English Language

A wonderful (yet awful) language.

The only languages I've found with more nonphonetic spelling than English are Irish (Gaelic) & Tibetan. GaelicLanguages have reasonable (but not perfect) spelling once you learn the system; the Old Toungue in the WheelOfTime? series by RobertJordan? is definitely the worst - even the root words are irregular (tarmon gai'don should be tarmon gai, and dai shan should be gai shan).

I think it's a bit of a hack; the unholy mixture of Greek, Latin, and German has given it a lot of irregularities in syntax (e.g. the different prefix and suffix forming rules for Latin and Greek) and spelling. On the other hand, I think there are few other languages which give quite as much flexibility in expressing ideas. -- DanHankins

Something that has also come clear to me is that someone can really really mangle spoken English, and STILL be understood. This is not true for example of [spoken variants of] ChineseLanguage, where slight mispronunciations completely changes the meanings of words. -- AndyPierce

"Slight mispronunciations..." How much difference is there between "I want my meat well done" and "I want my mate walled in"? Especially considering the differences between, say, Southern US English and Australian English?

"Slight mispronunciations..." A seemingly canonical example from SpeechRecognition? circles is "recognize speech" vs "wreck a nice beach".

Tscha! EnglishLanguage might be good enough for commercial documents, but have you ever tried to find a rhyme for "orange"? ["hot sponge", "bar grunge"] Befunge! ...sporange, Gorringe... more range...

Au contraire! If you are willing to use the two-syllable pronunciation of orange, I offer you "door-hinge". Two syllables? You mean there's a choice?

Real poets use FrenchLanguage, which lets you write poetry without BondageAndDiscipline scansion issues, and you get gastronomy ForFree.

I write poetry in LojbanLanguage, are you saying I'm not a real poet just because I consider FrenchLanguage to be a
LanguageOnItsWayDown while LojbanLanguage is a LanguageOnItsWayUp?? LojbanPoems work just fine for me.

Constraints make better art.

The canonical rhyme for "orange" is "door hinge." (Not that any of this is relevant; FrenchLanguage itself isn't what allows or disallows scansion etc, it's French poetry conventions.) -- dw

I usually pronounce "orange" as a single syllable, and I rhyme it with "born" where the word following "born" starts with a "j". For example, "The orange quirk of a born jerk." This strategy only works for internal rhymes (not at line endings). I think I've used it exactly once, not including the previous example.

Writing poetry in a language where declensions and conjugations are made by word-endings seems like cheating. Of course Latin words that end in "arum" rhyme with other words that end with "arum." I much prefer English, because then a rhyme has the capacity to surprise you - and it takes a bit of ingenuity to get one in the first place. -- AnonymousPoet?

My high school English teacher says that rhyming is a fairly recent innovation, being at least newer than kennings. Of the poetry that predates Beowulf, how much of it rhymes? -- NickBensema

I predict that in the future people will use words from other languages more readibly in order to express ideas unavailable to them in their host languages. This has been happening for quite some time now, but with the increased communication between cultures brought on by the 'net, the exchange of ideas has increased as well - and some ideas just don't translate.

I also predict that English speakers will also have to bite the bullet and start learning the basic structures of other languages in order to get around. I feel weakened by my inability to read the vast amounts of important information trapped in foreign languages like Japanese.

But then again, maybe translators will continue to improve until they are nearly perfect (sans those untranslatables). Will the 'net make any difference to people's mother tongues then? Perhaps not. -- SunirShah

Untranslatables, I would think, include plays on words mostly. In JapaneseLanguage, there are a lot of words which are said to be so Eastern in meaning, that they can't be trandlated directly to English gracefully, if at all. What kinds of concepts and phrases are equally difficult to translate from English? -- NickBensema "We called him Tortoise because he taught us," said the Mock Turtle angrily: "really you are very dull!"

How about "kitsch"? (into what? German?)

From English to what? Into a language that splits the spectrum differently? then try 'red'. Into LojbanLanguage? try 'jar' (which if it has a cap is a bottle and if not its a pot, don't ask [read LojbanicJars instead].) Into EsperantoLanguage? Daughter. Filino means dirty linen as well, so that doesn't work. "Green" or "Blue" into Welsh (and back)...

I find it hard to believe that the concept of daughterhood cannot be expressed in Esperanto because of a synonym, or that the concept of a jar cannot be expressed in Lojban because there are only two words for containers. And if they were, it's more a design flaw of the language than an indicator of culture. "Red", however, is a good example, since we have no word for the mysterious fourth color that TetraChromats see. In fact, there are a great many languages that don't have words for certain colors we take for granted. Just wait until Crayola gets to them. But I was actually looking for an English concept that couldn't be translated to Japanese. But, with the amount of cultural exchange and loanwords, I doubt there is still such a thing. Chinese, maybe. -- NB

I have several times worked hard to explain what I meant when a word has multiple meanings - such as what I meant in Spain when the distinctions of do and make mattered. Filino might not be untranslatable, but explaining it might take a lot of work!

What work? "Mi volis diri 'ina filo'." "Mi volis diri 'fia lino'." Five words. Can someone do it in four? -- NB

I don't know Esperanto, but I should think the case of filino being the word both for daughter and for dirty linen would be different from that of hacer (if I'm remembering my Spanish correctly) meaning both to make and to do. Hacer actually collapses the concepts of 'make' and 'do' into one word (I suspect), but 'daughter' and 'dirty linen' are two obviously distinct concepts, easily grasped by anyone, that just happen to be homonyms in Esperanto. It's not like explaining to an English speaker the difference between eros and agape, it's like explaining the difference between 'bear' (the animal) and 'bear' (the verb).

Actually (and I don't know Esperanto but I do know Spanish) hacer is a translation of the French verb faire which also means to make or to do depending on the context. A better example in English would probably be the verb to realize which can mean to become aware of or to make real depending on the context. These are more than homonyms, they are two (different) concepts begin expressed with one word. The word is the same however.

I think "homonyms" is correct. Here's a cheat-sheet:

Synonyms: Same meaning, different words (e.g. "said" and "stated")

Homonyms: Different meanings, same spelling (e.g. "bear", the kind of animal and "bear", to carry)

Homophones: Different meanings, different spellings, same sound (e.g. "bear" and "bare")

A one-L Lama, he's a priest.

A two-L Llama, he's a beast.

But I will bet a silk pajama

That there ain't no three-L Lllama

-- Ogden Nash

Just goes to show how hopeless English spelling is... Meek llama, oui?

English spelling? Lama is Tibetan, llama is Quechua.

Ask a firefighter, or a chili connoisseur, about a three-L lllama. (Three-alarmer.)

Give me one word not co-opted from another language.

The complaint is about English spelling, yet the words are purely foreign. As for words not borrowed, do you want AngloSaxon? for English, or merely ones coined in English first?

"Laser" technically "LASER" is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation and not an actual "word"

There are a great many words that have survived from AngloSaxonLanguage. In Melvyn Bragg's "Adventure of English", it is observed that Winston Churchill's speech, "we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight in the streets, we shall never surrender", all the words but "surrender" can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon, except for "surrender", which can be traced back to old French. --NickBensema

Isn't it Chinese that has 2 dialects that have identical written forms, but mutually incomprehensible spoken forms? More like half a dozen. It was a master-stroke of the early Imperium that the mutually incomprehensible Han dialects were unified under the one written language.

There are a few dramatic differences in British and American pronunciation. To wit, for years I wondered who was Rafe Von Williams and whether he was Ralph Vaughn William's German cousin :-)

Wonderful language, indeed: ghoti is fish: "gh" as in "cough", "o" as in "women", "ti" as in "nation".

Wonderful orthography you mean.

Or try pronouncing Loughborough. It's a small town in England. It's impossible to work out the correct pronunciation just from the letters and a knowledge of English.

English place names are worse than most words. Take Happisburgh (pronounced Hays-bru), Towcester (pronounced toaster), Southwark (suth-uck) and the famous Worcestershire sauce (woos-ter-shu sauce)!

My favourites are Scarisbrick, in Lancashire, pronounced "Scares-bru" and Wymondham in Norfolk pronounced "Wimdum".

Hey, you forgot Cholmondeley and Featherstonehaugh...

Marylebone Street in London. Depending on how familiar you are with the place it's pronounced "Mar-ley-bone", "Marrilibone", "Mary-le-bone", "Mairburn" or just "Mbn". When the pronounciation drifts away from spelling, it's spelling that gets blamed for the irregularity. The "k" in "knight" wasn't always silent, and the vowels of "helped" used to be voiced just as much as those of "lifted".

That's funny - I used to pronounce it "Mallibn". These languages (English, Tibetan, Gaelic), where the spelling and pronunciation have drifted apart, are typically ones where the spelling hasn't been revised for several centuries. While it's nice to have spelling and pronunciation in step, there is a cost to revising the spelling. Someone pointed out that if we changed "succumb" to "sukum" and "come" to "kum", it would be more difficult to grasp that the past tense of the former is not "suke:m". Remember that we tend to read words in our own language as single shapes, although we want to be able to puzzle out unfamiliar words phonetically, so at least one generation would lose its reading fluency.

English is the MicroSoft of NaturalLanguages. EmbraceAndExtend, EmbraceAndExtend! The result is something that nobody particularly likes, but is pretty damn usable across a wide spectrum of areas. And just like Microsoft, it's forcing out many more elegant but less generally useful competitors.

See also EnglishOrthography.

Actually, perhaps we can move most of this page there. It seems the ConLang crowd likes to use English as a punching bag. --NickBensema

There's a very good reason why English has so many indiosyncratic usages, spellings and pronouciations. They amount to an incredibly subtle system of shibboleths. Language is not merely a means of communication, it's also a political weapon par excellence. Upper- and middle-class English young people learned the right way to speak and spell at school so that they could instantly place any individual on the class ladder. This prevented foreigners and plebs from sneaking into the system. -- RobertAlcock

Let's also not forget that Latin was a literate language (the language was designed for reading/writing), while English or its predecessors were illiterate (spoken only); hence, English was the opposite of Chinese in the early days. You had a hundred different ways of spelling a word, but everyone agreed what you meant when you said it. It wasn't until the invention of the dictionary that the spellings of words started to stabilize.

Another fun thing I learned awhile ago was that words like "ye" (as in ye olde shoppe) were spelled (spelt?) with an umlaut over the Y, and was NOT pronounced "yee", but as we would say "thee". In other words, y: = th. The letter was known as "thorne" as I recall.

UniCode has THORN in the latin set: þ Þ

{Unicode is a thorn in the side, yes.}

See also: RefactorEnglish


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