or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, April 10, 2005


The invaluable Languagehat discusses a piece by a writer named Roger Pulvers about the supposed myth that Japanese is the most difficult language to learn (I always thought it was Basque); the quoted writer attempts to debunk the myth, and then the blogger himself debunks the debunking, so that's that. What I want to talk about is a contention made by Pulvers about languages in general. He says,

"Verbs are generally the horror element of language learning. In English they are irregular, with auxiliary verbs and the conditional to make matters worse. "

And here I always thought that English verbs were breathtakingly easy.

There are some irregular verbs, it is true, but not an inordinate number, perhaps a hundred in everyday usage. The great majority of English verbs are conjugated in exactly the same way: in the present tense, always use the bare infinitive except for third person singular, to which you append "-s"; in the past, add "-ed" (with perhaps a minor spelling change, the rules for which are easily learned); in the future, prefix the bare infinitive with "will". For the progressive tenses, the situation is similar: present, conjugate present-tense "to be" in front of the progressive verb ("am going"); past, conjugate past-tense "to be" likewise ("was going"); future, insert "will be" before the progressive.

These six tenses, plus the modals (can, must, should, will, want to, may, might, need to, would like to, and so on), which are simply slapped in front of a bare infinitive, will cover the vast majority of daily speech. The subjunctive can be dispensed with entirely, since forms like "If I was going" don't sound wrong to a great many people. (The finicky among us are fighting to keep the subjunctive alive, of course; but having a learner ignore it is not a bad thing.) Conditional structures ("If I had known they were coming, I would have tidied up") may be simplified by recasting the first half in the past tense ("If I knew...") without any loss of meaning. Using only the six tenses plus modals won't make one fluent in English, but it will go a long way indeed.

Not that I think English is easy to learn to speak well: it has a great many difficulties and traps. The spelling is a near-impossibility, even for many native speakers. It has the ne plus ultra of vocabularies: where many other languages convey shades of meaning through affixes, English gives its users a nearly endless storehouse of slight variations on themes (big, large, gigantic, humongous, enormous, colossal, huge, massive, gargantuan...) and invites us to pick the best one, with consequences if we fail ("slender" and "skinny" are not the same thing).

Perhaps worst of all, the tongue is hugely idiomatic, with (to use but one example) thousands of prepositional phrases (and nouns derived from them) whose meaning cannot be divined from their components in a predictable or trustworthy way--just look at "set": set up, set-up, upset, set off, set to, set-to, inset, set in, set out, set about, set down, set aside.... Or "put": put on, put-on, put off, put in, input, put out, put back, output, put away, put down, putdown, put over, put aside, put up, put to, put over, put forward, put through, throughput.... And to make matters worse, the same expression can have multiple, non-overlapping meanings:

Put down the gun
Put down the baby
Put down the cat
Put down a deposit
Put down your name

I once baffled a Romanian native by innocently saying the second of these two sentences: "I threw out my computer last week"/"I threw out my back last week", and what are learners to make of "She threw up her dinner in the toilet"/"He threw up his hands in exasperation"?

Pulvers is right that verbs are generally are the most difficult part of a language--in my limited experience, at least. (In French, they're driving me mad.) But compared to all the other complexities of English--and speaking from the luxurious throne of having been born into the language--it seems to me that the verbs might well be the easiest part about learning to speak it.


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