Why is English So Weird?

Anglo-Saxons in their traditional tribal garb

Speakers of any language like to think that theirs is unique. Germans point out that their proclivity for ramming words together to form new compounds makes German uniquely adaptable. Their neighbours over the Rhine claim that French’s clear grammar and precise vocabulary make it the natural choice for the European Union. But everyone agrees that in many ways, English is particularly odd.

Most quirks can be traced to England’s turbulent early history. English is a Germanic language, but native speakers usually have an easier time learning French or Spanish than Dutch or German. Thanks to the massive influence of French on English after the Norman conquest of 1066, English has more Romance words than German ones. An earlier wave of Viking invasions mixed in a hearty share of Norse. Modern English speakers who are frustrated that Europeans have such facility picking up closely related languages have these medieval interlopers to thank.

The legacy of invasion also helps explain why English grammar is so simple, and unlike that of any of its European peers. In the Middle Ages as today, foreigners had a hard time remembering noun gender or baroque case endings. In learning English, the Vikings and Normans garbled it and whittled down its former complexity. Modern English is the only Indo-European language in all of Europe that does not arbitrarily assign gender to inanimate objects.

To address a popular complaint against English, it is helpful to know that the language underwent a major shift in pronunciation around the Renaissance. This was ongoing in the era when orthography was being standardised, which is why so many words are spelt differently from how they are pronounced. (For more on these and many other points, see my four-part history of English.)

New Guinea is a veritable treasure chest of linguistic eccentricity.

That English is different from other major European languages is well known. But it is even more interesting to explore how different it is from the vast majority of languages spoken throughout human history.

Homo sapiens have probably had language for about 300,000 years, and until about 5,000 years ago, everyone in the world lived in small tribes. This social milieu is obviously very different from ours. So, too, are tribal languages. Things we can hardly imagine communicating (and indeed thinking) without are actually new, unnatural developments.

To take one example, most tribal languages do not really have numbers. Modern Australians are dumbfounded to learn that Aboriginal peoples traditionally counted only one, two, and many, but this was actually the norm before the advent of large-scale civilisation. In a hunter-gatherer’s world, there is simply no need for exact measurements.

Neither does one need to abstractly describe colours. In a society in which everyone is intimately familiar with the same colourful things (e.g., local plants, minerals, the sky), one can simply work with comparisons. The particularly fascinating point here is that colour words develop in a well-established sequence: light and dark come naturally, then red, then green/yellow, then blue, then brown. After that, colourful language turns into a kaleidoscope. A world without colour words seems alien to us, but it is worth noting that orange is pretty new in English.

An Englishman visiting an orange grove before the 1500s might have approximated their hue as citrine or saffron. A less sophisticated speaker would probably just go with red.

It is natural to assume that less developed societies would have less sophisticated languages. In some areas, this is true. They have limited vocabularies, even missing, as we have discovered, fundamental things like numbers and colours. Most people get by with only a few thousand words in their daily lives, a small fraction of the 200,000 or more that theoretically comprise the English lexicon. The French have half that, and I know only a few English people who think they are only half as good as we are. New words do enrich our understanding of the world. But to be fair, it is not obvious that having tens of thousands that exist only in the dictionary is such a great virtue. Would we be so much the poorer without cynosure, eloign, resile, or friggatriskaidekaphobia?

On the other hand, English is structurally simpler than most “primitive” languages. Whenever a large number of adults (e.g., Viking invaders) learn a language, they inevitably butcher it. Over time, complex grammar (e.g., case and gender) and tricky phonology lose their rough edges.

This process of clumsy simplification has transformed many of the world’s major languages, including English, Dutch, Farsi, Mandarin, and all the Romance languages. Thanks to medieval Frankish warlords who were too busy killing one another to learn proper Latin, the French hardly ever bother to pronounce the ends of words. Afrikaans, which is Dutch reshaped by hard men of diverse backgrounds living on the frontiers of South Africa, has no gender, case, nor even verb conjugations. Its grammar is remarkably straightforward- it is the easiest foreign language for a native English speaker to learn.

This trend is so pervasive that for a long time linguists believed it must be natural for language simplify over time (I admit I had this notion as a young undergraduate). Of course, this does not make sense, or else after three hundred millennia we would be reduced to grunting at one another. Icelandic has changed relatively little from Old Norse; Pashto, nestled in the isolated valleys of Afghanistan, similarly preserves Old Persian. It is still possible to draw connections between Cherokee in North America, and the languages of their cousins who never crossed over and still live in Russia’s Yenisei valley. Even major languages like Russian and Tamil have pretty much held together, because they have largely stayed within the community.

The Taliban are well known for spreading religious fundamentalism. Less unpleasantly, they also have boosted international awareness of Afghanistan’s reactionary version of the Persian language.

Today, over half of people speak one of the 23 top languages (out of a total of 7,000) as their native tongue. About 40% of languages are endangered, with fewer than a thousand speakers. In such a world, it is easy to forget that English is the exception, rather than the norm. Most languages do not change much over the centuries.

Most also lack what we think of as basic necessities, yet do have many features that are really bizarre. Georgian is not even that small or insular of a language, yet its grammar is so eccentric that linguists have had to invent new technical terms to describe it. In nearby Archi, spoken in one village in the Caucasus, verbs have 1.5 million conjugations. In Mixtec, an indigenous language of Mexico, it is impossible to ask a yes or no question. Dyirbal, a tribal tongue of northeastern Australia, has four genders, one of which refers to women, fire, and dangerous things. There are more genders than numbers. The craziest thing is that, in the grand scheme of things, they are the normal ones.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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