May 15, 2009

Open Letter To The English People

EDIT : SOME PEOPLE MAY FAIL TO DETECT THE SARCASM IN THE FOLLOWING POST. THIS IS NOT A COMPLAINT. NONE OF IT IS TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. I AM NOT TRYING TO MAKE A POINT. I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE SHOULD BE CHANGED. THE POST COULD IN THEORY HAVE BEEN TARGETING ANY LANGUAGE.

Dear English People,

Forgive me for saying this, but I believe your entire language could need to be revised, so as to eliminate all the illogical idioms, expressions and pronunciations that have appeared over the years.

Don't misunderstand me, English is not the only language to which this applies. In fact most languages I know could do with a quick fix in order to get rid of irregular verbs and confusing terms. I do not mean to criticise anyone. If I may sound harsh at times, keep in mind that I don't mean any of this seriously, that these are merely examples of things that may seem bizarre to a beginner learning English, and that by symmetry it reflects the frustrations that English people may encounter when learning a foreign language. Every language has a few quirks and oddities. Even Danish.

A difference between Danish & English

But we might as well start somewhere. In the same way that a militant atheist may start by picking apart the Bible before scrutinising other Holy Scriptures, I shall have a look at the absurdities of the English language before anything else.

First, something that I came across a few days ago when a friend of mine asked me about the difference between the two french words "savoir" and "connaître". The answer is: "Savoir" means "To know", while "Connaître" means "To know". There's no problem with French here, the trouble is that English people use this verb "to know" to mean two different things, without realising. One the one hand, there is "know" as in "I know how this works" or "You know what I mean". This is used when referring to a piece of knowledge, something you have learnt or that you have worked out. On the other hand, there is "know" as in "I know that man" or "This is a well-known feeling". This is used when speaking of something that is familiar to you, that you have seen/heard/felt/experienced/etc before. A lot of other European languages, such as French and Danish, use two distinct words to express these. Why don't you?
(Notice that the first instance of the verb is usually followed by another phrase, while the second instance is followed by a noun)

Next on my list is the subjunctive. If you (the reader) don't know what the subjunctive is, or if you don't know how to use it, good. That proves my point. The subjunctive is an obscure and unnecessary way of conjugating verbs in English. The basic way of recognising it is: Anything out of the ordinary. "If I were you...". "God save the Queen". "The King ordered that she be released". These are all subjunctives. The English subjunctive is a mixture of the what the French call Subjonctif, what they call Conditionnel, plus some more. In short, it's a mess. And unlike in French, the subjunctive is barely used in normal speech. So please, just drop the whole thing. It's just there to confuse everyone, foreigners and Englishmen alike.

We now get to the nouns. In particular, I am thinking of nouns ending in 's'. You say "a crossroad". But "a crossroads" is also acceptable. Why on Earth do you allow that?! "A crossroad, two crossroads", and leave it at that! "A species". Again, no, call it "a specie" and leave "species" for the plural. "A series". Oh COME ON. Granted, for a series, you need more than one episode, but in just about every other European language there is no second 's'! "A serie, two series". What's wrong with that?

You've also spelt quite a few words wrong. You write "parliament". To me, it looks like someone inadvertently added an 'i' in there. If you don't even pronounce it, why do you have it?
You write "address". Please, go to any other European country, and count the 'd''s. What do you notice?

There are words that are quite simply missing from your vocabulary. Ironically, two of these are linked to the idea of cold weather. First, the hat that you put over your head to cover your ears in winter. I've tried asking people what they call this, and the reply is always: "A hat". Mhmm. Second, there is no word for describing people who are naturally sensitive to the cold, even though this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Both words exist in French ("bonnet", "frileux") and Danish ("hue", "kuldskær"), undoubtedly the two most common languages of reference for what is considered 'normal vocabulary'.

Finally, we get to the pronunciation. Leaving aside the fact that every word has at least two different ways of being pronounce (due to the variety of dialects), there are some serious issues here as well. Alright, every language have some funny ways of pronouncing certain words, and some letters that shouldn't be said. But having silent 'w''s and 'l''s, well that's just cruel. Especially when it's only in really exceptional cases, like "sword" or "salmon".

There's more. 'W'. Look at that letter. 'W'. Say it in your head. 'W'. Now, strictly speaking, doesn't this look slightly more like a double V...?

I could go on about how you pronounce Greek words/names/letters (like Penelope or Euclides), but I've already complained about that in this post, so I shan't spend any more time on it.


To conclude, it is for these reasons that I believe the English language could do with a modernising touch. I am aware that contacting the Grand Administrator of the English Language, and getting the General Assembly to accept these radical changes, is a difficult and tiresome task, especially in the strict bureaucracy of our time. As an alternative solution, I propose that everyone start learning Esperanto right now.

Yours faithfully,
Alexander
Written on behalf of Anyone Not English


- 27 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

[Skip to the latest comment]
  1. You seem to be confused about some things; specifically the subjunctive vs. the conditional; there is a distinction, it is simply that the use of the conditional often goes hand in hand with the imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive (yes, I’m English and I know what the subjunctive is); English, though, isn’t unique in this, as Spanish often works in a similar way.

    You also don’t seem to be aware of the reasons why English has some of its quirks; which largely centre around the fact that unlike many other European languages, English is a mish-mash of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse languages, and French, with a smattering of Greek and various Indian languages thrown in. Thus, we draw on many different languages and modify words in ways which the original language would not employ. This means English is a rich but confusing language, with a penchant for lifting words wholesale from other languages if people like the sound of them. To impose artificial modifications on English would kill off a lot of its best features; after all, if we’d had an equivalent of the Académie Française, we’d never have had Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or any of the great innovators of the language.

    15 May 2009, 01:25

  2. Luke,

    I apologise if my post has offended you in any way, that wasn’t my intention. I was merely trying to point out some of the curious aspects of the English language, for the sake of entertainment only. This wasn’t meant as a serious proposal. I invite you to read the second paragraph again, lest I should appear to contradict myself in this comment.

    I am aware of some of the reasons English have these oddities; in fact, many of the complaints in the posts can be dismissed simply by examining the etymology of the word in question. For example, the word “parliament” comes from the Mediaeval Latin “Parliamentum”, so in reality, the English have got that one “right”, while the French are “wrong”.
    Also, my comments about pronunciation are entirely frivolous. Spoken language is more likely to vary than anything else, and a logical and consistent coherence between the way a word is written and the way it is spoken, cannot be expected of any language.
    As for the subjunctive/conditional, I believe my examples are all instances of the subjunctive clause, but I see now that the French ‘Conditionnel’ hasn’t got much to do with it. Thanks for that, I’ll see if I can rephrase it.

    “To impose artificial modifications on English would kill off a lot of its best features”
    Agreed. As I said earlier in this comment, I do not believe these changes should actually be made. What is charming about a language is all these little things that make it so special. Remove them, and we end up with an artificial construction that is no longer English.

    “if we’d had an equivalent of the Académie Française, we’d never have had Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or any of the great innovators of the language”
    Yes, and this is one one the key differences between French and English. The French have a prescrpitive approach to their language, meaning that there are rules that must be followed and it cannot be otherwise, while the English usually take a more descriptive approach, saying that language is defined by the way it is used, thus allowing their language to evolve continuously.
    You make it sound as if I do not appreciate the beauty of the English tongue, so I’d like to point out that this is not the case. I greatly admire your language, its rich vocabulary and its blend of simple and complex grammar.

    Again, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the post.

    15 May 2009, 13:26

  3. Mike Willis

    I’ve seen/heard this said numerous times over the years, but can’t find who originally said it:
    “English doesn’t just borrow from other languages: English follows other languages down dark alleys, jumps them, and goes through their pockets looking for loose grammar.”

    Entire phrases from other languages have been adopted in to common usage. Je ne sais quoi, C’est la vie, A la carte, Deja vu, En route, to name but a few that have been lifted from French. The accents tend to get lost though. I think the e and a in Deja are supposed to have accents over them.

    I’m a native English speaker and when I read “The subjunctive is an obscure and unnecessary way of declining verbs in English” I had to look up what it means to decline a verb. I feel none the wiser for having done so.

    15 May 2009, 13:39

  4. I’m not offended, just responding to some of your points.

    To Mike:

    I’m a native English speaker and when I read “The subjunctive is an obscure and unnecessary way of declining verbs in English” I had to look up what it means to decline a verb. I feel none the wiser for having done so.

    That’s because you don’t decline verbs; you conjugate them. This simply means that you take the infinitive (e.g. “to love”) and you turn it into the appropriate form for what you want to say (“I love, you love, he/she/it loves, we love, you love, they love, etc.). Declining is what one does to nouns and adjectives in languages which have cases, like Latin, where nouns and adjectives change their forms according to their role in the sentence.

    15 May 2009, 13:55

  5. @ Luke:
    Conjugate, not decline. Thanks, I’ll change that straight away.

    @ Mike:
    I had never heard it before, but that is one awesome quote! I did a search, and it appears that the quote is by a certain James Nicoll. If one is to trust this site , the full quote is as follows:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

    15 May 2009, 15:07

  6. Mike Willis

    That sounds a lot more like the quote I was thinking of than what I posted. The version I posted was what I found via Google based on what I could remember of it. I think I heard it most recently said by Stephen Fry, possibly on an episode of QI.

    15 May 2009, 15:42

  7. Hamid Sirhan

    First, something that I came across a few days ago when a friend of mine asked me about the difference between the two french words “savoir” and “connaître”. The answer is: “Savoir” means “To know”, while “Connaître” means “To know”. There’s no problem with French here, the trouble is that English people use this verb “to know” to mean two different things, without realising. One the one hand, there is “know” as in “I know how this works” or “You know what I mean”. This is used when referring to a piece of knowledge, something you have learnt or that you have worked out. On the other hand, there is “know” as in “I know that man” or “This is a well-known feeling”. This is used when speaking of something that is familiar to you, that you have seen/heard/felt/experienced/etc before. A lot of other European languages, such as French and Danish, use two distinct words to express these. Why don’t you?

    Perhaps because, as English developed, other verbs used for the current meanings of ‘to know’ (e.g. ‘wit’) became redundant? In fact your complaint should be with French and other languages like German for having more than one word when context should allow you to distinguish the meaning. ;)

    16 May 2009, 16:55

  8. Yes, that’s another way of viewing it. I will keep that in mind if I ever write a post targeting those two languages. :)
    Also, something I deliberately omitted from the post, is that this double-meaning of “to know” has created a third way of using the verb. The sentence “I know Kung Fu” uses neither “connaître” nor “savoir”, but some hybrid form that is vague but convenient, and that cannot be directly translated into French.

    16 May 2009, 18:27

  9. Surely you could fairly easily render that into French as ‘je sais faire le Kung-Fu.’

    16 May 2009, 19:12

  10. Claire Trevien

    Sadly not Luke, that sounds very silly in French!

    24 May 2009, 16:48

  11. Yes, I was afraid to say it, but I think French people would realise you weren’t French, although they would understand you. Maybe “Je fais du Kung-fu” would work, but this means that you regularly go to the nearest dojo to practice this martial art, regardless of your level. There’s probably some way of putting it, but my point is that there’s no systematic way of translating the phrase “I know X”, as far as I know. A better example, I think, would be “I know Linear Algebra”.

    The quote “I know kung-fu” is obviously from ‘The Matrix’. It would be interesting to find out what the French translation says.

    24 May 2009, 23:19

  12. Rachel.
    1. It’s not “my-space”, it’s “MySpace”.
    2. I don’t care what the context is. What you’re writing is still completely unrelated to anything in the post, which is why I delete your comments.

    25 May 2009, 12:44

  13. Rachel

    No, it isn’t.

    25 May 2009, 13:39

  14. Explain yourself.

    25 May 2009, 16:44

  15. Rachel

    A boy at my daughters school once said to her “Never feel that you have to justify yourself to anyone.” I thought it was such a great thing to tell her. They were only about fifteen or sixteen at the time and I thought it was a very mature thing to say.

    25 May 2009, 22:42

  16. Have it your way. From now on, I will delete your comments without feeling the need to justify myself.

    26 May 2009, 01:15

  17. Anne de Brux

    For those who are interested in learning about the “evolution” of the English language, I recommend the reading of an outstanding book: Story of the English Language.

    26 May 2009, 22:09

  18. English is meant to be a stupid and hard to grasp language. That’s why it’s the most common one in the world. Also Chinese is the most common first language which explains why it has a written form unreadable to those outside of it.

    It’s a huge cosmic joke on humanity.

    And I speak as someone of Irish descent who thinks written Irish is one of the most irrational languages on earth.

    ;)

    26 May 2009, 23:34

  19. The lovely thing about comments is that you get to discover the blogs maintained by the commenters :)

    @ Anne: I looked it up. Are you talking about “Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language”? I haven’t read it, but if the author is the same Bill Bryson as the one who wrote “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, it’s bound to be good.

    @ Holly: Yes, just like Piraha is supposedly the simplest language in the world. Which is why no-one has ever heard of it. Also, I’m sure written Irish isn’t that bad, they just need some time to catch up with those modern rules about capital letters. Like, capital letters should be at the start of the word, and ‘r’ should look different from ‘R’, and stuff… ;)

    27 May 2009, 16:13

  20. Holly – ‘a written form unreadable to those outside of it.’

    Hey Holly – so does Arabic, Korean, Russian and Greek :p.

    I don’t know why people think English is such a hard language to grasp. One of the reasons I’ve found it so easy in general for people to learn is because you really don’t have to be that fluent in English to express yourself anyway. If you speak English, you can generally understand what someone’s trying to say even where their grammar and pronunciation is terrible. That’s not the case for languages like Chinese, Arabic and Russian where complex grammar (in the latter cases) and difficult tonal pronunciation doesn’t render it quite so easy to be understood.

    As for ‘I know Kung Fu’ – it’s just come to be accepted in modern slang phrases I guess. You wouldn’t generally say “I know tennis” in the same way you would say “I’m quite proficient at tennis”. Or “I know chess” for “I know how to play chess”. In fact “I know Kung Fu” is a nonsense I blame entirely on The Matrix :p

    05 Jun 2009, 08:12

  21. ‘I speak as someone of Irish descent who thinks written Irish is one of the most irrational languages on earth.’

    How much Irish do you know then?

    Alexander, you forgot people saying ‘their’ for ‘his/her’. They shall be judged first.

    07 Jun 2009, 17:20

  22. Barely any, my family think it so irrational they don’t even bother to learn it beyond the old “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?” or “pog ma thon” routine. Inherited prejudice for sure, but only one of my Irish and half Irish mates can speak it. It would be nice if more could. But with political independence from Britain it doesn’t seem to be much incentive to learn a language which wasn’t dead but wasn’t in rude health, unlike the Welsh. There’s no assertion of difference from an ‘occupying’ power as there is with the Welsh.

    Hamid:

    Hey Holly – so does Arabic, Korean, Russian and Greek :p.

    Them’s popular languages too I hear (or don’t hear in the case of Korean, there’s not many Koreans round here).

    08 Jun 2009, 22:29

  23. Hamid Sirhan

    Them’s popular languages too I hear (or don’t hear in the case of Korean, there’s not many Koreans round here).

    Yeah, but importantly the point is that the any written language within a group that developed independantly will tend to be indecipherable to those in another group without experience of that system. The last hundred years has changed that with the prevalence of English, French and Spanish (ie in propagating Roman letters throughout the world) but if we modified our education slightly to give all schoolchildren a firm grounding in several different languages with different writing systems (Russian, Mandarin and Arabic being perfect examples) we’d find those languages a lot less mystifying and a lot more accessible!

    /statingtheobvious

    09 Jun 2009, 08:34

  24. Seshat

    I object. There are several words for someone who feels the cold, but they tend to be in dialect rather than ‘official’ English. The most obvious one I can think of in English is “nesh” but there’s also “cauldrife” in Scots. Then there’s “thin-blooded” which is a little more legitimate, and ‘Southern softy” – which obviously works best if you’re a Scot speaking to an English person.

    Finally – a hat you put over your head to keep your ears warm is a deerstalker. You wear it whilst puffing a curvy pipe (which also has a name but I can’t recall it at present) and solving crime. However, we don’t really have many words for hats of this nature owing to our natural sense of style, which shies away from looking preposterous, and our inordinately tough ears. They are so tough, in fact, that they need no protection against our harsh, bitter winters, some of which see temperatures drop – on occasion – below freezing! I know, I know – surely no man can live at such temperatures? You Danes must be awestruck.

    14 Jun 2009, 02:08

  25. @ Anne: I still don’t know if this was the book you were talking about, but I have now bought ‘Mother Tongue: The English Language’ by Bill Bryson. And it is extremely witty and well written. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s into linguistics.

    @ Holly: You’ll be pleased to know that Bill Bryson agrees with you. Quote from ‘Mother Tongue’:

    But Welsh spelling are nothing compared with Irish Gaelic, a language in which spelling and pronunciation give the impression of having been devised by separate committees, meeting in separate rooms, while implacably divided over some deep semantic issue.

    @ Hamid: For the sake of precision, I feel obliged to point out that the Cyrillic alphabet is used in certain non-russian countries as well, like Ukraine, Serbia or Kazakhstan. But you’ve still got a point, and it would be worth finding out if our educational systems can be improved by including some teaching about other systems of writing. Personally, I think many subjects in school/college (Philosophy in particular) ought to be less culture-related.

    @ Chris: Oh yes, I definitely should have added that! I can see the idea behind using somethig other than “he/she”, but “they” was not a good choice. That being said, the English language should be praised for having come up with “Ms” to replace “Miss/Mrs”. It keeps the feminists quiet.

    @ Seshat: I had to look up the words you mentioned to check their legitimacy. “Nesh” fits exactly what I was trying to say, a shame that it’s only used in certain parts of England. I don’t know how official “thin-blodded” is, but I’ll try and use it in a conversation and see how people react. A deerstalker is a bit overkill for the headwear I was talking about, I had something like this in mind. I believe the pipe you were thinking of is a calabash pipe.
    Finally, I admire the Scots’ superhuman ability to withstand cold, but I doubt the common Englishman is tough enough to go bathing in winter, as a true Viking would ;)

    NB: Granted, I’m Danish, but I never claimed to be a true Viking…

    14 Jun 2009, 16:28

  26. Seshat

    Oh, that!

    That’s a tea cosy.

    After all, it’s more important to keep tea hot than your ears. But you are correct – we just don’t have a word for a hat like that. I think we should invent one. “Lug-cuddler”?

    Calabash pipe – thank you. That’s been driving me crazy for months.

    12 Aug 2009, 11:41

  27. Colin Wear

    A woolen hat I wore to keep my ears warm as a child was a balaclava….

    15 Sep 2009, 15:28


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