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Video: Four Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In The English Language

4ffwdhitelThe English language has a history of borrowing words, letters, and even tenses from other languages, or as James Nicoll put it "pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary".

This has given the English language a set of pronunciation rules that would best be described as crazy, frustrating even native English speakers, but while some of us would like to reduce the complexity, others are looking at other languages and thinking about English might steal next.

Slate recently found a video by Tom Scott where he details 4 parts of other languages which English lacks and could benefit from. The video was actually posted last year, but since I have never posted it I find it fair game.

As much fun as I found the video, only one of the 4 parts (time-independent verbs, clusivity, absolute direction, evidentiality) which English lacks really strike me as a shortcoming.

English has terms for absolute (cardinal) direction in addition to relative direction (left/right) so it’s not like it’s missing anything. Clusivity (inclusive vs exclusive pronouns) is handled by possessive adjectives serving double duty. And as for time-independent verbs, that just trikes me as a way of sowing more confusion by providing less detail in a sentence.

But evidentiality, now that could be useful. As explained in the video, there are languages which are structured so that when you make a statement that an event occurred, you also implicitly say how you know that the event happened – what was your source, in other words.

Speaking as a blogger who regularly has to judge the reliability of a report based on that report’s source (first-hand, second-hand, video, etc), evidentiality is a constant hazard. And while I can explicitly ask for this kind of detail, I would so love if it were instead baked into the language in the first place. It would make writing about events so much easier by guaranteeing that a summary would also include a mention of the source of information.

Do you know what I would also appreciate? Tenses  (this was mentioned in a sidenote in the video). English has an excess of past, present and future tenses, many of which I only vaguely understand, but other languages have tenses which don’t map on to English at all. I would like to see more of those foreign tenses purposes be added to the English language.

On the other hand, I also regret never having been taught to fully understand the tenses we have now, but that is another story.

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TheGreatFilter October 31, 2014 um 1:11 pm

"English has an excess of ways to conjugate a verb" – How so? All we do is stick -ed or -s on the end of regular verbs. Try speaking German or a Latin-based language. And "time-independent verbs"? We already have infinitives and gerunds, which have no tense.

Nate Hoffelder October 31, 2014 um 1:18 pm

I define excess by the fact that I can’t define half of the tenses. For example, there is not one but five past tenses:

"We already have infinitives and gerunds, which have no tense."

Which ones? I’m not arguing, just curious.

TheGreatFilter October 31, 2014 um 1:40 pm

"I define excess by the fact that I can’t define half of the tenses." You said conjugations. You didn’t say tenses. And so what if we have umpteen tenses? We use all of them and they all actually mean something different, which adds to the possible nuances in the language and make it more compact. For example, compare "I did" to "I’ve done." The meaning is different. English is very good at expressing subtle time differences along with the subjects related perspective of time.

Gerunds and infinitives? "Reading a number of books" has no tense. Obviously it’s an incomplete clause (follow it with, "he learned a lot"), but nevertheless, we have verb forms that have no tense. Is it possible to write a complete clause in any language without tense? It’s the same with infinitives. "To work hard" has no tense. Follow it with "is good."

Nate Hoffelder October 31, 2014 um 1:49 pm

Okay, that was sloppy on my part. I fixed it.

On an irrelevant point, I would argue that the quirks in how some words are conjugated means I am not wrong. But that’s also not what we’re talking about here.

TheGreatFilter October 31, 2014 um 2:05 pm

You mean irregular verbs? OMG. You don’t how lucky you are. Try writing in French. They have a book called a Bescherelle. It’s a thick book which lists all the conjugations of the verbs. It’s incredible. English is a (comparatively) simple language because the aristocrats stayed away from it. The nobles spoke French and Latin. English was below them. Thus we have a (comparatively) simple language unfettered by egotistical academic snobs messing with it for want of anything better to do (like working). The downside is the spelling is utterly messed up because it was formalized by a bunch of penny-dreadful printers in the 16th century who just made it up because there was no standard. There’s an excellent book on the subject called The History of English published by the BBC. You (presumably you are American) speak an Irish form of the language. The Irish were not native-English speakers, bless ’em. It shows 😉

TheGreatFilter October 31, 2014 um 1:44 pm

IMO that doesn’t list five tenses. "Used to" is not a tense, it’s an expression / phrase. The progressive can be applied to any tense. Yes, it’s a tense, but it’s really a modification of existing tenses. As such, I count only three in that article.

puzzled October 31, 2014 um 5:51 pm

What do you mean we don’t have evidentiality in English?

"My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night."

Kevin November 1, 2014 um 2:53 am

Interesting video. I’m surprised he didn’t mention the convenience of gender-free terms referring to third persons. For example, it would be convenient for English to have words meaning he/she or his/her.

Nate Hoffelder November 1, 2014 um 8:48 am

Or a plural you. I know that y’all is acceptable in some places but it’s still not standard.

TheGreatFilter November 1, 2014 um 9:53 am

You can be plural. You all is also fine.

Nate Hoffelder November 1, 2014 um 10:02 am

Yes, but it’s also non specific. It would be nice if we had a plural.

TheGreatFilter November 1, 2014 um 10:21 am

What do you mean by non-specific?

TheGreatFilter November 1, 2014 um 10:24 am

Oh, you mean a dedicated pronoun? Personally I don’t see the need. Can you give me an example when You or You all is insufficient?

TheGreatFilter November 1, 2014 um 9:51 am

You mean like it and its? And they and their?

Nate Hoffelder November 1, 2014 um 10:08 am

Try referring to people as it (a person and its …), and see how well that goes over. And the pronoun their doesn’t really work a lot better. It’s a make work solution.

TheGreatFilter November 1, 2014 um 10:22 am

There is also one and one’s.

Kevin November 2, 2014 um 1:24 am

Not sure what you want to use "one" for, but I think all of the following are unsatisfactory:
– If a person wants to argue, he can.
– If a person wants to argue, she can.
– If a person wants to argue, one can.

TheGreatFilter November 2, 2014 um 7:41 am

If one wants to argue, one can. But yeah, we lack a convenient gender-indeterminate pronoun, he / she said.

Mackay Bell November 1, 2014 um 8:53 pm

Goodness, Nate, now you are shamelessly tolling with grammar clickbait.

Can’t both sides just find a way to agree on infinitives and gerunds and without all the bitterness, finger pointing and ad hom attacks?

puzzled November 1, 2014 um 11:15 pm


Nate Hoffelder November 1, 2014 um 11:44 pm

I don’t see the problem. I liked the video, and I enjoyed the comments that have been left.

TheGreatFilter November 2, 2014 um 7:42 am

Yeah. Shouldn’t we splitting the hairs on Amazon’s and Hachette’s head for the gazillionth time?

TheGreatFilter November 2, 2014 um 7:38 am

I didn’t watch the video. I don’t like videos. Text is a much faster way to browse information.

Nate Hoffelder November 2, 2014 um 9:00 am

I don’t like watching videos for information; you’re right that it’s not fast enough nor is the info as dense as text. Entertainment is another matter. This was an entertaining video.

TheGreatFilter November 2, 2014 um 9:06 am

I may watch it 😉

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