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English: The Inescapable Language

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Native speakers of English have a great advantage. Learning English at our mothers’ knee is almost like being born able to do algebra.

One night years ago when I was visiting Buenos Aires, I had dinner with an acquaintance. We were speaking in English because he spoke my language far better than I did his. I apologized for my inadequacy in Spanish and complimented him on his bilingualism.

He replied, “That’s understandable. After all, English is so easy to learn and Spanish is very difficult.”

I was stunned. In school, Spanish had been regarded as the gut course among foreign languages, far easier than French, German, or Latin. And English, at least among English-speakers, was thought very difficult, with its irregular spelling and pronunciation given as the usual reason. I have never tested this hypothesis, but I bet every culture regards its native tongue as difficult to learn. After all, foreigners always struggle with it, so it must be difficult, right?

Not necessarily. Most people are oblivious to the oddities and weirdnesses of their native tongue—as well as its simplicities—for precisely the same reason that fish are oblivious to water. My Argentinian friend, for instance, had no idea that Spanish spelling and pronunciation are absolutely regular. To hear a Spanish word is to know how to spell it and to see one is to know how to pronounce it. There are no spelling bees in Spanish-speaking schools because there are no bad spellers among native speakers of the language.

So, is English actually hard to learn? Well, yes and no.

The English version of a lengthy text is always substantially shorter than versions in other languages.

Historically, English is one of the Germanic languages but because of its insular evolution it now bears little resemblance to the other Germanic languages, such as German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. And while there is some overlap in vocabulary with French, the two grammars are very different. Indeed, English grammar is quite unlike any other language in the world.

That’s the bad news for foreigners. The good news is that basic English grammar is ridiculously easy to master. In French there are three conjugations of verbs (the so-called -er, -ir, and -re verbs, after their infinitive endings). Each conjugation has its own set of endings for each tense and each mood (such as the indicative and subjunctive). A typical French verb has more than 50 endings that must be learned. Spanish also has three conjugations. Portuguese has four, Latin five, German two.

English has only one conjugation. And most of the endings (“inflections” is the linguistic term) disappeared with the transition from Old English to Middle English 800 years ago. So a regular English verb has a grand total of only four forms: walk, walks, walked, and walking. The most irregular verb in the language, to be, has only eight forms: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been.

English dominates the Internet. It is the only language used in air traffic control. It is the overwhelmingly dominant language of science.

And while many other languages, such as French and Spanish, make frequent use of the subjunctive mood, it has nearly disappeared in English. (The Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” is the only instance in popular culture I can think of that uses the subjunctive.) Also vanished is the second person singular (thee and thou), which in many other languages is booby-trapped with social nuance.

Even English irregular verbs are simple. They all come from Old English and, except for to be and to have, are all irregular in the same way: they change the radical to express the past and perfect tenses. Thus swim, swam, swum. (There’s one verb in English that is either regular or irregular depending on the subject of the sentence. People are hanged, but other things are hung.) All the irregular forms of all the irregular verbs in English can be listed on less than a page of a paperback dictionary. It takes 16 pages to do that with Spanish irregular verbs.

English nouns are equally easy to deal with. They have no gender, for instance. French nouns, however, are all either masculine or feminine. And while there are a few helpful rules (French nouns ending in -tion are almost always feminine, those that end in -eau are almost always masculine) most of the time the student of French simply has to memorize which gender a French noun belongs to, and it is maddeningly arbitrary. You might think that the French words for army and navy would be masculine, but you’d be wrong. A few French nouns, amour, for instance, are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural.

Fly, for instance, means an annoying insect, a part of a pair of trousers, a part of a theater, a means of locomotion, the outer edge of a flag, a type of hit in baseball, and a type of hook for catching fish.

German and Latin divide nouns into masculine, feminine, and neuter with an equal arbitrariness. The German words for knife, fork, and spoon are, respectively, neuter, feminine, and masculine. In these languages adjectives must agree with the noun they modify in both gender and number. English adjectives are invariable.

And let’s not even get into Latin nouns, which have endings to mark what part of speech they are being used as (and are divided into no fewer than five different groups, called “declensions,” each with its own set of endings.)

Some languages, but not English, have very different written and spoken forms. French has a past tense that is only written, not spoken, while casual spoken German and Greek are practically different languages from the formal written versions of those tongues.

Some languages, but not English, have very different written and spoken forms.

But English, of course, while known to linguists as the “grammarless language,” is hardly without its difficulties for foreigners. English spelling and pronunciation are, unlike Spanish, not well coordinated.

There are three reasons for this. One is that English has a lot of phonemes (the individual sounds that make up a language), and especially a lot of different vowel sounds. Spanish has only five vowel sounds, one for each vowel letter. English, depending on the dialect, has at least twelve, plus diphthongs and even triphthongs. Another reason is that English just doesn’t like diacriticals (accent marks and such) that many languages use to indicate differences in the pronunciation of a letter.

Finally, English is orthographically conservative. When a word is borrowed into English, we tend to maintain the spelling of the foreign word even as we adapt the pronunciation to the English sound structure. We borrowed two Greek words to coin photography and we still spell it in the Greek fashion. In Spanish, they quite sensibly spell it fotografia.

Spanish and French have three conjugations. Portuguese has four, Latin five, German two. English has only one.

But the lack of coordination between sound and spelling is no worse than, say, French, with its myriad silent consonants and functionless accent marks. For example, the circumflex accent in French, such as in hôtel, doesn’t affect the word’s pronunciation. Indeed, all it tells the reader is that the vowel used to be followed by an unpronounced S, an S that was dropped—because it was silent—300 years ago, when French spelling was reformed. The circumflex was then added to the preceding vowel to let the reader know the S used to be there, as if the reader cared. This is known as French logic.

An even bigger problem with English for foreigners is the fact that its everyday vocabulary is so immense, thanks to the many languages that contributed to it over the 1,500 years of its existence. The average speaker of English has a vocabulary with about half again as many words as the average speaker of, say, French or German. English abounds in synonyms, each with its own slightly different nuance or meaning. That’s why the thesaurus and the dictionary of synonyms are standard reference works in English but seldom found in other languages. Learning the subtle differences in meaning and tone between, say, “penniless,” “broke,” and “impecunious,” is, to put it mildly, a chore for foreigners.

The average speaker of English has a vocabulary with about half again as many words as the average speaker of, say, French or German.

One of the quirks of the English language is that nouns originating from Anglo-Saxon often have associated adjectives that come from Latin or Greek. This is especially true of body parts, such as ear-aural, heart-cardiac, liver-hepatic, etc. While the names of farm animals are usually Old English in origin, the words for their meat are usually from French. (Possibly, this is because after the Conquest the English-speaking peasants cared for the animals, but it was the French-speaking Norman aristocracy who ate them.)

This multiplicity of words even extends to prefixes. To negate an adjective, for instance, one uses un- (as in uninterested), dis- (dishonest), in- (inattentive), or a- (amoral). Which one to use often depends on the particular word’s etymology, but some words take more than one, producing thereby a slight change in meaning (uninterested is not quite the same as disinterested). Equally often, however, it is arbitrary, just as French gender is. It can even vary over time. Jefferson used unalienable in the Declaration of Independence. Today we say inalienable.

Vanished is the second person singular (thee and thou), which in many other languages is booby-trapped with social nuance.

The advantage of the huge vocabulary of English, of course, is that it makes English a superb literary and scientific language, able to express fine and precise shades of meaning far more easily than other tongues. This is no small part of the reason English has become the near universal language of science. It also makes English more efficient. The English version of a lengthy text is always substantially shorter than versions in other languages.

But while English has a very large everyday vocabulary, it also has the maddening habit of using the same word to mean many different things. Fly, for instance, means an annoying insect, a part of a pair of trousers, a part of a theater, a means of locomotion, the outer edge of a flag, a type of hit in baseball, and a type of hook for catching fish. A flyer can be either one who flies or a printed advertisement that is handed out. A bill is everything from the jaws of a bird to an invoice to a piece of legislation under consideration to an advertisement that is posted on a wall, not handed out.

I bet every culture regards its native tongue as difficult to learn. After all, foreigners always struggle with it, so it must be difficult, right?

So English has its full share of oddities and complications for the foreigner, and is as difficult to fully master as any foreign language. But, thanks to its very simple grammar, it is probably easier to grasp its rudiments, regardless of the student’s native tongue, than any other language not closely related to that native tongue. That’s fortunate, for English is now inescapable.

In the Western world, Latin was the common language of the educated classes for centuries, the last, linguistic, remnant of the Roman Empire. Newton wrote his Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, in Latin, not English. In the seventeenth century, French took over as the language of diplomacy, a position it kept until the twentieth.

By the twentieth century, however, English had become the second-most common native tongue (after only Mandarin Chinese). And it is by far the most common second language, thanks, initially, to the British Empire and then to America’s economic and cultural dominance in the post-war world. Thus English became the world’s new lingua franca (to use an Italian term that literally means “Frankish language”).

Most people are oblivious to the oddities and weirdnesses of their native tongue—as well as its simplicities—for precisely the same reason that fish are oblivious to water.

English dominates the Internet. It is the only language used in air traffic control. It is the overwhelmingly dominant language of science. (Even the premier French scientific organization, the Institut Pasteur, publishes its papers in English first and only later in French). Sixty percent of all students studying a foreign language today are studying English. It’s a required course in school, starting early on, in an increasing number of countries.

So we native speakers of English have a great advantage. Learning English at our mothers’ knee is almost like being born able to do algebra. Those not so fortunate can still get a handle on it fairly easily, however. That’s lucky for them because, like it or not, acquiring a competence in English is now a necessary part of every serious education around the world.

John Steele Gordon is an author and commentator.  His latest book is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon's other features include "The End of the Book?" and "An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Estate Tax." Jay Richards says more on language in "I, for One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords."

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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