Do Languages Get Simpler When They Get More Complicated?

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Yves here. I have doubts about this thesis about how languages change. English went though the Great Vowel Shift (in Shakespeare’s day, reason rhymed with raisin). When I was in college, no one knew why and per Wikipedia, it still appears that no one knows why.

I also wonder where Rosser would put Japanese on his simple v. complicated spectrum. Japanese is much simpler language than English: fewer tenses/verb forms, hardly any irregular verbs, no requirement to speak in complete sentences, fairly small vocabulary, no difficult sounds. Contrary to popular perceptions, Japanese is very easy to speak at a basic level (and I have heard tales of men hanging out in bars who became fluent in a few months). What makes Japanese difficult is its types of formality and politeness, and its kanji. There are important subtleties in the forms of address, like an abasing form often deployed by store clerks, or a “I’m not sure of your position” form, which is an insult if you actually do know the other person’s status. It is impossible to speak to someone in Japanese without taking a position on their standing versus yours. That being so central to their language makes them very sensitive to power dynamics.

Japanese also has three alphabets: katakana (generally speaking, each character = a syllable), hiragana, for foreign words and kanji, which are characters borrowed from Chinese. Kanji often have more than one meaning.

So Japanese speakers can and pretty much always do speak more difficult Japanese (more rarified forms of politeness, higher kanji content) to exclude gaijin. In all of my time dealing with the Japanese, I encountered only two Americans who were fluent enough to stand up to this language testing. One was a member of the State Department who was regularly interviewed on Japanese TV; the other was an academic.

That is why gaijin who are doing business in Japan and have some Japanese fluency are best served by playing dumb so their Japanese counterparts will speak Japanese at a level that might be accessible to them (this is true in many situations when dealing across languages, but more so than just about any other with Japanese).

To get back to Rosser’s thesis about languages, Japanese pointedly have avoided foreign influence despite borrowing foreign words. But Japanese has evolved; for instance, I am told older poetry is a slog, but I am not sure what would have led to the shifts in the language. So I don’t see this as fitting his paradigm. But Clive our house Japanophile, who is fluent in Japanese, might disagree.

By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak

Oh, a minor diversion from the usual political economy stuff that goes up here.

This is triggered by an article in last week’s The Economist on the nearly dead San language, Nluu. It has only two living fully fluent speakers alive, both in their 80s. The San languages are among the world’s most ancient, although arguably reflecting a simpler world than the one we live in, although certainly with many complications we know nothing of. But the point that caught my attention was that it has 45 distinct click sounds, along with 114 basic sound units. It is one of only three languages in the world (all of them San) that have something called the double lip-full kiss click, whatever that is. I only know that if one sees an exclamation point that means some sort of click. So probably the most numerous living San group are the !Kung, yeah, some sort of click on the front end of that name.

I have known about this matter of clicks in southern African languages for some time, but had no idea there were so many different ones. Not only the San languages, but also the Khoechan (or Khoi khoi) languages have lots of them. Some clicks can also be found in the much more widespread Xhosa languages, one of which was the mother tongue of Nelson Mandela, who almost certainly had some Khoi or San ancestry. But beyond these languages, I am not aware of any others that have any clicks. They have disappeared in later languages, and I am unaware of any other language having anywhere near the number of basic sound units that apparently this nearly extinct Nluu language has.

I have not heard anybody theorize about simplifying sounds over time in languages, but I know there is an academic argument about grammar becoming more simplified, especially when two languages are combined as with creole or pidgin languages, something written about by John McWhorter in hi The Creole Debate. Pidgin languages, artificially created to allow communication between groups and drawing on each other’s languages, tend to be especially simplistic in gramatical terms.

It occurs to me that this might apply to English, which is itself a sort of creole out of Germanic Old English and Latinic Norman French, with some other elements. In a way it may be the world’s most complicated language in some forms, notably in probably having more words than just about any other language, drawing on so many inputs from so many parts of the world and fields. But in grammatical terms it is rather simple, with only a few cases and having eliminated gender from most words. In contrast, Lithuanian, thought to be the closest to the original proto-Indo-European has seven cases, more than any other, although Russian is not too far off. However, despite this relative grammatical simplicity, English is hard to learn, not only because it has so many words but because it violates its own supposed rules so often, in contrast with Spanish, for example, reputedly one of the easiest languages to learn.

So, there is no big profound point here, but just that I find this curious: that it seems that as languages evolve and interact with each other and encounter more and more influences, they seem to drop elements they previously had, whether these are sound units or grammatical forms and cases.

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  1. R

    Yves, from a British English perspective, I think you mean that reason and raisin used to be homophones rather than that they rhymed to Shakespeare, because they still rhyme in British English! The “on” and “in” endings are both sounded as an intermediate “un” sound (some phonetics symbols would help here but I don’t know them or how to type them!). Is there are difference in sound in American English?

    If you want to hear an “original” pronunciation of Shakespeare, or something closer to it than modern RP English, one school of thought it that you can go to the hollers of Appalachia. The Westcountry immmigrants who left the UK in the 17th century preserved their pronunciations in their rural fastness while the home country moved on.

    1. synoia

      You correctly refer to dialects. In my home County of Norfolk, the Local Dialect was very very different for the “Queen’s English, both in pronunciation and in words. Donkey (Queen;s English)= Dicker in the Norfolk vocabulary.

      One of the tasks in my School was to teach local boys how to speak “The Queen’s English.”

      It was almost a separate language.

      In the example refereed to by Yves, It would be important to identify the regional accent of the pronunciation of Reason.

  2. Lambert Strether

    > Despite this relative grammatical simplicity, English is hard to learn

    And then, for professionals at least, English has the barrier to entry of its wondrous spelling.

    1. Psalamanazar

      English orthography is indeed wondrous. They say it approaches optimal efficiency for data compression, the common words being irregularly spelled and read as one unit, longer words being regularly spelled and those between being composed of irregular recurring sub-units. So it takes effort to learn to read or write English, but after that reading speeds are high. By contrast, the Korean script is phonetically highly regular (it was invented to break the then PMC’s monopoly of learning, which rested on mastery of a more complex script), but there is said to be a limit of how fast one can then read.

    2. Ignacio

      English is not hard to learn, it is a pain in the neck! Let’s not even talk about spelling!
      hahaha! I think i will never be able to command Shakespeare’s language.

      1. Chris

        I think i will never be able to command Shakespeare’s language.

        You and two thirds of recent high school graduates in Australia.

        Don’t beat yourself up, Ignacio, you communicate in English at a very high level. I’m always humbled by those with a solid proficiency in a second language.

    3. synoia

      English spelling appears to me to be built on the English Class system. If you can spell properly, you are “one of us” and not just and ignorant peasant.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    There are some great youtube channels on languages. For English, Simon Roper is fascinating, he has some very informative little monologues on subjects like the Great Vowel Shift or the relationship of archaic forms of English to American/Australian English. Nativlang and Langfocus are also really entertaining channels made by real experts. A great book which touches on the way languages bleed into each other is A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor – he walked across central Europe in the 1930’s, and noted how the numerous local dialects and languages from Fresian to Bavarian and more all sort of bled into each other village by village. You can still experience that in many parts of Europe – especially if you go from southern France along northern Spain to Portugal. There is no ‘boundary’ where one language just changes instantly. Even Basque sounds French to my untutored ear to the north, while it sounds Spanish on the other side of the Pyrenees.

    Japanese is particularly odd, in that, as Yves says, basic conversational Japanese is very easy, you can have almost an entire conversation with a half dozen key words. But the mindblowingly difficult writing system (far more difficult than even mandarin) and the subtle pitch change shifts in spoken language makes mastering Japanese very difficult (most Japanese teachers insist Japanese is spoken ‘flat’, when in reality subtle pitch changes are very important, but they are difficult to master). Its made even more difficult by Japanese politeness, they endlessly praise foreigners for even very basic phrases and won’t correct you. Its amazing the number of westerners who think they are fully fluent in Japanese when in reality, they are nowhere near. One English friend of mine dryly observed that you know you’ve achieved genuine Japanese fluency when Japanese people stop being polite to you.

    As for formality levels in Japanese, I believe Korean is even worse. Even the Japanese find Korean levels of formality difficult to get their heads around. I’ve seen fights break out in Korean bars caused by someone using the wrong honorific.

    I’m sure proper linguists here could comment, but I think it is true that English as a language is simplifying as it is becoming a world language. Here in Ireland I’ve been saddened over the years to see the richness of hiberno-English gradually die off as younger generations grow up exposed to a sort of standardised British/American English on TV and media. hiberno-english itself was quite rich as it incorporated lots of older English forms with Irish, in particular Irish grammar forms. There is no doubt that this led to the richness of the language of Yeats and Wilde and Shaw, with the anglo-Scots ulster richness brought out best by Seamus Heaney. A lot of this has been lost.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I don’t see how anyone could say Japanese is flat. There’s a pronounced cadence and pitch. Japanese find it easier to understand English if you adopt a Japanese intonation (I’d go into the girlie high register, which would annoy the Americans to death, but the Japanese would regularly tell me my English was very easy to understand).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I’ve heard the ‘Japanese is flat’ (or variations on flat) thing said very often, by both Japanese and others. It very obviously isn’t spoken flat, but I’ve heard many maintain that the cadence and pitch you hear is just ‘accent’ or individual to the person (apart of course from rising tones indicating a question). I’ve come across westerners in Japan who say they got higher degrees in Japanese in the US or Europe without ever once having been taught about pitch. They just assumed that the difference between, say ‘ame‘ (sweet) and ‘ame‘ (rain) was context based. Even most dictionaries don’t give pitch – oddly, the japanese dictionary embedded in all Apple pc’s is one of the few that gives correct pitch accents for every word.

        There are some pretty vigorous flame wars going on for those who follow these things between those teachers who insist on neutral pronunciation (implicitly arguing that real world practice will allow learners to develop pitch naturally) and those who argue that the four major pitch changes should be taught from the very beginning. There is a youtube teacher/comedian called Dogan who has some very funny skits on the topic.

        Its interesting that you say that speaking ‘girlie’ made it more easy for them to understand your English. I find it far easier with my very basic Japanese to follow younger females when they speak than males – they have very distinctive cadences which (for me anyway) makes them easier to understand. I’m told that many Japanese find that lots of gaijin males speak in a ‘female’ way, perhaps this is why.

        1. Alexandra

          Japanese women also use more grammatically “standard” forms than men do, especially, in my experience, when talking to foreigners. After all a lot of the work of hospitality falls to women, and that is as true in language as in other aspects of Japanese society. Japanese men have a lot of linguistic ways to display machismo, ranging from tone to pronouns to verb forms to omitting particles designed to establish empathy or mutuality (like “ne”). Whereas Japanese women generally use feminine speech regardless of whom they’re speaking to, men modify their expression a lot depending on their audience and the effect they want to create, e.g., humorous vs. threatening vs. deferential.

          Although Japanese doesn’t have grammatical genders like, say, Spanish, of all the languages I’ve studied it is by far the most gendered in terms of its customary vocabulary and rules of deployment.

      2. DJG, Reality Czar

        Yves Smith and PlutoniumKun: I agree about Dogen. His real name is Kevin O’Donnell, and he has several videos on pitch accent, and they are fascinating even to me as a clueless viewer. One of them is on “ame,” which has slightly different pitch accents depending on the dialect.

        It appears that pitch accent varies with dialects, so that it is possible to say something incomprehensible if one is from Osaka and the listener is from Tokyo.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I once gave a run though of one of Dogans pitch accent Anki decks to two Japanese friends, one from Osaka, the other from a fairly remote area north of Tokyo. They got every single one wrong!

          Most Japanese have no idea about pitch accents, but then again, very few English speakers can explain stress accents, or are even aware English mostly uses stress accents.

          Pitch varies hugely across Japan, one reason why some teachers justify not teaching it. But the counter argument is that while pitch varies widely, it is always internally consistent to each dialect, so ignoring it means you can end up speaking Japanese like a person who mixes British, Irish and American pronunciations randomly through your speech. So if you want to speak standard Japanese, then you should use standard pitch accents.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Just to correct myself – its spelt ‘Dogen’, not ‘Dogan’. My autocorrect seems to think I’m trying to type Rogan and I overcorrect…

          2. vlade

            “like a person who mixes British, Irish and American pronunciations randomly through your speech”. Throw in Kiwi, Aussie and a replace Irish with Scottish and you have me :D

      3. Ignacio

        I once made a test with a japanese guy without any knowledge about Spanish. I made him read a text and he pronounced every word beautifully without a particular accent.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Thats impressive, Japanese people usually struggle with languages as Japan has relatively few syllables. I was listening recently to a podcast featuring two Japanese teachers who both speak Mexican Spanish, but I’m not qualified to say how good they are, but they sounded pretty convincing to me.

          As someone who has always struggled with learning languages I’m always fascinated by people who seem to be able to pick things up very quickly. I think having a good ‘ear’ for subtle sounds helps a lot. From what i’ve read of the cognitive science, people who listen to their language for as long as possible before speaking it often learn to speak it much more precisely.

        2. Oh

          Most japanese I know, especially women find it easier to learn to speak Spanish and their accent is universally good.

        3. Jack Parsons

          Spanish is the most Roman of the Romance languages. It is strictly, militantly regulated.

    2. Thuto

      For a while some years back Korean Air had a very bad safety record and investigations revealed that the hierarchical structure of Korean society meant that first officers were reticent to speak up when the Captain’s actions/decisions in the cockpit were misaligned with safely flying the aircraft. When the flight safety envelope was breached and the situation became critical, first officers would finally be left with no choice but to speak up only for the formalities you speak of to get in the way (to say nothing of eating up critical seconds), meaning it was often too late to save the aircraft from crashing. This was one of the big drivers in the aviation industry introducing a globally standardized CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) system.

    3. Terry Flynn

      The homogenisation of English that you refer to both saddens and interests me. Until around age 10 “no worries” was a phrase virtually unknown in my corner of Britain. Within 5 years it had become ubiquitous in British English. Why? Because in the mid 1980s one third of Brits watched Aussie soaps “Neighbours” and “Home & Away”.

      Moving to hand gestures, in a recent funny YouTube video done by a USA citizen – it was a jokey “game play through video” – he had to delete fingers on a picture of a hand to “pass the level”. He at one point deleted the ring, pinkie and thumb and it was accepted but he was didn’t intend to “pass” and was messing about at that stage (before he was obviously going to go a traditional American “flip the bird”).

      I explained in the comments that what made this funnier was that he genuinely didn’t realise that he HAD been rude. However only Brits and certain current/former Commonwealth/Imperial countries would recognise the “two fingers” (index and middle). Furthermore I think the game designer didn’t intend to be rude – wanting the solution to be “V for Victory”. However the latter is, technically, palm outwards (though there exist historical examples of famous people doing palm inwards – either mistakenly or because the insulting inversion came later). Most Brits still know it but nobody aged under 40ish still uses the two fingers, but the middle finger version.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think that between them, ‘Neighbours’ and ‘The OC’ did more damage to the English language than anything else I can think of. My nieces in particular as teenagers spoke in what to my ears was a strange Californian/Sydney hybrid. I actually absorbed phrases like ‘no worries’ by osmosis without realising where they originated.

        Mind you, I’ve been surprised recently to hear English people starting to use the phrase ‘now you’re sucking diesel’, one I’ve always associated with the Irish Midlands, via a BBC series featuring a northern Irish actor.

        1. Terry Flynn

          Haha re LoD reference! Actually that reminds me of another point I wanted to make. Back when we were young, British/Irish English was only a recipient of “Americanisms”. In these days of streaming, North America is importing far more British/Irish terms. For instance, now various shows which (whether the actors are European or not) use what is effectively “generic British English” (Game of Thrones?) I notice that far more YouTube videos by North Americans are using terms that unequivocally are not American English but hail from our side of the pond.

          It is clear that far more people in USA and Canada recognise these terms. Back in my first trips to North America in mid 1990s I frequently had to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly to be understood outside of the main tourist traps. Now it seems that the “Euro English fightback” is well underway.

          Oh and a roadtrip from Barcelona to Galicia in 1998 was amazing…..Irish jig music on the radio along the Northern Coast? WTF? Then I learnt of the Celtic roots and it made sense.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            I’ve actually never seen that series! I was just so surprised when I heard some English friends say it (its fallen mostly out of use in everywhere but rural areas here). It was only recently I read it was from Line of Fire.

  4. Ook

    Japanese is really simple…except for all those difficult parts that have no equivalent in English, which take years to learn, and which are required if you are to be taken seriously. Former translator here, by the way.

    I spent some years in Singapore, where they have what Paul Theroux called an abbreviated form of English, and I found that where verb forms were what Americans/Brits would call simplified, many of the unique grammatical constructs of Singaporean English resembled forms and phrases that one would find in Chinese and Malay, along with major importation of vocabulary that one cannot just study in order to use correctly.
    One of my linguistics profs was fond of saying, repeatedly, there is no such thing as a simple language.

  5. vlade

    Language is a contextual construct (that is the bit I’m not sure Esperanto creators understood*) ).

    English is becoming “simplified”, because it has to fit an extremely wide context which includes inter-operation between various substantially different cultures.

    When English is used in very particular contexts, it actually often becomes more complex, at least for a contextual outsider.

    *) TBH, it’s not true just of Esperanto, but any attempts to codify a language. As the context evolves and changes, so does the language, and any attempt to codify will fail unless you’re able to lock the context, at which time the language becames “stifled” quickly. One could argue that the advantage of English is that it can evolve extremely quickly and the inter-evolutionary (and thus intra-context) steps are often understood better than in many other languages.

    1. Terry Flynn

      Context is indeed king. My best friend from undergrad days has lived most of the last quarter century in Japan, married Japanese woman, has a kid. He has taken exams used to demonstrate total fluency in all the alphabets and spoken versions and which are used as a “gateway” to jobs in the professions in Japan. He translated his own (originally written in English) PhD – on the very very contentious subject of “Japanese War Memory” (WW2) book into Japanese for publication in Japan as well as the west – where it was published by one of the “standard” liberal arts publishers like Routledge/OUP etc.

      His advanced knowledge of Japanese was essential for getting locals in various settings in Japan to open up about family knowledge regarding “what was really known about the Japanese army’s conduct in SE Asia in WW2”. His deference and being “only the next rung down on the ladder – a white British male” gave him insights he didn’t believe he’d have got otherwise.

      The total WTF moment happened about 10 years ago, when he became the first non-Japanese academic to be promoted to a level commensurate with “Dean” in his faculty and as such was a drinking buddy of the Vice-Chancellor. He was setting up a new course. He wanted to draw on my “stated preference” methods to construct modules that would attract both native Japanese and westerners to a “Japanese studies” course that included a lot of things like anime/manga etc. He took great delight in recounting to me the conversation with the (Japanese) VC.

      Friend: “My friend uses a stated preference method called Best-Worst Scaling that could tell us what is valued by prospective students”.

      VC: “Best-Worst Scaling? Is your friend that guy Terry Flynn?”

      Friend: “Errrrr, WTF? How do you know of him?”

      VC: “We do our homework”.

      I finally understood why my citations had become disproportionately skewed towards Japan. I couldn’t read the articles (being in Japanese) but I knew for some reason Japanese groups were really really interested in my work. Total WTF moment!

  6. Alex

    I enjoyed the book Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, he makes a very compelling case that there are 3 main drivers of language change: simplifying pronunciation (this is how cases disappeared from the Romance languages), people trying to find stronger expressions and striving for consistency.

  7. Alex

    Speaking of the complexity, I’m a bit skeptical of comparisons between languages. The English might not have the cases of Russian but it has a ton of tenses whereas the Russian has only three.

    1. Susan the other

      It always seemed to me that written language was more precise, more cases especially, because the referent can get mixed up. When people are speaking they take all sorts of shortcuts and seem to understand each other just fine. Metaphors are another way to shortcut the logic of clunky grammar. And idiom. The most curious thing is that if two brains are in sync they can seem to be talking nonsense, but they are communicating at a very high level. And humor? Now they are saying animals have a sense of humor. Of course, why not? So does language get simpler as it gets more complex? I’d say yes because it is more efficient. But doesn’t that make the simple complex? This is not a question that can be explained using language ;-)

    2. randomeur

      I agree, these comparisons should be treated carefully – which I might restate slightly by saying that the interpretation of what is meant by simplicity and complexity is often very wrong. The simplicity/complexity paradigm of linguistics – and the so-called ‘more evolved’ (and hence simple) languages like English – does not imply something about superiority of a given language, but it’s often used that way. Even if it’s mostly in the linguistics sense a technical discussion about a few noted and more clear trends of how languages ted to change – the advanced/evolved terms get interpreted (it seems) as saying something about how ‘good’ a language is, and that’s just not what is meant. Yes, complexity of grammar and pronunciation does tend to decline – but there can be vast complexity in other areas as in the Japanese politeness forms, tenses in English, or the sheer number of words in different languages. (A side note – I believe the tenses in English are not considered grammatically complex because made of words strung together rather than changing word forms, even though they are temporally quite complex and sophisticated – and you’re right, they’re considered devilishly hard by Russian speakers).
      Another side note – the original piece is wrong by saying Lithuanian has a lot of cases at seven; Lithuanian is middling, Finnish has 15, Estonian 14, and there are others. Russian arguably has seven as well – there are six standard ones, but the vocative has left some remnants in archaic expressions like ‘Oh God’ (bozhe) and Lord!, and there is an ‘informal vocative’ that is in very active use (usually formed by dropping the -a at the end of a name, like Mama/’Mam’, Masha/Mash, Vova/Vov). Purists and pedants argue about whether it’s really a vocative form, or ‘just’ a distinct declension that’s used exactly like a vocative; but because it’s not approved by the academy, not taught in schools, few formal rules for how it’s formed, etc. – it can’t be a ‘true’ vocative (which seems to me a circular argument – it walks like and meets all the criteria for being a duck but is not classified as a duck, therefore it is not a type of duck).
      From personal experience, I’d add that Russian is a challenging language not just because of grammatical complexity, but because – like English – there is a vast lexicon of idioms that defy analysis of meaning. It may be a bit unusual in that sense – complex grammar plus being quite idiom-heavy – again, complexity is orthogonal to the pronunciation/grammar paradigm of ‘evolution.’
      As for the ‘simplified pronunciation’ – it’s hard to discuss without the concept that some sound differences in most languages don’t convey changes in word meaning, and hence tend to merge over time (eg even though voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ exist, English speakers mostly don’t see the distinction as a marker of meaning, the way so-called hard and soft consonants can be in Russian). English doesn’t have a glottal stop that changes the meaning of words (as far as I’m aware), but some versions of English in the UK use it extensively; it arguably can convey quite a lot (class/social context/informality etc); but as far as I’m aware the glottal stop is not considered part of the ‘sound library’ of English, even though most English speakers would recognize it as a sort-of equivalence of t/d.

      1. Alex

        The informal vocative in Russian is a great example of grammatical complexity (re-)appearing. Deutscher, whose concept I mentioned before, would have explained it by speakers removing the ending to save time

  8. Jessica

    “Girlie high register” The first time I shopped in Japan, the cashier used girlie high register on me and I thought she was trying to insult me until I heard her use it on the next customer, who was Japanese.
    Japanese is easy in the sense that there isn’t that much you can get completely wrong, such as verb endings or noun case endings. So one can pick up “bar Japanese” quickly with enough desire and a bit of talent. However, there are a large number of patterns to learn because they do the job that those endings do in other languages. For example “if not, not OK” is how you say “must”. The use of double verbs where English uses an adverb. So “drink up” is ‘drink cut” or “drink put away”.
    More complex oral communication – things that require late high school or college vocabulary – is difficult to master without learning kanji. Most kanji have a native Japanese reading and one (or more) reading borrowed from some Chinese language or other in one of a few different centuries. So “erabu” = “to choose” and the “sen” in “sentaku” = “choice(s)” or “option(s)” are written with the same kanji. On the other hand, if you do master enough kanji, then you also have a key to vocabulary that in English would required knowing Latin and classical Greek.
    I never had the experience of folks speaking extra-polite forms in order to leave me in the dark. I never mastered active use of polite forms, but I wasn’t too bad at passively recognizing them. My sense was that once the real flowery stuff was broken out, then much of it was strictly socially performative, demonstrating superiority or submission for example. Alternatively, there was actual meaning, but it was being expressed so vaguely (for example, using a verb that could mean either “to come” or “to go”) that one had to be an insider to that conversation beforehand to know what was being spoken about. But I think that Yves moved in more powerful circles than I did. I worked with folks who provided services for companies who sold parts to the big famous companies.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I know several ‘bar Japanese’ speakers and they always seem to amuse Japanese with the things they come out with. I think the Japanese are used to gaijin with textbook formal Japanese (which is nothing at all like what most japanese speak) and just adjust accordingly.

      I’m told that ethnic Asians, in particular ethnic Japanese, can have a very hard time in Japan as they don’t get the ‘white privilege’ of being allowed to get formal language wrong, even if they are very obviously not native speakers. A Japanese friend of mine said she was horrified at how tough her parents were on her English born daughters, they were fiercely critical of their super casual Japanese that they grew up with in their home. So much so that for a while the girls simply pretended when in Japan not to be able to speak Japanese, they grew afraid of older folks coming down hard on them.

      1. Jessica

        I had a Japanese-American friend who spoke much better Japanese than me, especially all the polite forms. I was treated with much respect. Not just the “look at the trained seal play music” variety. But she was treated by strangers as being mildly retarded.
        My daughter learned much of her Japanese from her cousins in Okinawa. They code shift and speak one way in school and another way at home. My daughter only learned the version used at home so she sounded like a truck driver. She had to spend some time in Tokyo to learn the version with higher social status.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Sounds amazing if she has good standard and regional Japanese. I was surprised when I first got interested in the language to hear Japanese people say things like ‘I want to learn Iwate dialect’. It hadn’t occurred to me that the dialects were so different that you had to put in a major effort to learn them. I think watching too much Terrace House has made me more attune to the very direct way the Japanese deal with ‘strange’ dialects, not to mention the deep resentment many have at the dominance of Yamanote Line Japanese.

          1. vlade

            Hahahah dialects.

            The place I was born has a dialect (if you can call it that, I have no idea dialect of _what_ it would be), which is totally, utterly, incoprehensible to anyone outside, on any side of the border (it’s a place stuck between 5 cultural regions, really). It’s a mixture of Rusyn (which some actually treat as a dialect of Ukraininan, even though it has its own ISO code, and is not to be confused with Ruthenian), Polish, Hungarian, German, Slovak and Yiddish. With words and gramatical structures taken from any and all of them (pity Romanian influence didn’t get as far, because then it would mix literally all major language groups of the Europe).

            How exactly it is used may vary from village to village, depending on which of the above influences was the strongest there – but it will be still understood within the region.

            1. The Rev Kev

              Knew a guy a long time ago who once taught English in Japan. He was telling me at the time that anybody could teach English so you had the spectacle of Japanese speaking English with an Irish brogue or a Glaswegian accent or an Aussie one. It must have been glorious.

              1. PlutoniumKun

                Its quite common to meet Pakistani women who speak English with a distinct Irish accent, due to the popularity among upper class Pakistanis to send their daughters to catholic convent schools, mostly staffed by Irish nuns.

                When I first visited China in the 1990’s, I was often approached by locals who had learned English by themselves – back then almost all imported media was dubbed, so it was very hard for any learner to get ‘real’ English reading/listening material. Invariably they learned mostly by listening to the BBC World Service or Voice of America. You could usually tell which one by the accent.

            2. EB

              Funny that,
              I’m from The Netherlands but my native tongue is Western Frisian. People from outside the Province of Fryslan can’t understand it when they have not had previous exposure to the language. Western Frisian is a Germanic language and is most closely related to Old English. Even within Western Frisian you can still hear regional differences, albeit quite subtle.

          2. fumo

            I spent a lot of time and energy learning Italian, then discovered in Italy that almost nobody there actually speaks it in daily life. Spoken language is almost all in regional dialect, often one nearly incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with it. Italian is still very useful to know in Italy, the media use it almost exclusively, written material will almost always be in Italian, Italians will use it in mixed company comprised of people from diverse regions, and it will be understood almost anywhere except in the most rural enclaves, but knowing Italian won’t really help you much understanding overheard informal conversations. Those will instead be in dialect.

            1. Jack Parsons

              The dialects used to be more different. For 600 years, if you wanted to be considered educated in Italy, you had to read the Divine Comedy in “Greater Tuscan” dialect. They have slowly drifted together towards Greater Tuscan, because that is what Dante wrote in.

              This is very funny if you have read the Divine Comedy. It is mostly boring, except that the Inferno has a lot of rapper-style insults of the people who got Dante exiled from Florence.

              “Giuseppe Giordano is buried up to his neck in frozen dog poop, what a sinner!”
              Footnote: “GG was one of Dante’s political enemies who got him exiled.”

          3. Yves Smith Post author

            Even the difference between Kansai and Kanto is pretty marked, and I gather it really is a dialect and not just an accent (OMG some of the accents I ran into around York back in the day, cloistered Yankee me could barely understand them, and all the speakers were super nice, which made it even more embarrassing).

        2. HotFlash

          Not only the Japanese, my French Canadian friend and her new husband honeymooned in London and Paris. She had grown up in a small town,so her French en famille was archaic, but after university she could speak good SRC (that’s our French language CBC) French. The Parisians she spoke to generally would respond to her in English, with a disapproving look. My Japanese Canadian co-worker crammed for over a year in prep for a visit to Japan with her mother. I was puzzled, as my experience was that the Japanese were very forgiving of tourists speaking stumbling Japanese. “That’s different,” she told me, ” You’re gaijin!”

          Another interesting thing about Japanese is that,in one of the most, ahem, gender-conscious cultures in the world, there are no gendered pronouns. From time to time an anime or movie will get to the end before the Big Reveal, “Ona!” “A woman!” The give-away for those of us with gendered pronouns is the tortured use of “that person” and similar to not spoil the plot.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            But women speak a different version of Japanese than men, a fact I neglected to mention. Japanese men often encounter American men who learned Japanese from their girlfriends, and the girlfriends didn’t teach them “male” Japanese. Obviously Japanese find those men to be hysterical.

            I alway wonder about the women, whether they were being asked to teach under duress and this was their passive-aggressive revenge, or whether it really would have been a lot of work to teach teach them “male” Japanese (as in to practice, they would have had to speak like a man, which would be jarring/quasi taboo).

            Having said that, my experience with Japanese sexism is it applies only to Japanese (perhaps other Asian women too). If you are gaijin, you are so weird that there are no additional points to be lost by being female.

            1. Alexandra

              I (white, American, female) first started learning Japanese from TV variety shows starting primarily young men and historical dramas full of samurai. Consequently the language I picked up was youthful, masculine, and brash. At first the Japanese people I spoke to with my newly acquired phrases thought it was hilarious, but as soon as they realized I actually wanted to learn the language they told me it was absolutely inappropriate for me to speak like that and not funny anymore.

          2. randomeur

            In fairness, I’ve spoken to a number of French citizens who were annoyed in Montreal that locals in business etc would often respond to them in English (a language they did not speak). I presume the explanation is that in Montreal, non-local accent means foreign means English – a simple heuristic suitable for commercial transactions, but completely at odds with the political.

    2. MonkeyBusiness

      Most kanji have a native Japanese reading and one (or more) reading borrowed from some Chinese language or other in one of a few different centuries. So “erabu” = “to choose” and the “sen” in “sentaku” = “choice(s)” or “option(s)” are written with the same kanji.

      You are talking about On’yomi vs Kun’yomi here, and this is often overlooked by people who only know Japanese at a superficial level. It’s actually quite a bit worse than what you have described because there’s no hard and fast rule on which to use. Let’s just take one of the most basic kanji, 人, which means person. According to, this character has 3 Kun’yomi readings and 2 On’yomi readings. To provide a more concrete example on what this means in practice,
      一人 (one person) = hi –tori
      ニ人 (two people) = fu –tari
      三人 (three people) = san –nin

      On’yomi and Kun’yomi came about because of the lack of standard tones ala Chinese in the Japanese language. Pitch accent is a different matter altogether. People may know that writing Kanji is difficult, but reading Kanji can be an exercise in frustration. Some Kanji characters are mono syllable and others might have as many as 4 syllables (or more).

      Yves also made a basic mistake. katakana is what people use for foreign words and not hiragana. Many serious students of Japanese will also tell you that often times they hate katakana MORE than Kanji, and that’s because the people who came up with many of the katakana words weren’t that fluent with English (or Dutch or some other source language) in the first place, so often times they would butcher or abbreviate the original words while transplanting them to Japanese.

      I have been studying both Mandarin and Japanese through italki and I am now proficient enough to be able to read intermediate level articles and have conversation in both languages. All I can say is that all languages are difficult. Mandarin might have the simplest grammar of them all (no past tense!!!), but the amount of idioms used in daily life is staggering, and the tones will drive most Westerners bats*** crazy. At the same time I also have not found Japanese to be easy (or easier) whatsoever, and this is coming from someone who studied English as a second language.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I had actually written it in the reverse in the post originally, as in what alphabet was used for foreign words (like building, which is a borrowed word pronounced “bil”).and which was syllabic. I had it right from memory, and though I should check on the Web, since it’s been a long time since I thought about it. The web source had it wrong!


  9. Thuto

    Minor correction: Xhosa, Nelson Mandela’s native tongue, is not a group of languages, it is a specific language in the Nguni group of languages (made up of isiXhosa, isiZulu, isiSwati, isiNdebele and others). My own native tongue, Setswana, falls outside of this group. The clicks in isiXhosa are legendary and come in different flavours depending on how the word being pronounced is spelled, e.g. words beginning with X have a different click to words beginning with a Q which have a different click to words beginning with a C and so on. It’s a fascinating click-fest and very difficult for non-native speakers to get a hang of, even I have (very very) basic conversational fluency.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Click languages are amazing to listen to, I can never get my head around how a non-native could even begin to speak them. I’ve seen various non-Africans on youtube who claim to be able to do it, I’ve often wondered what they sound like to a native speaker.

      1. Thuto

        They might be able to “pull it off”, with much straining I suspect, in front of a webcam, but in the fast-paced world of real life conversations they’d soon become a spectacle for the natives to marvel at.

  10. The Rev Kev

    Any language is an organic creature that evolves, changes and can even die over time. They can get more simpler or get more complicated. But when you read about them, there is a fascinating history behind them. After the Norman invasion of 1066, old English was shoved into the background as a peasant language for about two centuries and was no longer an official language. It was during this time in the wilderness that English became what it is by stripping out a lot of junk grammar and simplifying itself. By the time it came back as the official language in the Courts and government, it was a different beast altogether and one that became ascendant. But even back then, we may have not recognized it. Here is a short video talking about these changes- (2:36 mins)

    This article also talks about the clicking that you can hear in southern Africa and it can be off-putting the first time you hear it. It came from the San (Bushman) language and has made its way into some Bantu languages like Zulu and Xhosa. Articles say that it was ‘borrowed’ from the San, but an old book that I have says that when the Bantu people moved into South Africa, the San people were pushed up into the Drakensberg mountains who then launched raids against the interlopers. The Bantu then went up after them to wipe them out and returned with San women in tow. And that it was these ‘sabines’ who introduced the clicking sound into those Bantu languages. If this is still held to be true, then it would be a relic of an earlier genocide.

    1. Thuto

      Hmmm, I have to wonder if this is entirely accurate. Notwithstanding that my primary school history lessons didn’t present quite this version of events, If it were accurate, we’d still find descendants of those San people in the province of Kwazulu-Natal (where the Drakensberg mountains are located), but they’re to be found mostly in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, and the Khoisan tribe are now almost exclusively found in the Kalahari region of Botswana and Namibia. What’s the title of the book Rev?

      1. The Rev Kev

        I was hoping that you would weigh in here with your knowledge. The book is called “The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Great Zulu Nation” by Donald R. Morris (page 27). It was first published in 1965 so that seems to have been the view of what happened back then though of course more recent research may have changed that view. It also mentioned other customs passed by these ‘sabines’ such as the amputation of the last joint of the middle finger. This was well before the time of Shaka of course.

        1. Thuto

          Thanks Rev, I’ll ask a friend of mine, a medical anthropologist whose work depends very much on knowing these things if he’s aware of the book and the historical account shared therein.

          1. The Rev Kev

            Thanks Thuto. Today it would probably regarded as an outdated work but at the time, from what I understand, it was a bit of a groundbreaker in talking about the Zulu nation and is significance.

  11. lyman alpha blob

    What to make of text language and emojis? Is it English or do other languages have the equivalent of “LOL”, “IIRC”, “ROTFL”, etc., for their own mother tongues? And emojis seem to be a universal written communication that can cross linguistic boundaries.

    IMO, some of the capitalized abbreviations make a nice shorthand, but use too many of them and you risk becoming incoherent – outside court stenographers, not too many people can understand the actual English shorthand for example.

    Emojis OTOH are complete anathema and are a sign if the impending idiocracy.

    1. Jason

      Can’t speak for other languages, but mandarin has many of these. Yyds for example, is slang for “forever alone” or “always single” and not always with a bad meaning. Chinese uses numbers as abbreviations for words that sound similar. As for emoji, the simple smiley emoji which I took to be a happy face, to my Chinese friends means more like a sinister creepy grin.

      1. Terry Flynn

        Numbers get horrid in Mandarin and Cantonese. One of many reasons I loathe category rating scales and why statisticians often have big books on how to “clean” such data of “non relevant heuristics”. The number 4 among older more provincial Chinese has connotations with death and is simply not used as a response. So you see mysterious dips in the distribution at that point – real or an artefact?

        In Cantonese it’s even more hilarious – if you have a scale that isn’t just 1-5 but goes up to 11 or so, there are two numbers (I forget which) which both have a slang intepretation as the male member, one flaccid and one, err, not.

        Just one reason why numerical rating scales are absolutely awful.

        1. Jason

          That’s interesting! 4 means death even for younger city people, and 6 and 8 are both lucky. The address my first job was 666 which didn’t turn out to be a bad omen.

    1. Jessica

      Estonian is spoken next door, but linguistically it is unrelated. It is closely related to Finnish and neither are Indo-European.

      1. R

        I thought the record for Slavic cases is seven, as in Ukrainian (one for every day of the week) but checking the wikpedia entry on Russian there is the startling claim that, as well as the six I learnt, some linguists think there are ten more (although they are in some instances degenerate).

        1. David

          Finnish has more than a dozen, though some “cases” apparently fulfil the same function that prepositions do in other languages.

        2. randomeur

          I wrote above on this but Russian really does have at least seven cases – the vocative is considered archaic and not taught, but it’s there in informal usage – just like in most slavic languages. It’s an interesting example of how what’s considered ‘official’ can drive some of this.

  12. Mark K

    Years ago (1977, to be precise), the linguist Dan Slobin published an article called “Language Change in Childhood and in History” in the book Language Learning and Thought. It has always been one of my favorite articles in cognitive psychology. In it, he postulated that language users face competing pressures (“charges” he called them). On the one hand, they must make their utterances quick and easy so that they can be processible in real time, and on the other hand, they need to make themselves clear and to have opportunities to be expressive. The former yields simplicity, the latter, complexity. Slobin’s overall thesis was that language change is not always unidirectional. Over the course of time, the tug of war between simplicity and complexity sometimes favors one and sometimes the other.

    The tensions between the charges to language, he argued, can be seen most clearly in instances of language change. He identified four such instances: language learning in childhood, the history of languages, language contact situations, and pidgin/Creole languages. He presented multiple examples to illustrate the unfolding of these dynamics, whether over the course of weeks and months, as in childhood, or over the course of centuries, as in language history.

    I haven’t kept up with the literature on psycholinguistics in recent years, so I have no idea how well Slobin’s ideas are regarded these days, but they always made a lot of sense to me.

    1. TMR

      Along with this, it’s my understanding that there’s a grammaticalization cycle – highly inflected languages tend to “simplify” and become more analytical (that is, lose the case/conjugation endings and use prepositions/auxiliary verbs instead), but over time the isolated markers tend to run into the words they’re modifying and create new synthetic forms (e.g. V.Lat. *favęllárę áviọ –> Span. hablaré for the future tense “I will speak” – the infinitive + auxiliary verb becomes a newly conjugated form, displacing the L. fābulābor).

      1. Mel

        And French, j’irai, tu iras, … . (Though I haven’t seen a lot, aller is the messiest verb I have seen; seems to be a mash-up of three Latin verbs.)

        The same form made it into English, though not with a mere sense of futurity, but also of obligation, I have to say.

        1. David

          Yes, there’s the famous story about the Scottish grammarian who fell into a lake and shouted “I shall drown and no-one will save me”. “Very well then” said a passing English grammarian and walked on. (The story is also told the other way round.)

  13. DJG, Reality Czar

    One thing that is repeated often among English speakers is this idea that English has the largest vocabulary because of the borrowing of so much French vocabulary, as if it that doubled the size of the English wordhoard and made it larger than any other. I detect some colonialism in that mindset–oh, look at those Ojibwe, with a vocabulary that isn’t large enough–hand them an Englished bible from the missionary society to make them have more subtle thoughts. (Yes, subtle, like the English aristocracy.)

    Yet Japanese imported many Chinese words and has spent the last hundred years importing English words by the dozens.

    The idea of importing much of another language is also seen in Italian, where standard Italian imported many of the dialect words (along with Greek and reimported scientific Latin). As a basic example, Italian has three words for watermelon, depending on whether one is a northerner or a southerner. (Cocomero / anguria / pasteca.) Likewise, in Romance languages, there are many more verbs. English is distinctly lacking in verbs. In Italian, there is a separate verb for putting one’s hat on and taking one’s hat off. There is a verb, not much used, specifically for putting on one’s eyeglasses.

    Likewise, modern Greek, when I tried to cram Greek for a trip to Athens, turns out to have all kinds of levels of vocabulary.

    So I think that it is better to regard all languages as wildly inventive.

    People who claim English doubled its vocabulary don’t account for the number of Anglo-Saxon words that were forcibly retired. We say vocabulary, not wordhoard. And there are many other instances of replacement.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      What I find interesting about borrowed words in Japanese is that they usually keep the distinctive katakana spelling, so the word doesn’t become fully absorbed, its always in a way italicised. Japanese therefore often retain the older Japanese word, meaning they have a suble distinction – an example being ‘kitchen’, where the original Japanese and English borrow words are used, but whichever one is used gives an idea of whether the speaker is referring to a traditional style small Japanese kitchen (essentially a nook within a bigger room), or a western style stand alone one. There are numerous examples (and its why Japanese learners are often wrong thinking that avoiding English borrow words is the ‘correct’ thing to do).

      Mind you, a famous example of that in English is where Anglo Saxon words for animals stuck to the animals when alive, while the borrowed French words only applied when they are dead and served with sauce.

      1. David

        And not just spelling – katakana being syllabic, every foreign word has to be forced into the mould. When I was bored at Japanese airports I would sometimes play the game of trying to work out which (usually English) word the katakana was trying to express. Sometimes it was easy enough but other times it was almost impossible. My all-time favourite was probably abekko, which I heard about thirty years ago, and was told it meant boyfriend or girlfriend (both words that had passed into Japanese already). It took me ages to figure out that it was a mangled form of “avec” from French – somebody you are “with.” And of course words get chopped off at the knees, because the actual meaning doesn’t matter. As soon as Tokyo Disneyland opened, for example, it was shortened to “Dizuni.”

        1. PlutoniumKun

          As someone above observed, trying to decipher katakana can be the hardest thing about Japanese. I remember on a menu taking an inordinate amount of time trying to work out what ‘ke-ki’ would be, it took some time for the penny to drop that it was simply ‘cake’. And don’t get me started on the Japanese words for Oolong High Tea or Seven Eleven, or even McDonalds.

          1. David

            Was your ke-ki by any chance part of a “set-to”, in other words a set meal? And possibly at a “ti-sha” (tea shop)? I decided in the end that it was easier to find out what the object or process or whatever was, and then see how the katakana had been fitted around it. But some of the choices did seem perverse: why “ko-hi” for coffee, for example?

            1. Jessica

              Be glad that you aren’t dealing with Chinese. Those katakana words in Japanese are written with hanzi (kanji) and often even less phonetically than the corresponding Japanese.

  14. Egidijus

    As Lithuanian, I may agree that languages are getting simpler because even Lithuanian is more of adjective-based (like English is verb-based) in its logic, we used to have a dual-plural form of a verb in a requesting form to common singular and plural. Some nouns also have two words (like an umbrella and a firefighter). Accentuations? We have four of them but every native gets confused due to differences in their regions where to put a strong syllabus so it tends to mutate towards “meh, whatever”. As one Estonian explained his much simpler grammar to me: “In Estonia we have no sex and no future” (i.e. no gender and no future tenses). :)

    1. Thuto

      Wow, a futureproof language indeed, what with gender disappearing as an identity marker.

  15. David

    Coming a bit late to this, I think everything has already been said about Japanese – I always say it’s an easy language to learn but an almost impossible language to speak correctly, because of the subtle nuances which are required to compensate for the absence of grammar. It’s also, to be fair, a language that the Japanese themselves feel it’s impossible for gaijin to learn, and they have very little sense of relative fluency. You can play a mildly sadistic game with groups of Japanese businessmen, for example, when, after half an hour of stilted conversation you casually admit to speaking some of their language. Oh shit, you can see them saying, he’s understood everything we said to each other.

    But back to English: the basic problem is that it’s German with a French and Latin vocabulary. The basic structure of the language has strong and weak verbs (walk/walked vs run/ran) and strong and weak nouns (cow/cows vs ox/oxen). But nobody tells you this when you are learning the language. In turn this is because, until the end of the nineteenth century, English had a much lower status as an academic subject than Classics, and so to make it acceptable as a university subject, it had to be presented as a variant of Latin, which it wasn’t, rather than a variant of German. This is why most English “grammars” are utterly useless. In addition, English has developed modal formulations of unbelievable complexity, in which qualifiers rather than verbs are piled up: “I would not have been surprised had he told me that he would not be able to come at the time he had expected” is a possible sentence in English, and the kind of thing that makes EFL students weep. The absence of genders (caused essentially by a collision of German and French declensions) only partly compensates for this.

    1. MonkeyBusiness

      Absence of grammar? Where did this come from? Of course there’s grammar in Japanese, lots and lots of them. I am not the biggest fan of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), but it does give people an idea of the grammatical structures that can be found within the language if you follow the syllabus.

      Just because Japanese people would drop particles and certain syllables during informal conversation does not mean that they don’t know that they have to put them back when writing or speaking formally. Also Japanese is what’s called a high context language while English is low context. Yves earlier mentioned that in Japanese there is “no requirement to speak in complete sentences”, and this can be attributed to Japanese being a high context language. The bigger the shared context, the less that needs to be said.

  16. Cakeeater

    I disagree with assertion that English is hard to learn. The Spanish entertainer Charo was on the Tonight Show telling Johnny Carson that she’d learned enough English within months of her move to the US in 1966 to converse just from watching American television. True, her grammar was bad, but she was understood. A Polish born woman I know said English was easy to learn because it was much simpler language than her native tongue.

    1. vlade

      No-one’s arguing that English is hard to learn. It’s hard to master though.

      Many people whose first language has no articles struggle with articles, a lot, even after decades.
      Most people will have an accent, often a weird combo of the accents they were exposed to.
      Modalities are a pain (even for English native speakers).

      I wrote a book in English (technical), and my (English-native) co-authors had fun fixing the bits and pieces, together with some re-stylisations (my stylistics now not recognisable as common in any known language, being influenced by many yet not any of them, often in contradictory ways). And that’s before me having a go back at them changing their stuff (like rephrasing all sentences starting with “So”).

      Paradoxically, because English is to easy to get to the level where you can be well understood, many people stop the effort once they get there.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I think English is easy for many non-native simply because there is so much good material around. I’ve heard of people learning English from playing video games or just a love of Hollywood or BBC TV. Another point a friend made was that she found English very ‘forgiving’, in the sense that the rules are so loose. Sometimes its just accidentally necessity. A while ago I read an interview with a German guy with very good English. He said that he studied English in school but was no good at it and had no real interest in it. But later, he was studying sports science and found nearly everything in the area he was interested in researching was in English. He struggled through the research with a dictionary at first, and then at the end of his course found, entirely to his surprise, that he was fluent in spoken English.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      Any Latin-based language will have many words that are similar in English. Sentence structure also similar (noun-verb, as opposed to inflected or verb-noun, as in Japanese). Spanish to English is not hard. Going from English to French or reverse is probably easiest.

      1. TMR

        Any of the Germanic languages to English are the easiest, since grammar is more analytical, gender and case have almost entirely been obliterated except for a few pronouns (and Gen Z may be ending that once and for all), and the core vocabulary is very, very similar once you know the sound change patterns (German and Dutch k often becoming English ch, the -g ending becoming a -y or -ow and it’s not that weird to go from V2 word order to SVO. Likewise, the things that are really exotic about English, like phrasal verbs, either already exist or have something like separable verbs as an analogue.

        It doesn’t necessarily work the other way around in English, except for the North Germanic languages, because of case in German, along with gender and V2 word order in both German and Dutch. As I understand it, Norwegian (Nynorsk) is the easiest major language for English native speakers to learn; it’s just that there’s very little reason for it since English speakers already speak the hegemonic language, and Norwegians are somewhere around 90% fluent in English.

        Most English speakers go for Spanish or French not because of ease, but practical reasons like proximity and relative global importance. Those languages seem easy up front given the shared vocabulary, but that breaks down quickly once the more complex modalities and conjugations come into play.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Thanks for the clarification re German.

          Actually, Americans going for Spanish or French is because they are all you can get in public schools. I had wanted to study Latin but that was not on.

          1. Terry Flynn

            Learning Latin for 5 years was the best education in English grammar that I ever received. Though I was part of the first generation that dumped all the stuff about “learning your tenses etc”.

            The downside to doing Latin (due to curriculum conflicts) was that I couldn’t learn German, which I was keen to do.

            1. TMR

              Eh, as someone who learned a bit of Latin in undergrad, I’d argue that it drastically hinders one’s ability to understand English grammar. The big problem is that during the Enlightenment, people attempted to “refine” English grammar by defining it in Classical terms, and then reform the language to more closely resemble the language of Cicero.

              Let’s take something as simple as tense – you probably learned in school that English has three base tenses – present, past, and future. That’s certainly what Latin has, and the Romance languages all have three distinct indicative forms (though some are almost entirely unused, like the French passé simple). However, English is a Germanic language, and like all Germanic languages, has only two tenses – past and non-past. To demonstrate that there is no obligatory future tense, consider the phrase “He goes to the store tomorrow”. “Goes” is conjugated just the same in the present as in the future, and there is no auxiliary verb – just the adverb “tomorrow”.

              In the attempt to fit everything into a three-tense model, we’re taught that the form “will go” is the indicative future tense, but that’s not quite true – it’s a modal form, formed in that very Germanic way with an auxiliary verb (in this case, “will”). It expresses intention or compulsion depending on the context.

              Even if it’s late in life, I’d recommending taking a stab at German. It’s not as hard as it’s made out to be (the verbs are a proverbial breeze compared to the complex set of conjugations and modalities that Latin and Romance verbs end up being) if reading is your intention. Learning to speak it, of course, is a completely different matter. But you will learn so much about English in the process, especially how so many of the weird bits are not weird at all (except for “do” support, that’s just bonkers).

  17. Oh

    The ones who learn japanese in a bar can only speak crude japanese (bar variety). If they learned it from bar hostesses, they’d only speak in the way women do (onna no kotoba).

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Haha, see my comment above. I forgot about hostesses! Boy, have I been out of Japan too long. I should have realized they might have the patience and incentives to try to tutor men.

  18. randomeur

    There’s a Russian joke that I think works on a lot of levels, including the weird ‘competition’ and pride that comes up about which languages are more complex and irregular:
    A Frenchman, an Englishman and a Russian get to arguing about which language has the most devilish spelling and writing.
    The Frenchman notes that French is terrible for foreigners to learn – “just look at ‘mille feuilles’ – in one word, it’s a consonant, and the other you could not even tell it’s a double consonant!”
    The Englishman brings up Marlborough, Leicester, and a host of other examples; “why in English, spelling is barely a suggestion, we drop whole syllables at a whim…”.
    The Russian scoffs and says English and French are playschool level, complexity of written Russian hardly corresponds to the spoken language at all. Both the Frenchman and Englishman are surprised; they’d understood that Russian is actually quite phonetic.
    “Not at all,” says the Russian: “For example, in Russian, when you haven’t heard what someone has said properly, in written Russian this is rendered as ‘Excuse me, please, but I did not fully understand what you said, would you be so kind as to repeat?’
    “But what we say is ‘Cho?'” (Wha’?)

  19. Savita

    Highly recommend, indeed, insist the language lovers here read the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. The author and book are quite respected internationally. It’s about a methodology the author invented applicable to any language. All supported by neruroscience and modern research. Here is a great synopsis by the author, really great article I always use to introduce people to the book. When I see someone in a bookstore or library picking up a foreign language text they are required to suffer my enthusiasm and recommendation!

  20. Peter in Seattle

    This isn’t a particularly erudite contribution to the discussion, but the English words “reason” and “raisin” both derive from Old/Middle French. The initial syllables of both words in modern French are pronounced (and spelled) exactly the same today, and judging from the spelling of the Old/Middle French words, I’m guessing the same was true back in 1066 and all that. In short, it’s not surprising that “reason” and “raisin” were were pronounced the same in English for a time.

    By the way, I have a theory that the reason the French call a “walkie talkie” a “talkie walkie” is revenge for how we’ve butchered the pronunciation of “lingerie” and “chaise longue”…

    Another by-the-way in response to a question about Internet abbreviations: The French use the borrowed “LOL” but also the native “MDR” = mort de rire ≈ dead from laughter.

    Also — and I’m speaking as someone who’s never set foot in Japan — I get the impression that most Japanese (in Japan) have a hard time distinguishing between race and culture. I recall reading an article about Brazilians of Japanese decent who went to Japan for work and were miserable because no one made allowances for the fact that they had been raised in a radically different culture. Because they were racially Japanese, they were expect to behave exactly the same as as native-born Japanese. In other words, if they were inappropriately boisterous, demonstrative, exuberant, or inconsiderate, it was because they were bad, rude people, not because they were from a culture with very different behavioral norms. Anyway, some of the comments here (about a double standard for Japanese as a Foreign Language depending on whether the foreign speaker is racially Japanese) seem to confirm my impression.

  21. Alexandra

    language change is fascinating. But what drives me nuts is when people use the “hey man, language changes constantly” argument as a justification for not knowing how to speak or write your own language comprehensibly. I think the key difference is internal consistency: there are lots of non-standard forms of English (regional dialects, argots, etc.) which are still internally consistent. But I think anyone here who has graded college essays in the last 10 years or so can testify to the precipitous decline in communication skills among young American English speakers.

    Specific things I noticed occurring frequently in both speech and writing are:
    – Use of incorrect prepositions (for example, in English you can say “equal to” or “the same as,” but not “equal as” or “the same to”);

    – Subject-verb disagreement when there is an interceding clause (i.e., making the verb agree with the nearest noun even when that noun isn’t the subject, so that the subject and verb disagree in number; “the horses in the corral is restless”);

    – And, most perplexing to me, adding “in” before every use of “which” (e.g., “this is the topic in which I am writing about,” where the “in” makes no sense). I am even starting to catch these in news broadcasts, so I guess this is language change happening in real time.

    Of course in most of my examples the intended meaning can still be ascertained, but I have read long passages that were literally incomprehensible, where it was impossible to tell what the intended subject of a sentence was. And that was in formal academic contexts where the writers were really making an effort; what I have seen in casual written communication is much worse.

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