAIK the requirement of an isolate language is that it does not have any commonalities anywhere. Euskara, “Basque language” spoken by the Basque diaspora, mainly in the north of Spain, would be such a language.
Caveat: not a linguist, only someone with an interest in languages ;)
I’m not too satisfied with the explanation of the weirdness of “do”, i. e. there is no explanation of it at all (only that it comes from Celtic languages).
Also, if you you are interested in why the same (written) vowels are ofthrn pronounced differently, have a look at the great vowel shift.
If you try to translate the examples into another language, say Russian or Spanish, it becomes clear. “Do you walk?” would be roughly equivalent to “You walk?”. “I do not walk” would be “I not walk” and so on. Also, other languages don’t use “do” for emphasis, as in “I do walk”, instead you have to say something like “I really walk”.
Apparently, English is unique in this, which I thought was interesting.
Fwiw that phenomenon is called “do-support”, and something like it does exist in a number of other languages. Here’s a paper on do-support in Danish.
Interesting. I had a look through the paper, and it appeared that the role of ‘do’ in the examples was somewhat different from English - e.g. I didn’t spot any examples of using ‘do’ to form a question (with the exception of tag questions perhaps?). However, I’m by no means an expert and I don’t speak Danish :)
It’s fascinating to see just how complicated and nuanced grammar rules are when they are expressed explicitly, as in this paper. And this is just a tiny facet of the language!
My thought as I was reading that was kind of… yes, and there are many weird things in grammar; are there other languages which have verbs that are strangely structured in other equally-rare ways?
Perhaps there aren’t; I don’t know enough, personally. And this did feel like a well-informed write up. I’m just automatically dubious of claims to uniqueness.
Re: Spelling The author has never had to spell Bengali words. There are three kinds of ’S' sound, two kinds of ’D' sounds two kind of ‘R’ sounds. My mother swore she could hear the difference, but it was all the same to me. As a result I had to memorize the spellings of the words. I hate memorization. Result: another subject failed in school.
I have the same problem with Hindi - my wife distinguishes the sounds but I absolutely can’t. To be fair though, this is a phonetics rather than a spelling issue.
I’m curious whether it’s possible to learn to pronounce and distinguish such sounds for adults. AFAIK, there are ~150 different sounds in various human languages, and I read about a study where they showed that babies can distinguish all of them until about 9 months of age, but after that the ability disappears (perhaps gradually?).
It’s definitely possible, but you do wind up allocating more brain mass to the phonetic distinctions that are important in the languages you use, and it takes time and immersion to reallocate it.
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.
Why would that be abnormal? There are a lot of language isolates. Just look at Basque, Hungarian, Korean, etc.
It’s indeed not abnormal. It seems to me that Greek and (modern Israeli) Hebrew are in the same situation.
Also, what’s a language, as opposed to a dialect? Are Scottish and Jamaican dialects really the same language, and Serbian and Croatian two distinct ones? The usual answer, “a Schprach is a Dialekt mit an Armee un Flot”, doesn’t seem to hold in case of Jamaica and Scotland.
Icelanders can still read similar stories written in the Old Norse ancestor of their language 1,000 years ago,
but Norwegians can’t. Languages of small isolated societies change slower.
The study of etymology holds little interest for, say, Arabic speakers.
Really? For all I know that may be the case with literary Arabic, but I can’t believe that all the dialects from Marocco to Iraq (and Maltese!) are composed of Semitic words alone. Even Belarusian, an unapologetically East Slavic language, has a surprising number of imported words in the lowest register such as dach (roof) and cybula (onion, “Zwiebel”) from German, bulba (potatoes) from a Latin word meaning onion or something, dyvan (carpet) from a somewhat related Arabic word “diwan”, some Lithuanian, Turkish and Yiddish words…
To be fair, mongrel vocabularies are hardly uncommon worldwide, but English’s hybridity is high on the scale compared with most European languages.
Perhaps. But try Yiddish. Literary Yiddish (based on eastern dialects) is a mix of mainly German, Hebrew and Slavic (mostly Polish) words, but there are also traces of Latin (hey, we’re still in Europe!) and an assortment of other random imports. And I wonder about Maltese.
If someone were told he had a year to get as good at either Russian or Hebrew as possible, and would lose a fingernail for every mistake he made during a three-minute test of his competence, only the masochist would choose Russian – unless he already happened to speak a language related to it.
Have fun with Hebrew verbs. (Not that I disagree.) If I were told that, I’d move to the middle of Siberian tundra where that sadist couldn’t find me, and I happen to speak both.
All of a sudden English feels like a weird language.
I don’t know. I speak several languages, and none of them seem sane.
It didn’t feel weird before?
Actually, it didn’t. The only “proofs” I had heard listed were things like Goose => Geese, Moose => Moose. That didn’t seem particularly weird to me since Latin’s different conjugations and declensions seemed to be similarly “weird”.
I was disappointed that pluralization wasn’t really discussed his article. Just like everything other weird thing in English, you make things plural in a multitude of ways. When I took German in college I found out this is pretty crazy to non-English native speakers.
Singular -> Plural
You -> You all
Goose -> Geese
Moose -> Moose
Rat -> Rats
You’re obviously not from the South, or you would have included Y'all -> All y'all. :-)
He must be from the midwest. In the northmost areas it’s ‘all of you’, any variation of ‘you all’ being considered incorrect. ;)
Ah, the eternal debate of my people: is y'all -> all y'all correct, or is it ??? -> y'all.
Also, there’s the fact that some verbs can be used in present continuous tense and others can’t: “I want” is OK and “I am wanting” is not. It seems that for every rule in English, there’s a good helping of exceptions to be memorised.
Actually, I noticed that the use of “wanting” started to become normal in the last few years, and the funny thing is, it grates me even though I’m not a native speaker and should theoretically welcome more uniformity in the rules. But I guess once I’ve sunk many years into mastering English, I want everybody else to speak using the same rules, dammit :)
For what it’s worth, these irregular inflections are actually following rules that were regular at one time, and applied to words based on what batch they came into the language as part of. Later shifts tend to preserve some of these history distinctions and ignore others, and a few words, including “goose”, get orphaned in the process.