Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Exceptional

In response to Sunday's posting, regular reader Frank asked the following question:

Slight tangent, but do you really think English has more exceptions than other languages? Most people say things like "Oh, English is so difficult to learn because of all the exceptions, while French/Spanish/whatever is so easy: once you know the rule, you just apply it." But I'm really beginning to look askance at this assertion.

Now, English might (and I emphasize the might) have more exceptions than the "average bear," particularly with regards to orthography, but French, for example, seems to have quite a number of its own quirks and inconsistences.

So, has anyone ever actually sat down and proven that English is "all exceptions and no rules," while other languages are paragons of simplicity, or do people just say it because that's what they've always been told?


First off, anybody who says French is easy is delusional. Even French people will agree that French verbs are insanely complicated. (This page says English has 283 irregular verbs while French has only 81, but I find that hard to believe; during last week's French class, I asked the instructor in despair, "Are there any regular verbs in French?")

I think every language has its own particular battalion of quirks and exceptions, its own simplicities and difficulties, because languages are not mathematical formulae--they change and evolve over time, and even with the best of intentions they're living things that escape their makers' grasp. German, for example, is wonderfully easy to spell, because every letter or letter grouping has one and only one pronunciation. It makes up for this, however, by, among other things, really screwing with a lot of verb-preposition combinations: the prepositions are actually prefixes attached to the verbs, and they can snap off and move to the end of the sentence (and when there isn't a prefix, the verb sometimes, but not always, moves to the end of the sentence instead). There's a story told about Oscar Wilde attending a German play he disliked more and more, and when a friend asked why he didn't simply leave, he said, "I'm waiting for the verb." Almost certainly apocryphal, but a good joke nevertheless.

English verbs, on the other hand, are simplicity itself, for the most part: it's impossible to imagine an easier way of expressing the simple future tense, just "will + bare infinitive" for every possible situation, and the present progressive is nearly as easy--just conjugate "to be" and tack on the bare infinitive verb plus "-ing". (You can even use this to express the future, if you want: "I am swimming tomorrow," "I am leaving next week", and how lovely is that?) But it makes up for that with its tangled spelling and stubbornly unstandardized pronunciation, its convoluted rules for articles (read this if you think they're simple), and its charming but confusing encouragement of its speakers to use one word for multiple parts of speech with no outward change.

I've been told by people for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) tongue that learning the language is not at all difficult, but most of them will concede that learning the fine points can be exceptionally hard, just because there are so many of them. I think that this really might the case with any language you care to name, though. Basque, for example, has the reputation of being the most difficult language on Earth; if you're not born into it, they say, you'll never master it. But at least one person says that that isn't so: In fact, Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular verbs. He makes it sound appealing--no irregular verbs! no gender!--but then he posts a sample of Basque ("Eusko Jaurlaritzako Hezkuntza Sailak aste honetan aurkeztuko duen eskola mapari buruz hainbat kezka zabaldu da."), which rather takes the lustre off it.

I don't think English necessarily has more exceptions than other languages, but I'm no linguist; I know English inside and out, French somewhat, German somewhat less, and nothing in any depth of any other languages, so I'm not the best person to ask. It's difficult to deny, though, that despite the fact that "English is all exceptions and no rules" is a witticism, English does have an exception to the great majority of its so-called rules. "I before E except after C, or when sounding like A as in neighbour or weigh", "English is an adjective-before-noun language", "compound nouns must be formed by pluralizing the noun part of the phrase": you can find examples to counter all of these ("weird", "Rancho Deluxe" and "teaspoonfuls") if you look hard enough, and many more besides.

4 Comments:

Blogger Frank said...

Thanks for the reply, pyramus! I'm honored that you made it a whole post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006 11:04:00 PM  
Blogger language said...

English does have quite a few exceptions compared with more regular languages, like Turkish, but so do a lot of other languages. What makes English so hard is not things like go/went or goose/geese -- most languages have stuff like that, and it's just a matter of memorizing forms -- but the correct use of articles, prepositions, phrasal verbs (it can bother you that, for instance, slow up and slow down mean the same thing if you don't grow up with it and take it for granted), and verb tenses (the fact that, for instance, you can't use the compound past with a named time: *I have done it yesterday).

German, for example, is wonderfully easy to spell, because every letter or letter grouping has one and only one pronunciation.

Oh yeah? Let's try the letter c:

Caravan: k
Cedille: s
Cello: ch as in English
Cent: ts

How about the letter grouping ch?

checken: ch as in English
Chef: sh
Chemie: ch as in ich
Chor: k

And did you know that the name of the mayor of Vienna a century ago, Franz Lueger, is pronounced lu-E:-ger, three syllables? Funny language, German.

Sunday, March 05, 2006 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Yeah, I should have known better than to have made such a blanket generalization, because languages always change over time, and they absorb elements from other languages: even Esperanto, despite its proponents' best efforts, hasn't remained pure. (After all, I knew that "jazz", which ought to be pronounced in German like English "yachts", is pronounced more or less just as it is in English.) When a language borrows words from other languages, all bets are off, because sometimes they borrow the pronunciation along with it and sometimes they impose a native pronunciation: English "Nice", for instance, versus "Paris".

Still and all, German is, for the most part, very regular in spelling and much easier to sight-read that English is; we can agree on that, right?

We certainly agree on the nightmarishness of English phrasal verbs. I feel awfully sorry for people who have to learn that "throw up" can mean at least five different things depending on whether it takes an object and what sort of object it takes, or that the devious "set" can take almost any preposition in the language and mean something different (and worse, something not always evident or sensible: "set-to", for example).

Sunday, March 05, 2006 5:58:00 PM  
Blogger language said...

Still and all, German is, for the most part, very regular in spelling and much easier to sight-read that English is; we can agree on that, right?

Oh, absolutely. Your point was well taken; I just can't resist opening fire on a tempting overgeneralization!

I remember shortly after moving to NYC (25 years ago now!) being privy to a pop quiz given by my friend Tony, who grew up in Bed-Stuy, to our friend Allan, who grew up in Bensonhurst (the two of them bonded over the Knicks, which led to a lot of boring conversations as far as I was concerned): "OK, name as many [slang] definitions of throw down as you can." I forget how many Allan came up with, but there were a lot; the only two I remember were 'fight' and 'eat.' I was impressed, with both the inexhaustible variety of slang and their detailed knowledge of same.

Sunday, March 05, 2006 6:23:00 PM  

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