English is the most difficult language EVER!

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by FreeThinkers, Apr 19, 2007.

  1. Zephyr Humans are ONE Registered Senior Member

    Vietnamese or Chinese.
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I wish they were that strict with native speakers. I am appalled by the poor communication skills of the average U.S. university graduate. Forty years ago we could depend on someone who had a B.A. or B.S., not necessarily to write well enough for publication, but well enough for internal circulation. Now companies hire me to edit the writing of their college graduates so the other employees can understand it at all.
    Isn't it hard to learn our idioms? A friend of mine was translating a speech into Spanish and where he said he was going to let the guest speaker "take over," he used toma sobre. I thought he was trying to drink an envelope!

    One of the things that speakers of non-Indo-European languages complain about in English, Spanish, Russian and all the rest, is our seemingly haphazard use of prepositions. Most of them really don't mean anything any more, but goddess help the foreigner who uses the wrong one in the wrong place. Did you have to struggle to understand when to say someone is "at school" versus "in school," or that they got there "on time" versus "in time"? I cannot explain these nuances to foreign students because they make no sense and there's no pattern. We may not have bewildering macro-rules about conjugating whole families of verbs, but we have hundreds of micro-rules that only apply to one specific word.

    Why do birds fly in "the air" and Paris Hilton has "an air" of tackiness about her, but we breathe just plain "air"? When people ask about stuff like this I all I can say is that we have these rules just to help us identify the non-native speakers.

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    Oh if you find that annoying, wait until you try to learn Chinese! Compared to Chinese, English word order is a matter of personal choice.
    My observation is that we have more trouble in that regard with your language. There are so many more syllables in an equivalent sentence, that Spanish is spoken much faster than English. Measure the number of syllables per minute, English and French aren't in the same league with Spanish and Italian. It's very difficult for us to figure out where one word ends and the next one starts, in real time. Chinese has an even lower syllable count than English, since it lacks inflections, articles, prepositions and other meaningless "noise words," and as a result it's not so difficult for a student to pick out the words he knows in a spoken sentence. I think your first hypothesis is correct, that the problem with English is that we have such a huge array of phonemes compared to most other languages--particularly vowels. Tuck tock took tech take tack tick teak talk toke tyke. Several pairs or even triads of those words will sound the same to a student whose native language has only cardinal vowels. It takes a while to recognize the difference--in real time.
    We have several versions of that one. Food in French, cars in Italian, business in English, philosophy in Russian. We make fun of Frenchmen because they talk about food the way we talk about women: "Be sure and save your egg whites, in case you decide later to make a little meringue on the side."
    Strong verbs have be both umlauted and use -en instead of -ed for the past participle. I think a strong noun has to have an umlaut and no ending. "Oxen" is disqualified on both counts.
    All they've gotten so far by disassembling phonetic shifts using massively parallel computing is something like fifty words of which forty occur in all languages. It's too much to hope for a grammar, but who knows?

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    The key here is an evolutionary bottleneck in the non-African languages. Only one group of humans walked out of Africa and we're making the reasonable presumption that they spoke one language. So we only have to trace ours back 70,000 years. No one knows when the technology of language was first invented so it's possible that African languages have had half a million years to diverge. On the other hand it's also possible that language was invented by more than one tribe independently and there are multiple families. On the third hand, the theory I find most attractive is that humans were not able to successfully migrate into the strange world beyond Africa without being able to do sophisticated planning and organizing. Language was the key technology that made that possible, and therefore was probably invented or at least perfected shortly before the start of the H. sapiens global diaspora. In that case there probably would be only one world language family. And we only have to track it back maybe five or ten thousand years, the time span we used to consider the limit of our ability to do it at all.

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    I'm sure he means "Vietnamese," rather than something to do with vitamins.

    Of course I disagree. I know nothing about Vietnamese but I suspect that when the ballots are counted Chinese will be voted much easier to learn than English. Especially when they finally do something about that writing system.
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  5. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    Wow, das ist sehr unglaublich.

    I bet.

    That's scary.

    And Turk. Then there's the mess you get into when you look at the different accents of English. If you just look at Southern American English... meyan, wut drugs ah thaye awn?

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    Do you pronounce "tock" and "talk" differently?

    Now you got me thinking about the possibility of very basic trends in the grammar of human languages. I think I'll post a thread soon if I don't forget about it.
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It took me three or four months just to learn Esperanto, and I was fourteen, an age when my mind was still a sponge.
    It's hard to convince American children that they need good communication skills in order to get a decent job, when their role model for six and a half years has been a President who isn't even fluent in spoken English.
    Oddly, that seems to be the one dialect that all anglophones throughout the world can both decode and mimic. British actors have a notoriously hard time learning to portray American characters convincingly, but their crutch is to lapse into hillbilly talk. E.g., the current hit TV show, "The Riches," with English stars Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver playing Southerners with utterly perfect dialog. Two of the big stars in "country and western" music (i.e. "Rednecks and cowboys") are Shania Twain, a Canadian, and Keith Urban, an Australian.
    I didn't even count that as another vowel because we think of it as a diphthong. Almost all American dialects are rhotic, meaning we pronounce the R in those syllables. In IPA the U in "Turk" is schwa-R. In Oxford English it's just schwa.
    Yes, we have a massive vowel shift that differentiates American phonetics from Oxford English. I can't do IPA symbols with this browser so bear with me. The vowel in "tock" is the symbol a, so it sounds like British "tark." "Talk" is the backwards c, so it sounds like British "tock." We don't have the sound of the symbol o in accented syllables, so "call," "often," "brought," etc. are the backward c. We also use that vowel in words like "floor," but remember we're rhotic so it's backward C followed by R. In addition, we use the sound of the IPA a-e digraph for short A in "cat," where the British use a vowel we don't have; I'm not sure of the IPA symbol but it's midway between our sound and a full a. Maybe it's that symbol that looks like a lower case d with the top of the staff cut off. There are many differences between British and American pronunciation that involve entire series of sounds, such as our vir-choo-al, vi-zhoo-al and resi-joo-al versus their vir-tyoo-al, vi-zyoo-al and resi-dyoo-al. Our doo-ty, noo-ance and tooning versus their dyoo-ty, nyoo-ance and tyooning. They pronounce the T in "writer" and the D in "rider". We convert them both to the sound of the Spanish or Russian flapped R and distinguish the two words by changing the dipthong in "writer" from a-i to (IPA upside down v)-i.
    That sounds interesting. I'll try to remind you.

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  8. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Thanks, but that's not my problem. My Macintosh has an incredible character set, everything from Armenian to Hiragana. I can insert them into my typing window and they show up just fine in the preview. But when I hit "Submit," all of them vanish except a very limited set of "Extended Latin" that only serves a few major western European languages. There are a number of Stone Age websites that are not entirely Mac-compatible and SciForums must be one of them.
  10. TruthSeeker Fancy Virtual Reality Monkey Valued Senior Member

    I'm brazilian and I know 5 languages and studied a few others, including chinese, greek and hebrew. English was by very far the easiest one. I don't know what you are on about. I cannot think of a single language easier the english....
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 15, 2007
  11. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    That's interesting. I produce (or at least perceive) the pronunciation of "Turk" as /tɝk/, with a rhotacized, monophthongal vowel. (Wikipedia: R-colored vowel.)

    When you say "we", do you mean people in California, or from wherever you happen to be from if not California? If you're talking about American English in general, then the sounds you're describing really are news to me.

    I pronounce "tock" and "talk" both as /tɑk/, with an open back unrounded vowel. I thought this was common in the US. I'm aware of a meme at the site 4chan.org where users play on the identical pronunciation (as I hear it, and apparently they too) of "cock" and "caulk".

    I'm starting to feel very self-conscious of my dialect of English. I always thought it was almost exactly the same as the General American "standard".

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  12. mabufo Registered Senior Member

    Personally, my money is on Irish.
  13. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    The various Gaelic languages scare me. I looked at Irish Gaelic on Wikipedia once, thinking I could learn how to read it. But honestly, I think my eyes would bleed if I forced them to read too much. And don't make me think about the phonetics.

    On second thought, I think Welsh might be simpler. I even learned to read it once, but it hasn't stuck with me.
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    That's standard American. We're just affected by the spelling so people who are conscious of language would tend to regard that as two sounds. The vowel-plus-R in "tar", "soar", "hair", "near" and "poor" is more clearly so. The schwa-plus-R spelled variously as "her", "sir", "fur", etc. is not.
    I was born in Illinois, spent my later childhood in Arizona, lived most of my life in California, and have been working in Washington DC for several years. Except for many black Americans, and the Old Southerners near Washington, everyone in all those places speaks the same way. There is a trace of Southern American (really "Southeastern" but when the name was coined the U.S. stopped at the Mississippi River) in the Wild West, but it's vanishing as the Sun Belt fills with refugees from all over, just as it's being leveled out in the urban areas of the South by the same refugees and by the standard dialect of TV and radio.

    Only a professional linguist, not an amateur like me, can hear the subtle difference in pronunciation (not vocabulary) between an American from Kansas and one from Pennsylvania. Only in the Northeast, our oldest settlements, have people had a chance to establish strong regional dialects, and they weaken as you travel from the extreme northeastern corner of Maine, down through the less isolated areas of New England, and finally into urban New York and New Jersey. Boston, New England's biggest city, has its own sound, recognizable because it's about the only major non-rhotic American dialect. ("Pahk the cah.") But if you walk down a Boston street today, 80% of the people you meet don't talk that way any more. "New Jizey" is famous for its dialect, yet the two most prominent Jerseyites who spring to my mind are Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom talk just like me.
    That is Oxford English. "Cock" has a cardinal A over here and "caulk" has the IPA backward "c", closer to an O. Those words are not homonyms in North America.
    If those vowels are representative of the pronunciation you learned, you probably sound more like an Englishman to us. How do you say "daughter"? The British vowel is one we don't have here, a long O without the diphthongization. We use the same vowel as "talk." Do you flap your intervocalic T and D like a Spanish R so they're identical? That's a dead giveaway; the Brits pronounce them as written, and many of their dialects flap their R.

    Amusingly, many Americans have trouble learning Spanish because they claim they just can't make their tongues flap the R. I tell them to say "cotto salami." Then I point out that they just said the Spanish word caro
  15. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    Right. I have the sounds /ɑɹ/, /oɹ/ (or possibly /ɔɹ/, but it's hard to tell), /ɛɹ/, and /ɪɹ/ in my dialect. But the vowel in what you call "schwa-plus-R" words are just /ɝ/.

    By the way, even if you can't post IPA, can you at least see it? I don't wanna keep using something you can't read.

    I didn't know that. What features are those, specifically? And are they found in rural Oregon, to your knowledge?

    I always thought they were except for the Midwest (which distinguishes them with a slightly different set of vowels). At least, I don't remember very many people making such a distinction.

    I don't really see how I sound British. I thought I exhibited nearly all of the features of the General American accent.

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    Maybe someday really soon I will post an audioclip. I just have to come up with something to say. But I'll be sure to illustrate how I produce the sounds you're describing, as well as my apparently different pronunciation of tr combinations in words like "train".


    I exhibit the cot-caught and father-bother mergers. These words have the vowel /ɑ/ to me. Father bother tock talk cock daughter rotter rock rocker long thong cot naught not caught wrong pop body bawdy lock loch knock rot wrought sought bought rhombus raw hot haughty naughty knot.

  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I suppose to be precise we should be saying "idiolect" here, the speech of a single person.
    Well I can understand that. I can feel my mouth changing shape for OR and all the others, but not for ER. But what it changes shape to is precisely the ER, which the IPA seems to count as a vowel. So I guess that IPA symbol in the first series is basically a semivowel form of schwa-plus-R, and that makes me feel justified in referring to them as diphthongs.

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    Yes, no problem. IPA, katakana, Arabic, math, everything. Read-only access.
    Wow, I thought everyone who has experience with English had by now run into the "Southern drawl." Our "Country & Western" music stars (i.e., "Redneck & Cowboy") like Garth Brooks do concerts in Europe and Japan, and they make pedal steel guitars in the Czech Republic. When British actors play American characters they often speak Dixie dialect because it's the only one many of them can do right. Its best-known feature is "y'all"--short for "you all"--instead of "you," often even in the singular. I sometimes sing Country & Western music, and two vowel shifts make me sound believable to Northerners. The long I as in "why" is not a diphthong, it's halfway between cardinal A and the short A in "hand"--our pronunciation. Actually it's fairly close to the Oxford pronunciation of "hand" but much longer duration. (I think foreigners like our Southerners because they talk very slowly.

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    ) The cardinal A in the diphthong in "how" undergoes the same transformation but retains its diphthong, resulting in what may be a unique sound. Then the short A in many words like "cash" and "can't" (but not all of them) becomes a diphthongized long A, so "can't" almost rhymes with "paint."

    Actually many of the diphthongs are shifted. The vowel in the long E in "be" becomes more of a short OO as in "hook," so "beet" sounds something like the Russian verb "to be." The vowel in the long O in "home" becomes more of the AW in "daughter," our pronunciation not yours, the IPA backward c. The unaccented long E ending in words like "funny" is stripped of its diphthong and becomes just a short I, the IPA small capital I. It's mostly vowels, "think" and "thing" become "thank" and "thang." While "thank" of course acquires the diphthong of "paint."
    People have migrated from the former Confederacy to all parts of the country so you can hear their accent almost anywhere, even in big cities. But it's strictly a Southern dialect. The "border states" of course were Southern in culture even though they remained in the Union, so that's the speech of Missouri, Kentucky, and southern Maryland. And as the people from adjacent Texas and Arkansas migrated to what the Indians assumed we meant by "Indian Territory" when they discovered we had lied, what became Oklahoma is the home of premiere Southern drawler Garth Brooks.

    So aside from the culturally Southern states and some in the extreme northeast, and the people from those states who settled elsewhere without losing their accents, we all speak Standard American. Especially in Oregon, which from my travels I would say is not home to a lot of Southerners.
    It may not be easy to hear, especially if your native language doesn't have the cornucopia of vowels that English does. Your ears aren't "tuned" to distinguish them. But Yankees and Rebels can tell each other apart halfway through a sentence.
    You do have many of the most important ones, like the flapped intervocalic T and D. We'd probably think you were Australian because we still don't have a really good fix on their accent and it's a little "softer" than that of the U.K. Most Americans won't comment on accents. We think they're charming as long as they don't impede understanding and the rest of the language is proper.
    You're the second person (or maybe it was you the first time) who talks about a variant pronunciation of initial TR in English, more like Mandarin CH. I haven't heard that, but perhaps I just didn't notice. But you'd think I would, since I know the Chinese phoneme.
    That's a mixture of British and American. We say "cot," "father" and "bother" the same, but "caught" differently. The British say "cot," and "bother" the same, but "father" is different and "caught" is yet another vowel.
    Let's see... We say talk, bawdy, raw, and all the words with UGH and NG with the IPA backward c. The rest have cardinal A. Americans consider "loch" a foreign word and pronounce it with a random vowel and a KH, assuming Gaelic has German consonants. The spelling of the equivalent English word is "lough" over here and it has a cardinal A.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2007
  17. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    I should modify my IPA representation of "daughter" in my idiolect. I mixed up a character. That pronunciation again, and more precisely transcribed, is:


    I have, and I know it very well. You said some features were in the Wild West, and I wanted to know which features of Southern American English were in the Wild West. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    The rural parts might as well be.

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    Probably me the first time. But I'd like to know who the other guy was.

    My experience is that Americans will anglicize words more often that they'll attempt to pronounce the word as they think it was pronounced in the original language.

    I'm sorry to say, but I'm getting very confused by your posts. It sounds to me like you're getting dialects mixed up.

    For example, you said:

    According to Wikipedia, people who speak General American with the cot-caught merger (which I believe is very common in the US) either don't have the phoneme /ɔ/ at all or only have it before /ɹ/, and my experience confirms this. Only the "words like 'floor'" bit makes sense to me.

    Maybe there's a gap in understanding going on?

    Does your idiolect have this merger?
  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I'm not an expert on the IPA, and I guess I'm not sure how that symbol is sounded. I always thought it was the British pronunciation of "cot," but perhaps it's their pronunciation of "daughter". In any case, we don't pronounce either word with that vowel. "Cot" has a cardinal A, and "daughter" has the backward c vowel. British "cot" is halfway between those two, and British "daughter" is just about the same as our "cold".
    My misunderstanding. The "Wild West" is New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. And Texas claims to be part of it although they were happy to be part of The South during the Civil War; they do have a lot of cowboys but I think they killed or expelled most of their Indians long ago. And maybe Oklahoma, that's where Texas sent their Indians.

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    California is a huge state and has some cowboys, but along with the other coastal states plus Idaho and Nevada, they are the West but not the Wild West. Utah is a little Mormon world unto itself.

    "Southwestern" dialect is just a blend of Southern and standard American. They tend to fall about midway on most of the vowel shifts, and they toggle between "you" and "y'all" depending on the company. When I lived in Arizona fifty years ago, my friends' parents were comfortable speaking both ways, and the kids picked it up. The migration to the Sun Belt had just begun (I was part of it), so today most of the people in the region, especially in the cities, have no Southern roots. The population of Phoenix has quintupled since then and those are not all births. You don't hear the dialect as regularly as you used to.
    Well sure, but we're not as bad about it as the British. We get "Jaguar" half right.

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    No, that's strictly a Boston thing and it's dying out. Poll the other Americans, "cot" and "caught" are not homonyms here. Wikipedia simply has it wrong. The vowel in "cot", "body", "rod", "sponsor" is the A in "father." The vowel in "caught", "awe", "fall", "pawn" is the O in "port". It varies slightly between regions and in some places it's broader, but it's not a cardinal A anywhere and "cot" is a cardinal A virtually everywhere.
    No, and this is the first time I've ever heard of such a merger. The British don't merge "cot" and "caught" either, even though they pronounce both words different from Americans. Our vowels are broader in both cases. The way they say "called" almost sounds like "cold" to us, and when they say "cot" their way, Americans who are not familiar with their dialect have to figure out from context whether it's "cot" or "caught."

    I'll be interested to hear from other Americans. Perhaps there are places I've never been where there is a merger. But it's certainly not in the de facto Standard American English of network television!

    Either that or I'm guilty of filtering everybody's speech so it sounds like what I learned in Chicago. We all do that to some extent but it's inexcusable for even an amateur linguist.

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  19. River Ape Valued Senior Member

    Inglish wood bee a big impruuvm'nt on English!
  20. w1z4rd Valued Senior Member

  21. charles brough Registered Senior Member

    You are surely kidding, aren't you!? All languages are equally hard or easy to learn? Nothing is wrong with living in a dream world, but there is no cause for you to then come out into the real world and put the lie to what people in the real world have learned the hard way.

    charles, http://humanpurpose.simplenet.com
  22. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    I tried that for a while in France. I invented my own word "urn", which served for both un and une. This seemed to be working until I went into a bread shop and asked for "urn baguette". "Une" , said the shopkeeper very loudly, and the other people in the shop actually started laughing. A similar dodge might work in Gemany though.
  23. JuRtLy The JuRtLy Registered Senior Member

    mandarin chinese is the ABSOLUTE hardest language to learn, spanish and english aren't hard at all.. even japanese isn't hard.. you just have to know the meaning behind the words really..

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