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Why English Is Hard [Oct. 7th, 2008|09:17 pm]
I went to a lunchtime talk on improving your English for non-native speakers. Because linguistics is interesting.

The speaker listed 5 things about English that make it more difficult to master than a lot of other popular languages. (She actually said "uniquely difficult", but I think that's probably overstating the case by quite a bit. English may have some unusual phonemes, for example, but I think those are a lot easier for people to learn than features like tones and vowel length are for people who don't have them in their native language. And English grammar is not particularly exotic.) Anyway, I thought I'd share them.

The first one is that the English lexicon is huge. There are more than a million words in English, which is a lot more than most (all?) other languages. ("How many words are there in Language X" is actually a very difficult question to answer, because it depends on how you do your counting. But regardless of exactly what you count as a word, it's clear that English has a lot of them.)

Her second two points are that it has a lot more vowels and consonants than it does letters, which I will refactor into two more distinct points: English has a lot of phonemes, and it has a very difficult orthography.

There are 15 to 17 (or maybe 19 or 23, again depending on who's counting and who's speaking) distinct vowels in English. We represent them with only 5 letters. So it's much harder to sound things out than in, say, Romance languages. It's also a lot more vowels sounds total than most languages have.

And then we've got 24 to 29 consonants and only 21 letters to write them. I think that's on the high end. It's certainly not as many as Hindi/Urdu (31-37 consonants) but it's a lot more than Hawaiian (8). And they can cluster up to three at a time (e.g., "strengths") on either side of a vowel. So in terms of number of legal combinations of sounds, there are a hell of a lot of them.

And of course, English spelling is notoriously difficult. Not only do we not have enough letters, and not only did a lot of spellings get fossilized just as pronunciations were in the middle of shifting, English spelling doesn't just denote sound, it also carries a lot of etymological information. English speakers are an acquisitive lot and delight in picking up shiny new loanwords from other languages and transplanting them, spelling and all if possible, into their own. This is why spelling reform is never going to catch on: because "tion" means something very distinct from "shun", even though they're pronounced the same, and spelling them differently makes it easier to infer the meaning of words you may not have seen before.

This dovetails neatly with the next point, which is that English has a lot of bound morphemes, syllabic elements that carry meaning but don't stand as words on their own. At least, that's how I interpret what she actually said, which was "some syllables have meaning on their own". It seemed strange that that would be a rare feature of a language, since lots of languages have all kinds of suffixes and prefixes and infixes, but if we're talking about things like Greek and Latin word roots that have been incorporated and recycled in other words, yeah, that's a very English-y thing.

Finally, there's the fact that English has a lot of unusual phonemes. "Th", in particular, both voiced and unvoiced? Yeah, that's a weirdo sound that nobody else uses. Except, like, Icelandic speakers. Also uncommon are having both 'b' and 'v' as distinct sounds and (especially hard for non-native speakers) distinguishing between 'l' and 'r'. Lots of languages don't do that, it turns out.

Personally, I think a lot of these things make English interesting and fun, and that a weird and complicated language with a lot of expressive power is much cooler than the kind of straightforward and logical system that most of the conlang crowd is always trying to design.

But I freely admit that I'm a freak.

[User Picture]From: dcseain
2008-10-08 11:40 am (UTC)
Castillian, Catalan, Aragonese, and Arabic all have voiced and unvoiced "th". Greek has the unvoiced - i'm not sure whether delta in some positions may become voiced, as D does in the Iberian languages i listed.
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[User Picture]From: bluebear2
2008-10-08 03:32 pm (UTC)

The þorn

I think we should bring back the Thorn letter in English. All our computers can do it so why not?

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[User Picture]From: aadroma
2008-10-08 11:56 am (UTC)
English?? Logical?? Heheheh, you're cute.

Really, NO language is ever 100% logical, as it's used and modified by man. A language continues to live and thus adapts and change -- even if a language HAD a rhyme or reason (English's spelling, pronunciation elements in Chinese) those become frozen in time. Conlangs have logic and that's WHY they differ from natural languages, as these languages haven't had the "human error erosion" of other languages.

You're a freak? I've been writing about this shit nearly every week for three years. :: laugh ::
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2008-10-08 12:38 pm (UTC)
Uniquely difficult? Hah! Take that Japanese!
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[User Picture]From: epinoid
2008-10-08 01:43 pm (UTC)
You and my partner have unusual overlap. He got his PhD in Atmospheric Physics at UC Boulder and turned into a software developer. One of his major passions is linguistics.

I wonder what would happen if you met (I wouldn't be able to keep up with the conversations and would probably go off and doodle or try to interject with topics I can handle.)

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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2008-10-08 02:22 pm (UTC)
I love morpheme! Good thing it's a controlled substance, or I'd be screwed.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2008-10-08 02:22 pm (UTC)
Some ideas above illustrate why I'm uncomfortable with phonics as a way to teach reading. A written word is almost never translated to sound before I understand its meaning, and it's a very, very common thing to know a word intimately and have never heard it out loud.

It seems to me that what really happens when we learn to read is that we learn a new language. We have to map spoken English to written English, of course, just as you have to map (my only experience in a foreign language) Spanish to English. But that's when you start. When you're really fluent in Spanish, you speak the Spanish and have to take a moment to figure out what the words would be in English. In other words, I don't figure out the sentence in English and then translate it--it's much better to figure it out in Spanish and only translate it back to English if I need it to. That's because eventually the Spanish words map to concepts, not to English words.

So I think the same thing happens with writing. Perhaps you have to start out mapping written to spoken English, but eventually the symbols map to concepts, not to sounds. Until you get there, you're not fluent in written English.

But I can't deny that Z-man (3 years old) is reading lots and lots of words using phonics, and I'm not sure if there's really a better way to start him out with familiarity. I could show him objects or actions and the written word, without introducing the phonic components. But that would be like learning Spanish with no reference to equivalent English words.

However, I think most ESL classes with multiple languages do exactly that--they teach English without reference to the various native languages. So I don't know exactly how it would work, but I often wonder if some kind of direct concept-to-written-word mapping would be a better teaching tool than phonics. Yet I don't care to spend my free time designing such a system, so there you go.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2008-10-08 09:37 pm (UTC)
This is a very interesting comment, and I have been unable to generate a coherent repsonse. We should talk about it in person sometime. Where we can use words instead of weird collections of symbols that represent words... ;)
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[User Picture]From: kev_bot
2008-10-08 04:41 pm (UTC)
Three things:

1. I could read about you talking about this for my whole life.

2. A book you need to read is Reading the OED. Now.

3. I'm down on America for going against the rest of the world and not adopting metric, but I'm of the exact opposite mind with English and all its eccentricities. Word nerd.
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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2008-10-08 09:09 pm (UTC)
Reading the OED?

Oho. That sounds like a good one after Know-It-All and Secret Life of Words. Thanks!

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[User Picture]From: kev_bot
2008-10-09 05:53 am (UTC)
I've read Know-It-All and it's amazing. I know not of Secret Life! Please elucidate!
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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2008-10-12 05:24 pm (UTC)
Secret Life Of Words, The
How English Became English

Hitchings, Henry
September 2008 Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 488pp
ISBN 978-0-374-25410-0 (alk. paper)

I can't really give a review yet, as I've just begun reading it, but I'm really liking it so far. Lots of cool info on word origins, language migration, how English cheerfully appropriates terms, and how the flexibility of English facilitates this. There are some good reviews on Amazon.

Edited at 2008-10-12 05:25 pm (UTC)

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[User Picture]From: kev_bot
2008-10-12 09:36 pm (UTC)
It actually sounds a little like Bryson's Made in America, which I heartily loved. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2008-10-08 09:05 pm (UTC)
I've just been reading The Secret Life of Words (fizzygeek saw it at a bookstore and thought I'd like it – she was right), and it touches on a lot of these points. It's a good read (so far, anyway). Wanna borrow it when I'm done?

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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2008-10-08 09:17 pm (UTC)
I would say yes, but it's been ages since I made dent in my To Be Read pile, and I would feel guilty just letting it sit there unloved...
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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2008-10-09 03:00 pm (UTC)
I've never studied linguistics but I have read a lot of random stuff written in older versions of English. :-)

I'm reasonably certain that the "invention" of standardized spelling in the English language has contributed to some interesting problems. The usual push of languages to fragment into dialects has somewhat been halted. (Radio and TV, arguably, are another reason.) We also suffer from taking the same roman alphabet (with very minor variations in the letters the romans actually used) and have two thousand odd years of adapting it to languages in different ways.

W as a vowel in Welsh, for example. :-)

Reading "English" thus become an exercise in literary history. Is this word greek, latin or germanic based? Is it a word adopted from something else completely different? Given its root, can you figure out what the other forms should be? Given the root can you guess how the components should be pronounced?

We've thus turned a somewhat phonetic alphabet and made its words into something that are only slightly better than character based languages. Sure, you can guess at how something is pronounced but you'd be just as wrong as you'd be right if you don't have enough history.
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