The english language

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by paddoboy, Jan 3, 2016.

  1. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    Is the English language more difficult or does it have more confusing elements in it than other languages?
    eg: The word tear has a couple of meanings: a tear from your eye: to tear something apart:
    And there are other similar elements. Confusing to someone learning the English language?
    I only speak [albeit very poorly] one other language, Fijian. And the simplicity in learning that language is that every letter in the Fijian alphabet can only ever be pronounced one way: eg: i as in Tin can only ever be pronounced that way, never as i as in pine. Or another example: a[A] as in bath can only ever be pronounced in that fashion, not as a[A] as in apple.
    Any comments from our chief linguistic member?
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  3. mathman Valued Senior Member

    I suggest the comparison be made only with alphabet based languages. I would guess Chinese or Japanese would be much harder than English.
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  5. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    I know there are ambiguous words, and words that may have different meaning in different contexts, in other languages. Possibly, English has more such anomalies, because it has incorporated elements of a five or more languages over time. Many of the still-present confusions come from Anglo-Saxon (and Nordic dialects) being the language of the common people, while Norman French was used by the rulers and law-makers, while the priests conversed in Latin. So, you had different tongues to talk about different kinds of subject matter.
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  7. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    I did once also speak a bit of latin: I was an Altar Boy until I got the arse for drinking the Altar wine one Sunday after church with another couple of scallywags.

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  8. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    And in what lingua franca did you get your tongue-lashing and marching orders?
  9. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    Ironic that you try to make a point about the fixed nature of the sound of a letter, yet use as an example a word that has different sounds depending on where you live even in the UK.

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    Many people pronounce bath as if it were bar-th (i.e. the long "a") yet many pronounce it with a short "a" as in your example apple.
    I believe the RP is with the longer "a" though.

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  10. paddoboy Valued Senior Member


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    Point taken.
    Just thought of another applicable to the Fijian language. U as in Tube can only be pronounced that way...not as U as in tub for instance.
    A couple of other aspects peculiar to the Fijian Baun dialect: Q is pronounced as ng like in finger, while G is pronounced ng as in singer.
    A number of dialects do also exist in Fiji but the common universal one "Baun" and the Rakiraki dialect are the two I am limited to.
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In my observation of many foreigners, both here in the USA and at home in their native lands, English is indeed one of the most difficult languages to learn--especially as an adult. However, the primary difficulty is one that you folks have only mentioned in passing: phonetics.

    English has a much larger set of phonemes than most other languages. Obviously our huge set of eleven vowels is a problem. In my not-quite-professional study I find that to be the largest of any major language. Many people can't even hear the difference between "bat" and "bet" or "cot" and "caught," much less pronounce them. And of course it doesn't help at all that both American and British regional accents play fast and loose with vowels: in some places, "cot" and "caught" truly are homonyms. Not to mention, this is why the way we write vowels is ridiculous, whereas our consonants are only a little silly.

    But we also have such a huge set of consonants that almost any native speaker of any other language is going to find it difficult to master at least a couple of them. Voiced and voiceless TH are very unusual phonemes which occur in a very small number of languages. The northern French, German and Scandinavian R is difficult for most people, and the American gargled version isn't much easier. The indescribable R of Mandarin Chinese is probably the most difficult at all, while the much more common flapped R of Spanish, Japanese, Russian, British English and dozens of other languages, is apparently the easiest. We Americans struggle with it, even though it's exactly the same sound we make for the T in "later" or the D in "leader."

    You mention homophones, which are often (but not always) the result of our language's dual ancestry from Old High German and Medieval French. This phenomenon is considerably less common in most languages--although in Chinese, whose word units are all single syllables, there are typically ten with the same pronunciation, and this is why most "words" have at least two syllables and commonly three or more.
    Chinese is difficult to read and write because it is simply not phonetic. You have to know 5,000 symbols to read a newspaper and be regarded as educated.

    But as I have often noted, this difficulty is balanced by the fact that the symbols haven't changed in thousands of years. So as various dialects evolved into separate languages (e.g., speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese cannot understand each other at all) they can still read each other's writing. This relationship ensured that their grammar and syntax hasn't changed very much in all that time.
    Alphabets are not the only phonetic transcription systems. Hebrew, Arabic and other Semitic languages only transcribe the consonants in the words, since vowels are not phonemic, i.e., they have no bearing on the meaning of the words. This system of transcription is called an abjad.

    Many of the languages of India use an abugida, which is a set of symbols for consonants, and each one has a set of appendages to use for the vowel that follows it, if any. In order to fit in the available space, each consonantal symbol is slightly squashed or stretched to make room for the vowel, so it's difficult for us to see the relationships.

    Contrary to the comment above, the kana writing system used in Japanese is, indeed phonetic. Each syllable has its own symbol, and there's no rhyme or reason to it. In Japanese, a syllable can only be a lone vowel or one vowel preceded by a single consonant. A lone N at the end of a word is also treated as a syllable, even though it's not. However, written Japanese tends to also incorporate about 2,000 Chinese symbols, so it's only partially phonetic. And each symbol typically has at least two different pronunciations, depending on whether it's still the original Chinese word after suffering through several centuries of phonetic changes in the hands of the Japanese, or if the word is actually translated into Japanese, in which case it may represent two or more syllables.

    The Korean phonetic writing system is called hangul. Each syllable has a central vowel, preceded by an optional consonant and an also-optional semivowel, and followed by an optional final consonant. If that isn't complicated enough, the whole group of symbols that make up a word is squashed into a square, so they can be next to each other, on top of one another, or both--which of course stretches or slims their shapes. In North Korea, this phonetic system is mandatory for all writing, but in South Korea, surnames and a very few common words can still be written in the Chinese characters that once served all of southeast Asia's languages, including Vietnamese.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2016
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  12. sculptor Valued Senior Member

    by Charles Battell Loomis

    I'm taught p-l-o-u-g-h
    S'all be pronouncé "plow."
    "Zat's easy w'en you know," I say,
    "Mon Anglais, I'll get through!"

    My teacher say zat in zat case,
    O-u-g-h is "oo."
    And zen I laugh and say to him,
    "Zees Anglais make me cough."

    He say "Not 'coo' but in zat word,
    O-u-g-h is 'off,'"
    "Oh, Sacre bleu! Such varied sounds
    Of words make me hiccough!"

    He say, "Again mon frien' ees wrong;
    O-u-g-h is 'up'
    In hiccough." Zen I cry, "No more,
    You make my t'roat feel rough."

    "Non, non!" he cry, "You are not right;
    O-u-g-h is 'uff.'"
    I say, "I try to spik your words,
    I cannot spik zem though."

    "In time you'll learn, but now you're wrong!
    O-u-g-h is 'owe'"
    "I'll try no more, I s'all go mad,
    I'll drown me in ze lough!"

    "But ere you drown yourself," said he,
    "O-u-g-h is 'ock.'"
    He taught no more, I held him fast
    And killed him wiz a rough.
  13. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    Not so much a tongue lashing as six of the best with a leather strap!

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    [Much wasn't said at all]
  14. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    Thanks for that very comprehensive rundown.
    Just another point: Australia is just slightly smaller then mainland USA [Ignoring Alaska] and although sparsely populated we all speak the same language, the Queen's English as some like to say. Something like 90% of our population of 25 million live in the eight capital cities with vast distances separating Perth on the west coast from Sydney on the east: Nearly 3,300kms apart.....Yet besides speaking the same language, we all have the same accent.
    Yet in the tiny group of Fijian Islands, there are quite a few dialects, although English is the official language in business and commerce, Fijian [Bauan dialect] is taught in all schools. Then each group/area have distinct dialect differences that the locals speak among themselves. Fiji consists of about a million people, around 51% indigenous and 49% of Indian descent.[the last time I looked anyway] Which of course means Hindi is another popular way of communicating.
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Alaskans refer to us as "the South Forty-Eight"
    The reason for so many regional dialects in the USA is that many of the regions were settled by people from different regions. New England (the six states in the upper east) was colonized by the British (and you can still hear their non-rhotic accent in words like "fathah," which can mean either a member of the family or a direction

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    ), but New Amsterdam was colonized by the Dutch and wasn't renamed "New York" for many years. Appalachia had a lot of settlers from Scotland and Ireland. The region to the west of the Great Lakes has a strong Scandinavian overlay. My ancestors, the Slavs, along with their neighboring Germans, were a major component in the region from Illinois to Pennsylvania. The French, of course, were the original settlers in Louisiana, and a lot of people there still speak "Cajun," the current form of the name "Acadian." They've also got people whose ancestors came from the West Indies, who speak a creole of English, French and native languages. Most of the southeast and much of the inland southwest were populated by working-class British, although the "Southern drawl" in their descendants' speech seems to have developed later.

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