It is known that the English language isn’t a phonetic one, hard to understand for non-English speakers and filled the inconsistencies, illogical phrases and words that are too old to die. One may argue English is precisely the 26 letter language you do not want to teach your kids as a first language. So what could the English language have learnt from other languages and what are some of the hard to understand anomalies inherent in the language?
- Time dependence:
If you wish to say anything in English you have to say when it happened or when it will happen. That’s how verbs conjugate, I dance – present, I will dance – future tense. There is no way in English to describe a person and an activity, dance, without mentioning time or the time. In Chinese verbs don’t conjugate the meaning is obvious from the context.
“We” can be used in two ways, to include or to exclude the listener. Imagine going up to someone and saying, “Hey, we just won the lotto.” Or “hey, we just won the lotto.” In the first case, you could mean that you and the speaker are joint winners of the lotto, in the latter, you may be referring to the listeners and not the person you’re speaking to meaning that only you won the lotto.
- Absolute direction:
In English if you ask for directions or are being asked for directions, the request is always absolute; meaning that you are the person intends to be helped to the exact address. In a couple of older languages, especially in Australia and most notably Guugu Yimithirr, one pretty extensively studied, the direction request isn’t seen as the same. The language lacks words for left, right, forward and backwards. So the listener will point you in the cardinal directions of the compass with uncanny accuracy mind you. You would be told by the listener to take a North foot and an East foot, meaning go in a north-easterly direction.
In the same way, that time is stitched into the English language, there are languages all over the world that have evidence stitched into its fabric. So if you were reporting something, you have to include whether you witnessed it or not. You can do this in English of course, but it isn’t a necessary requirement. These languages have four or five categories of evidence-based on whether you saw it with your own two eyes, experienced it first-hand but didn’t involve seeing, whether you reporting what someone else said, or inferring it. All these concepts are expressed just by how you change the ending of a word.
Now we come to the ringer, in the English language, the word, “the” accounts for about 7% of all word occurrences, the second most common word “be” accounts for 3.5% of all words, then “and” is about 2.3% and so forth. The distribution of words, it turns out, in all languages follows a logarithmic scale. The second most common word occurs about half as frequently as the most common, the third one, third as often, the fourth one, one forth, the fifth one, one fifth as often and so on. This is somehow true of all languages, even ones with no ancestral language roots. It’s not entirely certain why languages follow this type of distribution, but one explanation is that people are lazy, otherwise known as the “principle of least effort” people, animals and even machines will always pick the path of least resistance.
All languages separate nouns from verbs, even languages with no ancestral roots, so does this mean that we have a genetic framework for languages or an embedded predisposition?