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The Awful German Language (1880) (utah.edu)
222 points by matteuan 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 311 comments



English grammar is far simpler than German grammar. Eliminating noun genders, declensions, and cases (as English does) is a great simplification over German. I've never understood the need for noun genders and I scratch my head at a society that makes its members memorize such useless information.

That said, German pronunciation is more regular than English pronunciation. Every letter combination is in most cases pronounced exactly the same in every word.

Take, for example, the vowel combination "ie." No matter where you see it in a German word, it will be pronounced "ee".

Likewise, the combination "ei" will always be pronounced "eye."

Contrast this with the scattershot pronunciations English has for the same combinations:

"Neighbor" uses "ay".

"Albeit" and "Atheist" uses "ee-i".

"Caffeine" uses "ee".

And so on.


> I scratch my head at a society that makes its members memorize such useless information.

Such a weird perspective on language and on the agency of societies. There are tons of "useless" things in any language. For instance, why not get rid of all the tenses in English? Do we really need the past progressive?

To make English spelling more "logical" (so people need to remember less useless information!), we should again look to Mark Twain:

> Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/twain.htm)


I recently started learning Khmer (Cambodian). It's an awesome language. No tenses (all assumed from context... if something happened in the past, you say it happened "already", and there's a single modifier to all verbs to indicate they will happen). No genders, at all (there's no "he/she/they" problem). The numbering system is simple adn consistent, and it's applied to months and hours ("one month" is a measure of duration, "month one" is January). I reminds me of reading good code; simple, elegant, with no unnecessary cruft.

It's given me a new perspective on (as you say) all the useless crap we have in English.

Oh, and I started learning German, too. TFA made me laugh.


Khmer is sure to have its own oddities.

I learned Thai, which shares Khmer's refreshing simplicity, like not having tenses.

However, it has "classifiers", which are used when counting things. In English, you might say "Three children", in Thai you would say "Children three persons", where "person" happens to be the correct classifier for children. Makes sense in that case, but in general it's weird (and somewhat comedic): for instance airplanes and bamboo share the same classifier ("long hollow things").

There are about 80 classifiers, and part of learning the language is learning the correct classifier to go with each noun, much like learning genders in German. Same as with genders, if you get the classifier wrong, you'll still be understood, but considered uneducated (or badly in command of the language).

BTW, and programmers will love this: this situation means that when counting things of disparate types, you need to typecast!

Funny (to me, anyway) story: my wife was simultaneously telling off one of our sons, nicknamed "O", and one of our dogs, also nicknamed "O". Since they don't share the same classifier, she cast their classifier to the made-up-on-the-spot classifier "O" so it would both be factually and grammatically correct.

Languages are funny.


Yeah, it's weird, Thai and Khmer are very similar, and share some words, but also very different. Khmer isn't tonal, and has really simplified grammar.

They used to share an alphabet, too, but the Thai opted to simplify it (westernise it) while the Khmer opted to keep their original alphabet. Written Khmer is hard for us westerners to deal with because of this. They have lots of vowels and consonants that we don't have (I always struggle with the consonant between 'b' and 'p', because it doesn't seem like there should be any room for another consonant in there).


Looking at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/Khmer the language does seem to have some fun sounds.

But English has a consonant between 'b' and 'p' ('pʰ' in IPA) as well. Just consider the difference between 'ban', 'span' and 'pan'. The 'p' in 'span' is not as forceful as the 'p' in 'pan', and they're actually different consonants.


> The 'p' in 'span' is not as forceful as the 'p' in 'pan', and they're actually different consonants.

Yes, they're phonetically different, but in English the difference is not phonemic; they're allophones of the same consonant.


I don't know enough (or in fact any) Khmer to make a meaningful comparison, but the "b", "bp", and "p" consonants exist in the Thai alphabet as well.


>It's an awesome language

An awesome language to learn easily or to express yourself with full capacity? Those could be different qualities...


To continue with my coding analogy... German is like Java (huge, sprawling, full of conceptsextendedwaypastthepointofsanity), English is like C++ (mashed together out of two different languages and made to work, mostly), Khmer is like Go (favouring simplicity over expressiveness).


I wonder Sanskrit would be positioned in that analogy - like Lisp, maybe? Heh. I admit to bias about it, as an Indian and one who likes the language.


I wonder if Khmer speakers are missing out on anything by not having these concepts in their language.


It does rely a lot on context. If you don't share a context with your listener, it's easy to get confused. Given the cultural gap with the West, it can mean that you're fluent in Khmer, but still miss a lot of the meaning because you don't share the same cultural context. Essentially culture-wide in-jokes.

But then, I had to explain British rhyming slang to my German gf the other day, and she thought it was crazy. I guess there's nothing that unusual about culture-wide in-jokes.


It's the “agency of societies” that helped English lose its gendered nouns. One theory is that Old English society found them useless because there was overlap between endings, causing noun ending inflection to “collapse” into a single neutral form, which started in the North of England and progressed to the South.[1]

Societal changes are already influencing gendered nouns in Germany[2]. Some dialects of German (Niederdeutsch) also use de instead of der/die.

I'm a British national living in Austria. I've spoken with Austrian natives about the difficulty of learning German noun genders who admit that it feels increasingly old fashioned to them. The local dialect here slurs some noun endings so it's almost ambiguous, just as Old English once did.

There's no place for reinforcement of gender stereotypes via language (it is hard to find gender-neutral phrases in German - you are either a male programmer or a female one). Two languages that gender the same noun differently also have societies that use a different class of adjective (feminine vs masculine) for the word.[1]

To me it seems entirely reasonable to call gendered nouns “useless”, and to see them as a burden on a language and a society.

[1]: Lexicon Valley's episode on how English lost its genders is worth listening to: https://overcast.fm/+Noxtqh7oc. Dave Wilton's analysis is also interesting: http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/site/comments/loss_of_g...

[2]: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/will-new-law-for...


> "I've spoken with Austrian natives [...] who admit that it feels increasingly old fashioned to them. "

I can guarantee you, that your sample of Austrian natives is not representative of the majority of native speakers. Not even remotely. As a native speaker you will barely notice it, unless foreigners remind you of it.

> "To me it seems entirely reasonable to call gendered nouns “useless”, and to see them as a burden on a language and a society."

I can hardly imagine a force strong enough to change the way people speak to such a fundamental degree, as would be the removal of noun genders in German.

Advocating such force comes with a stench: It may have more todo with projecting power over the people you interact with and less with interacting itself. Which is why proponents of gender-neutral language in German often fail to not come across as snobbish. Which is why the only people in German speaking countries that speak gender-neutral are politicians or ideologues in academia.


Thanks for sharing - it's good to hear other opinions on this, and it's very likely the group of five or so people I was speaking to are not representative.


Thanks for taking my response the way you did and not as an insult (honestly, you're a rare exception these days on HN for not just downvote and leave as soon as the topic touches politics)!


>I can guarantee you, that your sample of Austrian natives is not representative of the majority of native speakers. Not even remotely.

Agreed. I find it hard to imagine how something can possibly sound old fashioned when there is no more modern alternative.

My German may not be perfect, but I have never heard anyone fudge definite articles in a way that makes them indistinguishable from each other (or drop them altogether).


> I find it hard to imagine how something can possibly sound old fashioned when there is no more modern alternative.

Exactly. Who'd be insulted by the moon being male in German and the sun being female? The sun, men or the moon?

Languages represent a form of continuous application of voluntary cooperation. Which is why almost no native speaker will think of his words he uses as an insult (either to a gender or that gendered word) but as a means to deliver information.

Using gender-neutral German in every day interactions will automatically make you come across affected. It is a linguistic Clinton-Thumb.


>To make English spelling more "logical" (so people need to remember less useless information!), we should again look to Mark Twain:

>> Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/twain.htm)

And we should also look to George Bernard Shaw. He proved that, in English, "fish" can be spelled "ghoti":

gh (= f) as in "laugh"

o (= i) as in "women"

ti (= sh) as in "nation"


https://www.zompist.com/spell.html

"Whenever the subject comes up, someone is sure to bring up […] Shaw's ghoti-- a word which illustrates only Shaw's wiseacre ignorance. English spelling may be a nightmare, but it does have rules, and by those rules, ghoti can only be pronounced like goatee."


You're attacking a straw man.

Language is dynamic and cannot be controlled.

Writing needs to be adapted to fit that.

In English, the writing has become detached from the writing to the point where it is not possible to write a word upon hearing it the first time or to pronounce it upon reading it.

This is unnecessary and could be fixed.


> This is unnecessary and could be fixed.

Fixed how? By revising the orthography to accurately reflect pronunciation? (If so, whose?) Some English words have major variations in pronunciation in different regions (of the world, or indeed just of England). Should the revised spellings differ between regions?


> By revising the orthography to accurately reflect pronunciation?

Yes. That's a normal thing that most languages do every century or so.

Of course you have to compromise between dialects, but that's doable.

You could also start by just removing some of the worst insanities.


> English grammar is far simpler than German grammar.

How do you negate in English? How does one eloquently and idiomatically combine English modal verbs? What are the rules governing when and how English deviates from SVO? Whom is still a word in English; how do its corner cases work? I could go on.

In other words, maybe English's grammar is simpler than German's and maybe it isn't, but it definitely isn't as clear-cut as you make it out to be.


I'm a native speaker of Norwegian, a language which also has three grammatical genders. I don't experience it as having to memorise genders. I only notice them when they are wrong.

They're not completely useless.

"Det regner." - It's raining. "Den regner." - It's calculating.

The verb "regne" is ambiguous and the gender helps disambiguate ut.

Sometimes, the grammatical gender conveys information about the noun. Is it abstract or inanimate? Probably neuter. Is it alive? Can it move? Probably masculine or feminine.

Sometimes, when a follow-on sentence discusses previously introduced objects, gendered articles can clue you onto which objects are being discussed.


There are homonyms in languages with genderless nouns too, such as English, but context usually makes it clear.

It's hard to imagine a real-world situation where “it's raining” would be confused with “it's calculating” when stripped of the gender, for example.

> Sometimes, when a follow-on sentence discusses previously introduced objects, gendered articles can clue you onto which objects are being discussed.

That's the best argument I've heard so far, but it's so rare to require gender for comprehension. It seems a push to burden a whole language with gendered nouns for this purpose.


There is no critique of a language's difficulty which is relevant to native speakers.


Regardless of the potential use for disambiguation, every noun having a gender affecting the articles and pronouns to be used adds a significant burden when learning the language. In some languages, like Spanish, the spelling of the noun nearly always indicates its gender, but this is not the case in German.

Acquiring a language as a native speaker in childhood is a significantly different experience from trying to learn one as an adult.


> I've never understood the need for noun genders

As a native speaker of Slavic language, I've never understood the need for differentiating between "THE table" and "A table". It's useless and clear from the context what is meant (note that both are different from "THIS/THAT table", which I do NOT deem useless.)

For English and Norwegian, I've learned grammatical rules that cover ca 80% of use-cases, the rest is guessing and I still get it wrong sometimes.


> As a native speaker of Slavic language, I've never understood the need for differentiating between "THE table" and "A table"

This was a common sentiment I heard from Russian students when teaching them English. The concept of articles is absolutely maddening, I think, when your native language does not have it.

I recall trying to teach it with a simple explanation. “I heard a dog walking outside. The dog pushed the door open and entered.” By switching from “a dog” to “the dog”, I expressed that the dog I heard was the same dog that entered. We translated the same sentences into Russian and they expressed that it was natural to assume, without the articles it was the same dog. I then asked them “but what if was a different dog that entered?” and they indicated the speaker would likely add a clarifying clause to the statement to ensure that there are two different dogs in scope.

It caused me to ponder and I came to the realization that some of these elements of language while seemingly “useless” (meaning, you could clearly make a language work without them) are what add subtle richness to a language. Just as I can do without a ternary in JavaScript, I enjoy its succinctness even if it might be a bit confusing for a new learner.

I recall comparing some of my own difficulties learning Russian as a native English speaker. My head literally exploded when I realized for every verb I had to learn a perfective and imperfective aspects. Something simple like “I did it.” What on earth is the difference between the two aspects, I often asked. To Russians it was clear - it addeded subtle richness.

I guess what I learned is that in language “not needed” does not mean “useless”. I learned to love the richness of the Russian language and began to better appreciate some of richness of my own language that I previously took for granted.


> “I heard a dog walking outside. The dog pushed the door open and entered.”

"THE door"? Which door? Why is "the" there? Seems as yet another case of "tautological article", as the answer is "that exact door that was opened by the dog", so why not just write "[The] dog pushed door open and entered."? No extra information is conveyed by "the".

Of course it's maddening since no explanation makes full sense.

> I then asked them “but what if was a different dog that entered?”

Indeed, what would you say in English if it were a different dog? "I heard a dog walking outside. [Another] dog pushed the door open end entered."

Writing the second sentence as "A dog pushed the door.." if there were another makes absolutely no sense to me (because: which dog? -- another one or the same one?), so when writing "Dog pushed door.." it's very natural to assume that it's the same dog.

> What on earth is the difference between the two aspects, I often asked. To Russians it was clear - it addeded subtle richness.

Ah, but aspect is more than just subtle richness: it's a tool that it makes it possible to succinctly express complex temporal relationships.


I’m curious your native language so I can better understand your perspective. Articles convey meaning to me - relatively, perhaps, or specificity. How to use “a” vs. “the” is not taught in schools to native speakers of English. It’s not something that is prescribed by rules. A speaker selects “a” or “the” by what they are trying to convey and a native speaker does not ever question when he should use one or their other based on grammar or rules. Instead, he chooses based on what he is trying to express.

I wonder how the native language you learn as a child impacts the way your brain not only expresses concepts but how it even perceives them.

If I walked up to a my friend, a native speaker of English and said “I like dogs” he’d probably respond with “that’s nice”. If I walked up and said “I like the dogs” he’d probably ask “which dogs?” because the use of “the” conveys that it is a specific group of dogs. In a language without articles you might use “I like those dogs” or “I like these dogs” to call out specificity among dogs in general. That’s great. There’s lots of different ways to express the same concept in virtually all languages. Redundancy in expression doesn’t remove meaning from any method.

My whole point was there is no requirement for articles, many languages work without articles, but just because they don’t convey meaning to you doesn’t mean they don’t convey meaning to someone else. They add specificity and relatively that is subtle yet important within the language, even if it could be accomplished by other means.

I heard another example last night when watching sport news and am curious your thoughts. The announcer said:

“This is not the story of the night but it definitely is a story.” If I drop the articles, it seems I have to re-word that sentence to convey what is being expressed.


I'm not disputing that articles are sometimes useful, indeed sometimes you need "the" or "that" for disambiguation. But in most cases it's [a?] noise that I can't make sense of as in your previous example.

[I seriously cannot decide whether "it's noise" or "it's a noise" is correct in the previous sentence because it makes sense to put "some" in front but putting "a" "feels" wrong.]

> "The dog opened the door and entered."

Why "THE" door? It's not been previously introduced and it refers to the very door being opened by the dog. SUCH use of articles is confusing and nonsensical when set against all of the examples where "the" _does_ make a difference.

Similar examples: "I'm on the phone", "I'm in the shower", "The food is in the fridge", etc. By the same "rule" that requires "the" in these examples, you should be supposed to say "I'm at the home", which is for some reason wrong.

Next, should one use "the" / "a" or nothing here: "I'm at the post office." [Which one? There are tens if not hundreds in a large city.]

I've learned those and many others as expressions by heart, but use of "the" is a mystery to me.

As for "a", I have two simple rules: nouns (usually) cannot stand naked, and "a" is appropriate if "some" would be appropriate as well.

Or, if I imagine a teacher saying: "Today, we're going to learn about the animals that ruled the Earth 100 million years ago."

Why "the" animals? Why did I put it there in the first place? Because if I read the sentence silently, it feels "wrong" without an article before "animals", yet I cannot put "a" since it's in plural.

Or, even more amusingly: why "THE Earth"? We only have one.

Or, contrast with: "that ruled planet Earth 100 million years ago". No "THE planet Earth". Why? Or is it correct to say "THE planet Earth"? I seriously have no idea.

> “This is not the story of the night but it definitely is a story.” If I drop the articles, it seems I have to re-word that sentence to convey what is being expressed.

If you drop articles, it'd be ambiguous in English because it could be interpreted as "This is not (story of night) [i.e., story _about_ night] but it definitely is story."

The ambiguity in Croatian is resolved by declension; "night" would be in genitive case which seems to be the role of "the" in that sentence.

"A" in "a story" doesn't seem to have any purpose (to me).

EDIT: So, that's my perspective. I can't describe it in a better way than listing examples where "THE"/"A" is somehow required (or, worse, it must NOT be there), yet the use doesn't have anything to do with "specificity".

As an amusing anecdote: A couple of years ago I attended a course on scientific writing in English and we had to write an essay. The teacher returned the essay to me, it was full of red ink, and the vast majority of the errors (like >80%) were wrong use of articles (missing or wrong).

EDIT2: As for my native language (Croatian), definiteness is mostly implied. When you feel that specificity is needed because there are multiple potential subjects/objects, you use "THAT/THIS". For example, say you were at an animal shelter and you wanted to take some animal home. If there only were one dog among the animals, and you liked that dog of all animals, you'd say "I like dog, I'll take it home." If there were multiple dogs, you'd point and say "I like THAT dog, I'll take it home."


As an addition to the shelter example: if there were many dogs, and there were only one white dog, you would say "I'll take white dog." And so on...


I would add that so many tenses in other languages also feel excessive (there are only three in Russian). And so does using the verb "to be" for the present tense: in Russian it's enough to say "I developer". This and the wide range of diminutives are the best parts of the Russian grammar, everything else is overly complex.


> I came to the realization that some of these elements of language while seemingly “useless” (meaning, you could clearly make a language work without them) are what add subtle richness to a language.

That’s a great way of putting it.


For me, "the" and "a" are critical for understanding whether you are introducing something new or assuming that I know what you are talking about from context. If I use "the" then it's something clear from context, if I use "a" it's something new. The languages I know make a big fuss about this so I'm curious how you can figure out from context whether you can figure out something from context.


> I'm curious how you can figure out from context whether you can figure out something from context.

Erm, memory? You remember whether something has been introduced or not.

Take a hypothetical phone conversation, an example that nobody has managed to explain to me satisfactorily: A: "Where are you?" B: "I'm in [the/a/(nothing)] shower."

People tell me that "the" is the correct thing to use. But A is none the wiser; B could be at home, in a gym, at work... A is none the wiser about _which_ shower B is in and the shower has not been introduced previously in the conversation. It's tautological "the", B is in that shower that he's currently using, so he could just as well say "I'm in shower".

Or, similarly: A: "Where's my food?" B: "I've put it in fridge." If A is at work, he'd go looking into fridge at office. If at home, he'd go look into fridge in kitchen. If there are two fridges nearby, he'd ask "Which one?"

Even though I deliberately omitted "the/a" in the previous paragraph, I don't think you got confused about _which_ office or _which_ kitchen fridge A would go looking in. And personally I cannot imagine that A, upon hearing "it's in fridge" while being in the office, would go home and look into the fridge at home. Or that he'd even have to ask "which fridge?" if there only were one at office.

So there's an attempted answer.

EDIT: one of my rules of thumb is: if I can put "some" in front of a noun without changing the meaning, then it's most probably appropriate to use "a".


> Erm, memory? You remember whether something has been introduced or not.

This doesn't work in English, because both speakers are not assumed to have the same knowledge of context. The "the"/"a" distinguishes between something that describes and something that also determines.

Alice: Did you see any of those movies?

Bob: I saw the good one.

In this sentence, Bob is saying that "good one" can be figured out from context. In other words, Bob is saying that there is only one good movie in "those movies". Alice may or may not be aware of this from context, but she has learned that Bob thinks that there is only one good movie in "those movies".

Bob: I saw a good one.

In this sentence, Bob is saying that "good one" describes the movie he saw, but he is not saying that this determines which one he saw. He is not making claims about context.


This is an example where it plays a role. In Slavic languages, you would say something like “I saw that good one” (inserting a definitive article substitute) or “the one I saw was good”; in English, you don’t need the latter phrasing with “a”; indeed, it is somewhat artificial example.

What the parent post was saying was well described by his examples of where the article is obviously superfluous and doesn’t provide contextual information - which is the majority of their uses. There are situations where articles carry information (nobody disputes that I think), but they are used far more frequently as grammatical filler.


Ha, there's a difference between

“I saw that good one” -- translated to Croatian, this wording strongly implies that both knew upfront which movie was good and he watched only that one. But according to the parent's explanation it may not be the case, Alice has only learned that one of the movies was good.

and

"The one I saw was good" (he picked a random movie from the collection and it happened to be good -- which would be "a good one" from the parent's example).


Ah, finally an example where "the" does convey some extra information. However,

> Bob: I saw the good one.

Weird. Before I read your explanation I interpreted this as Alice and Bob having a prior mutual understanding about which of the movies was good and Alice immediately knows the particular movie he saw. Also, she knows that he decided upfront to watch (only) that movie.

EDIT: last point, if they don't have a prior understanding about which movie is "good", Bob would have to have watched _all_ of them to be able to say "THE good one". (Because, if he only watched a subset, an unwatched movie could be better than those he watched and would make him change his mind about which one is "good").

> she has learned that Bob thinks that there is only one good movie in "those movies".

According to your explanation, she still doesn't know _which_ movie he saw. She knows that only one was good and that it was the movie he saw. But then you could just say "I watched good one".

> "I saw a good one"

.. here, he picked a movie at random and it happened to be good. Yay, "a" does make a difference! :)


> It's tautological "the"

It's the (sorry) obligatory "the", because "the shower" has been lexicalized. This is very intimate, because the situation in which one talks about the shower, especially when still learning the language, will virtually always be at home with family. But enough talk. I will go to bed ... to bed myself. First I will go to the shower, an' shower, though. It's overall very unlikely I will have an in-shower phone call.

The given explanation is not satisfying. There's a difference between rhetorics and grammar. The common denominator is syntax (phonology, too, to a degree) but it differs between vocal and written speech. The semantics are the same, but you can take a look at the wiktionary page of [a] to get an idea of how diverse that is.

[a] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/a


>Erm, memory? You remember whether something has been introduced or not.

Not a very reliable tool. At least "bring THE table" introduces some error correction in the sentence.

- "Come by the shop tomorrow. And bring THE table".

(confused by the explicit "THE", the error correction kicks in:)

- "Huh? What table?"

- "The one we talked about last week on the phone",

- "A, yes!"


> Not a very reliable tool.

Exactly. Alternatively (note the missing "THE")

> "Come by the shop tomorrow. And bring table"

then, confused by seemingly nonsensical request of bringing some table along [why "some" -- because he doesn't remember the earlier conversation]: "Huh? Why, what table?"

As rytis pointed out, if the "sender" wants to emphasize the context, he'd say "And bring THAT table."

On the other hand, if the sender and receiver are thinking of a particular, but _different_ table, neither "table", nor "THE table", nor "THAT table" helps. (E.g., the receiver has one table that needs painting and one that needs to have its leg replaced, where "the" for the sender is the first and for the receiver the second table.)


A rule I heard was about abstract nouns requiring the article. It is not a strict rule, it seems, and what is abstract or not could be a matter of debate. In line with the OP notion something abstract would be exactly something that was not known. So here, the whole scenario is "the table". It's not any old table. In the speakers mind it is the sole reason of the listeners existence.

"hello, table?"

"Yes, this is table speaking"

"Is it still there?"

"Yes, it is here?"

"good good. bring it, table!"

It seems almost as if "it" and "the", highly underspecific terms are way more complicated in nature and thus have to repeated often to remind us ... just as much as egoists tend to speak a lot of "I", which I tend to avoid when I write my own texts because I do know who I am talking to. That is, "come" is usually preceded by "you", to address the recipient. "you come" is a full sentence. It's regularly binding "here", but if "here" needs to be specified, the verb is "come by". The object is a new phrase, and to set that off with the appropriate contrast, we simply use an article. Otherwise, "come to shop" would appear like a compound verb. Indeed, "come to town" is idiomatic, and that's lexicalized as a compound word (collocation) as seen in "homecoming". While "bring" is usually bound to "me" (or here, eventually, as the difference is minimal). It wouldn't be "table bringing". You don't address the table itself to bring itself. The table doesn't belong to the noun, the subject of the verb - not anymore. The status of the table is kind of unclear and that's the whole point. It already changed ownership as it seems, but didn't change hands yet. The "the" then is a placeholder for a qualifier. It is the most simple place holder next "a" or nothing. It should change to "my", and since we also have "(to) me" in scope, that would actually be very apt. "Bring my table". Is that one also objectionable? Diplomatically, you'd say "your table". The article is used to show that' you want to be specific, but not too specific yet. In essence, it changes only changes the scope. If it didn't and if it was clear that you have (are) the table, then it would be enough to say "you bring!" And people really do or did talk like that. "I'm hungry, cook!" "Answer! I wanna have an answer. You answer" "guard, guard!". etc. etc.

I'm just making that up. Never mind.


Then why not use 'THAT' and 'ANY' instead?

Also, in your example, what is the purpose of referencing particular phone with 'THE'? Why not just 'on phone'?

NB. Just like zvrba I was (still am) having troubles with As and THEs. Baltic language speaker here btw.


>Then why not use 'THAT' and 'ANY' instead?

For variety. Why not just wear black everyday?


Linguistically, articles are the exception rather than the rule. Grammatical words are always derived from concrete words and 'the' is just a degeneration of 'that'.


I am fascinated by how little syntax is required to actually communicate with each other. You can remove gender from language entirely and still understand what people mean. We can even get rid of time-based tenses and instead say something like "I go to the store yesterday". This is incorrect English, but the point is still communicated. As you say "the" and "a" could be condensed. You could go even further and combine these words with "one". Having traveled to a lot of places where I had to speak languages that I don't speak or understand, the amount of language built on top of the tiny "required" subset is marvelous and interesting.

Other questions that make language fun. Any ideas where eenie meanie miney moe comes from? Why does flat (low) German exist, and how far is it from Dutch (or English)? How many dialects of various languages are spoken in the Alps? Why do we call different Chinese dialects "dialects" and not "languages"? Which language has the most diverse set of conjugation rules? But I digress.


I think all this unnecessary 'clutter' serves as error correction when spoken.

Even if you don't fully understand a word, you can piece together from the context what was said.


That's a common sophism that completely ignores the cost/benefit trade-off of those supposedly useful error correction mechanisms.

In German for example, they're IMO total overkill (as in cost far outweighs benefit).

But then, you have to take into account that over-engineering things is a national hobby in Germany.

The question becomes chicken-and-egg: did the language induce the cultural trait or did the cultural trait structure the language.


> Why does flat (low) German exist, and how far is it from Dutch (or English)?

I'm not a linguist by any means but as I understand it's a separate language with its' own dialects. Lower saxon nowadays might have a gradual dialect continuum in the West into the Netherlands but in a days of Hanse it was a widespread language around the Baltic sea and had a huge influence on other languages and cultures. Even today part of it's dialects are closer to Swedish than high German (specially Pommern which was part of Sweden for quite some time).


>As a native speaker of Slavic language, I've never understood the need for differentiating between "THE table" and "A table". It's useless and clear from the context what is meant (note that both are different from "THIS/THAT table", which I do NOT deem useless.)

One differentiating example could be:

One person says to another:

1) Put it on the table.

vs. saying:

2) Put it on a table.

(Where, in both cases, by "it", they mean some object, say a book or any other thing).

1) would imply there is only one table in the room, so "the" was used.

2) would imply there is more than one table in the room, so "a" was used, meaning put it on any table you wish, it doesn't matter which one.


I'm a German learning czech and have the opposite problem: the czech (and probably other slavic languages) still have those articles but mostly leave them away. I'm never really sure, when you still need to use them:

* ten/ta/to = der/die/das (the)

* nějaký/nějaká/nějaké = (irgend-)ein/eine/ein (a, some)

In my course there's the example “nějaká paní se ptá na cestu" (A woman asks for the way). Not sure what is different if the nějaká is left out.


These examples map to English well:

* ten/ta/to = that, not “the”; I.e. literally or figuratively pointing (including e.g. referencing previously mentioned object and not wanting to repeat it)

* nějaký etc. - some, not “a”, i.e. explicitly strongly expressing vagueness. “A” in English is automatic grammar construct, “some” is explicitly expressing uncertainess. That sentence would correctly be translated as “SOME woman asks for directions” - I.e. a woman you don’t know, some rando that walked in the shop for example. A more real sentence: “some woman is asking for you” (you don’t know her, never seen her, she just walked in and asked for your colleguae), “nějaká paní se po tobě ptá”. You would use “a” in English here, it warrants clarifying the situation with “some” - and in Czech, that’s the only situation when you need these, when you are pointing to/referencing something or expressing vagueness.


Ah, thanks, I think I got it now. One problem for me was, that German der/die/das can actually translate to both, “the“ and “that“ depending on the emphasis.


My native language is Croatian, but...

> ten/ta/to

are you sure it's not "that" (dies(e,es,er)) instead of "the"?

> Not sure what is different if the nějaká is left out.

I'd interpret it as "The woman asks for the way.", i.e., a particular person is contextually implied. Otherwise it doesn't make sense.

EDIT: alternately, it describes an abstract event of woman asking for directions. Putting it as "paní se ptá na cestu" would make perfect sense in, say, a movie script.

Say a friend observed you from the other side of the street talking with her, approached you and asked what was that about.

You could say "[nějaká] paní se ptá na cestu" both with and without "nějaká". WITH "nějaká" you'd be emphasizing it was a random woman. WITHOUT "nějaká" it'd be that particular woman he saw you talking with. though, I'd use "she" for describing the event, i.e., "she asked for the way".


Makes sense - still it feels odd, coming from the “other side“. I wonder when this split happened.

About dieser/diese/dieses, that would be tento/tato/toto (this/that here).


Articles usually appear in the languages which (are starting to) lose inflection. Say, there is a Slavic language which had lost its cases and does have the articles now - Bulgarian

It's all a kind of ouroboros of languages - if something gets simplified, something else appears there


>"THE table" and "A table". It's useless and clear from the context what is meant

"Bring the table", "Bring a table".

Do I ask you to bring some table we've already talked about or I can expect you to remember the reference to,

or do I ask you to bring any table because any table will do?

"Clear from the context" is a low bar. In languages, as in parsers, we should avoid it if we can.


Careful what you wish for. Many languages are much more specific than English, but you don't think that English has a problem there, do you?

For example, why not introduce gendered nouns - they often help to clarify references? "The door and the window are open." - "Well, close es (=das window)" vs "Well, close sie (=die door)".

Other languages indicate evidentiality (that is, how a speaker learned about something) by a verb suffix, eg Eastern Pomo:

* -ink’e (nonvisual sensory), * -ine (inferential), * -·le (hearsay), * -ya (direct knowledge)

Now, I might say, in English that is clear from context, or expressed in some other way, but according to you, "we should avoid it if we can". Thus, better learn Eastern Pomo?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidentiality


>Careful what you wish for. Many languages are much more specific than English, but you don't think that English has a problem there, do you?

I might do. But I don't wish to add my static preconceptions upon an evolutionary evolving thing like language and its linguistic community.

That said, I speak a language with gendered nouns, and they're fine.


Grammar articles ("a" and "the") often times function as a type of glue for your words so that sentences can keep a certain pace, they also provide a lot of meaningful information on how sure you are about the thing that you are talking about.


> I've never understood the need for noun genders and I scratch my head at a society that makes its members memorize such useless information.

A lot of redundancy in human languages seems to be related to disambiguation and error correction.


Indeed, I once read an article about the Iliad, in which it claimed that the combination of the rhythm and other poetic features made it harder to screw up when reciting from memory.


> I've never understood the need for noun genders

What a peculiar comment. It's like saying, what's the use of termites? No, seriously, why _do_ we have termites? Do we really need termites?


If someone is creating a new language now, that is a concept that would definitely not be included.


> If someone is creating a new language now, that is a concept that would definitely not be included.

Natural languages aren't designed, which is why the comment above is so odd.


Or may be there would be more than 3 genders.


Recycling tree matter in the woods.


> a society that makes its members memorize such useless information

That is a really strange angle on the subject of native language. If there's any language my society has made me learn, it's the one I'm writing now, my second (and absolutely indispensable) one. The gendering of nouns (in my national case, two genders) and sundry other weird historical linguistic baggage is just the way things are and ever were.


>I've never understood the need for noun genders and I scratch my head at a society that makes its members memorize such useless information.

Society doesn't make anybody do anything. Languages are not built in labs, they grow evolutionary and organically (with some bureaucratic intervention here and there).

For that particular people, following the historical lineages they went through, those things evolved in their language.

Plus, instead of seeing them as "useless information" (where the main concern is crudely expressing the most basic concepts to another, e.g. utilitarian communication), one could see them as a richer way of describing the world than English, and with more expressive power (not just for raw communication, for expression of feelings, poetry, etc as well).

(In fact a common point to many European essays from the past 200 or so years is how English is a cruder language suited mainly for "commerce").


Just today I had a chat with a friend about a movie named "rogue one". Roug, Rook, Roug, Rook. If feel quite fit writing english but talking - as someone with very litte practice - drives me mad.


That specific example points to the root cause of most English pronunciation weirdness - an insistence on preserving original spelling for loanwords even if they come from languages with very different orthography. "Rogue" and "chef" are both French loanwords that English still spells as if they were French, not to mention all the Latin loanwords that still give middle-schoolers endless pain.


Interestingly, "chief" is the same word as "chef" just imported from the Normans. French had a consonant shift, while English did not, and then imported the word again with the new pronunciation and spelling.


A consonant shift from "ie" to "e"?


That vowel shift is not from French, but rather part of the English Great Vowel Shift [1]. The original loanword from Medieval Norman French to Middle English was /tʃeːf/ (spelled "chef"), compared to the re-borrowed /ʃɛf/.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift


Like fashion and law, spelling and pronounciation are a sign of status. It's not supposed to be easy. From another point of view, what does the state of the orthografy say about the authorities, are they lenient, chaotic ... speaking a different language?

School children are very low in the social hierarchy, of course, because they cannot defend themselves. Of course they are going to be oppressed when they note that there's no system behind and when they say it's too complicated they will be called lazy. The parents had to wade to shit, so they don't even notice the smell anymore, and now the children have to, too.

On the other hand, conservative orthography can help to learn the related languages (ie. French, Latin), serve as interesting step into history, exercise memory, and what not.

There could be no regular spelling. That's an illusory proposition, given the breadth of dialects that exist. So next you will require all the poor children to learn a new dialect, basically. Is that any better? It would be a loss of diversity, each one preserving a little bit of historic language development - and status. It's really a shame that status varies. Learning a language properly might give some stability.


> Likewise, the combination "ei" will always be pronounced "eye."

That's not true for German, e.g. in some loanwords:

"Atheist" and "Koffein" (= caffeine) use "eh-i"

> I've never understood the need for noun genders

Sometimes they show different meanings of a word:

German:

Die Leiter = the ladder

Der Leiter = the director

French:

la tour = the tour

le tour = the tower


la tour = the tower

le tour = the trick


What's really killing me is that the genders don't matter when you have a plural form.

It's all the same (ie. using "die" and the plural cases)

In Spanish or French for eg. you still have gender marks (los/Las for eg.) with the plural form but in German, it's all the same.

That makes me wonder why it's so necessary to have genders in the first place since the German plural doesn't have marks of it and it doesn't hurt understanding.


It's not necessary and as a native german it is something i can totally live with if foreigners get it wrong in conversations. Even people with years of being fluent in germany still ocassionally screw them up. In a similar way i always struggle pronouncing words like "caffeine, beard, deteriorate" etc after years of speaking english at work.


In Swedish there are two ways to say "one" - "ett" and "en". Ex. one table = "ett bord" and one cat = "en katt". There is no rule for when to use either. And yes, this makes it extremely difficult for foreigners.


I can only speak for Norway, but here we use different articles for the different genders. In Bokmål, a masculine noun uses "en", a feminine noun uses "ei or en", and non-gendered nouns use "et". I think it's slightly different in New Norwegian, but I don't really know it so I can't comment on that. Bokmål is closer to Swedish anyway.

I do agree that it's difficult to learn though as there are no rules for determining a noun's gender or lack thereof. I certainly don't miss memorising the genders of nouns in primary school, not to mention all the exceptions.


"Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen."

For a Finnish speaker, the pronunciation of most languages seems illogical, because things are pronounced differently as they are written, depending on the word itself. One might think: why are they so illogical? Of course, this is not how native speakers of German, English, etc. see things; for them, the words are spoken exactly as they are written, as they are used to it being so.

When I was learning English at school, I thought it was odd to sprinkle all the small articles and words all over the speech. And this thing with British vs. US spelling. Later, when I studied German, I thought there were so many concrete rules, yet every rule was followed by a number of exceptions.

I don't think one can say grammar/pronunciation of language x is universally difficult or easy. It depends so much on the linguistic background of the learner. For example: those skilled only in Japanese will likely have an easier time learning Chinese than me. But I will likely be able to pick up Estonian or proper Danish/Norwegian easier than them because of my background.

PS. Speaking of illogical things: "pronunciation" and "pronounce". Why not "pronunce" or "pronounciation"?


I often wonder if all that extra grammatical baggage and more rigid pronouciation would make it easier for a computer to understand german over english.


English is written how it was pronounced

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift

We just changed how we pronounced


For English, aside from do/does useless distinguishment, the lack of a gender neutral noun for a person usually make people write in a way "he/she". You could say, "the person" but it's long.

And months should be represented as numbers instead of names in spoken languages too which is easier to use and remember to have a globally common form.

Also, as a Japanese, I'm not sure if singular and plural forms make much sense as we mostly don't have it and I doubt it's any source of confusion.


> For English, aside from do/does useless distinguishment, the lack of a gender neutral noun for a person usually make people write in a way "he/she". You could say, "the person" but it's long.

You mean "they", used as far back as Shakespear?


There's none for singular form.


"A person walked down the street. They were wearing a brown coat."

Singular they has been in recorded use since 1375, it's only been the last couple of hundred years people started trying to insist it wasn't valid.

https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they...


You're mosly right about pronouciation but German pronouncation isn't as regular as e.g. Spanish or Italian. In German you have open and close vowels, i.e. the "e" can sound slightly different depending on its position in a word. There is some variation between local dialects though.

IMHO the need for genders, cases etc. becomes obvious in spoken language where these things serve to guide the listener's expecations. "Simpler" languages often use redundant wording, formulaic constructions to make up for them.


> I've never understood the need for noun genders and I scratch my head at a society that makes its members memorize such useless information.

I’ve never understood the need to pronounce completely differently from writing - and irregularly, too - as you guys do in English. Or throwing the the everywhere, or having a gazillion of bizarre tenses.

English is simpler in some ways, terribly overcomplicated in others.


English pronounciation is so irregular it looks like it's written in a wrong alphabet and would benefit greatly from some Cyrillic equivalent.


In Ukraine, we sometimes have these discussions about moving to a Latin-based alphabet. Some even try to come up with their version of it.

It always winds up either as something ugly with a lot of diacritics (like Polish/Hungarian) or having a lot of double/triple-letter sounds (e.g. `sh` instead of 'ш', `ye` instead of `є`, `shch` instead of `щ' and so on).

Thanks, but no, I'll take our 33 funny Cyrillic letters over a Latin alphabet.


>That said, German pronunciation is more regular than English pronunciation.

Yup: https://www.learnenglish.de/pronunciation/pronunciationpoem....


English grammar is too simple. I often can't tell if a word is a noun or a verb. In particular, headlines can be really hard for me to parse when they seem like nothing more than a handful of nouns.


German is an amazing, beautiful language. With not much of the vocabulary borrowed from other languages, words actually make sense. From that perspective, German can be seen as the modern equivalent of Latin, and if I were to choose only one language to remain on the entire planet, it would be German (sorry English, Chinese and Spanish). Its sounds are easier for non-native speakers to pronounce - especially compared to English; it seems to be more resistant to frivolous changes, being sensibly conservative. It’s not perfect, but Latin is a dead language, and we did not have a will to adopt it as a universal language - unlike, for example, Israel which had enough determination to revive a dead language (I find it interesting that they, in fact, also considered German for the role of the national language).


Despite appearance, German is very illogical language full of idioms and exceptions one has to master. Also, even natives usually don't master the full extent of language and the overbearing nature of language with its need for precise use of words/formulations specific to a given situation often leads to strong reliance on syntax/appearance of complexity. You can see it in typical German philosophy, where the language gets in the way in order to satisfy its constraints, often missing the point, being trapped in its structures, unable to formulate way out due to structural constraints inherent in the language; being overly rational and weakly emotional, suppressing a whole dimension of humaneness. Thanks, but no thanks!


I think this conflates typically verbose academic/philosophical writing with German itself. Many great old philosophers came out of Germany, in a time where writing obtusely to make a point was in vogue (in English, too, not just German), so this may add to the perception of German philosophy needing to be contorted.

I've read refreshingly concise modern works in both and English and German and can assure you that style is the writer's fault, not the language's.


Could you share an example? I'd like to read something while learning German.


I can't say I really found use out of the book I'm about to mention, but Michael Bordt writes a lot of philosophy/self-help books in a concise German style. For example, "Die Kunst, die Eltern zu enttäuschen: Vom Mut zum selbstbestimmten Leben."


I've always felt quite a bit of emotion contained in German, in a way that falls flat for me in English. Most American English writing has this simple form like "Fact. Fact. Fact. The end.". So much for emotional impact or nuance, but this could be a difference felt for your native language vs others acquired later on.


>You can see it in typical German philosophy, where the language gets in the way in order to satisfy its constraints, often missing the point, being trapped in its structures, unable to formulate way out due to structural constraints inherent in the language

To be fair that could describe a lot of philosophy in just about every language.


The idea that language limits or constrains the way people think (the stronger side of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is now largely discredited by the majority of linguists.


I speak 8 languages from many separate groups (Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Sino-Tibetan, Japanese), and my impression is that languages truly put constraints on one's ability to formulate thoughts. Of course, mentalese, the unspoken one, is different, independent, but it's rare people retain it to their older age and by then prevailing cultural/linguistic currents shape their thoughts. Sapir-Whorf might be discredited as general hypothesis, but it might correspond to 95% practical state statistically-wise.


Would you please give some examples where you've found "that languages truly put constraints on one's ability to formulate thoughts"?


I don't know what he is referring to. But one interesting things is that there is a language where you can express that someone is doing something without including the time when he is doing it. This is not possible in the languages I know of (De/En/Fr).

I can imagine that this ability makes different thoughts possible.

When looking at programming languages, it is indeed the case that your "lingua franca" limits the imagination of what software architectures are possible to solve the problem.


For a really eccentric example see:

https://aymara.org/biblio/html/igr/igr3.html

Or just use of 無 in (ancient) Chinese for a simple example (in the sense of "unasking the question").


Yet we have a wide variety of programming languages, and switch between them as the need arises for a better fit to the problem domain we're working in. With the wide variety of things like number systems in different languages, wouldn't it make sense that using some languages might be better for mathematical communication, and others maybe not offer the precision required to communicate everything necessary? It would make sense to me if some languages were better for talking about navigation, or weather than others. Or some were better with numbers, or parts of anatomy, etc.


That's a softer form of it which is fairly obviously true; a language with no words for weather will obviously limit discussion of the weather forecast. That's a bit different to whether it limits your ability to think about those things though.


Do you speak more than one natural language? I am an anglophone but took most of my schooling in french. Though I work in english now, I can remember distinctly 'thinking in English' and 'thinking in French' and depending on the problem I was wrestling with, the constructs of the language you frame your thinking in absolutely can give you an advantage or disadvantage.

I always thought it was remarkable how much human thought was imprisoned by language, and it really makes me wonder what a human 'without language' would be capable of thinking.


One other than my native tongue, but not nearly fluently.

To clarify, I don't disagree with what you're saying; I'm not a linguist but from what I know there certainly seems to be some truth in the weaker forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language affects how you think), but the strong form (that language controls how you think) seems fairly well disproven these days.


And now for the forecast of the local atmosphere state: In the morning, the yellow ball in the sky will be hidden by areas of water aerosol. Around noon, water will fall from the sky.


I've long thought it a real possibility that people are constrained (in certain areas) by their language.

No expert and not disagreeing with you, but I'd be very interested to read any literature you can recommend on the subject.


For an introduction see:

Linguistic relativity

URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity


Fascinating. If you were to pick an optimal global language - which would it be?


Korean certainly.

Very well modernized, from the already simple chinese language (not the writing, just the spoken language), transported into simple and regular syllables. Extremely easy to learn for foreigners or aliens from other planets. The shape of the letters mimic how you speak them, the three major families - | or O. horizontal, vertical or round, like in chinese earth-water paintings.

It's much more regular than separating vowels and consonants into single letters.


A good language is not necessarily one that is easy to learn. The difficulty may be due, for example, to a fine-grained vocabulary, the power to concisely express nuances, or the rich cultural background. Classical Greek, for example, is not the easiest language to learn from scratch, but it is no doubt one of the most subtle and expressive languages known to the mankind.


Yet, the greatest philosophers after the Greeks were all German-speaking (Hegel, Kant, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Mach...). Also, physicists, mathematicians.


Well, on the other hand, the greatest musician after the Greeks composed the majority of his greatest creations only after he stopped hearing German.


Well played, points for cerebral humor.


In the meantime, weren't there some very important European scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, etc who wrote almost entirely in Latin?


Some people blame the tragedy of 20th century on prevailing idealistic trends in German philosophy, including the ones you mentioned.


Santayana's Egotism in German Philosophy is an admirable and very readable history and diagnosis of that story, from Leibniz to the late 19th C. He has a gorgeous style and lovely understated sense of humour. And virtually explains the Nazis, although published in 1915.


There were certainly plenty of great German speaking physicists and mathematicians. But those philosophers all sucked.


'The greatest' ?

Slight exaggeration.


With a few minor exceptions, such as Aquinas, Descartes, Voltaire, Locke, Hume, J.S. Mill, Russel..


As a German, allow me to respectfully disagree. I think English is far easier to learn. I often find it easier to express my thoughts in English than in German.

I do agree that German is a beautiful language, though, and highly recommend reading Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra to anyone who does or does not agree with me on this one.


One thing that I have noticed about English is that it seems to be more concise. There are things that can be expressed much more elegantly and with fewer word in English, while saying the same thing in German may require a mid-sized sentence.


One example:

"Don't always make this about you!"

There is no exactly matching equivalent in German. You might say something like 'this isn't about you', but there is no term for calling someone out on it so beautifully and bluntly.

But to me it makes no sense to make absolute statements on conciseness. In my opinion societies are concise in language on topics on which a great common focus lies upon.


> "Don't always make this about you!"

German: Es geht nicht immer nur um dich!

Not a 100% word for word translation, but what I would yell when I meant to say something similar to the English version. Instead of "make it (about you)" I switch to something that reverse-translated ends up more like "it is not about you" because trying to use the "make" part in a 100% word for word translation does not seem to lead to anything I as a German might say. Still, I'd say my version actually is an accurate translation, so I would dispute your claim that "there is no exactly matching equivalent in German".


> One thing that I have noticed about English is that it seems to be more concise. There are things that can be expressed much more elegantly and with fewer word in English, while saying the same thing in German may require a mid-sized sentence.

As a native German speaker, I disagree. German allows a really concise nominal style that is hard to express in English.


As a native speaker of English and a speaker of German, I find that some things are more concise in one language and other things are more concise in the other. I don't know if this inconsistency is due to limits in my own knowledge or limits in each language, but I suspect it's a bit of both. Where things appear more concise to native speakers also probably has to do with both tacit knowledge of idioms and amount of time spent composing a deliberately aphoristic statement.


>As a native speaker of English and a speaker of German, I find that some things are more concise in one language and other things are more concise in the other.

I'm reminded of my former neighbors, who would switch between English and Spanish mid-sentence. I asked them about it once and they expressed a sentiment similar to yours.

As an English and German speaker, my kids would tell you I sometimes do the same thing. Bad drivers get yelled at in German ;-D


German is more concise and can specialize the nouns much better than in english.

But on the other hand that makes german much longer. Translations into german (e.g. SW or movie subtitles) are the longest in german than in any other major language. You need much more room to express the same. E.g. in SW translations this conciseness strikes back, the english original form is often preferred, as it is easier to understand and not as baroque as the german form.

In Japanese forced with the same problem of having to import many new foreign terms ("lehnworte"), they chose a better way, Katakana, which is almost as well modernized as Korean. In German it backfired, and instead of chosing modern shorter and more precise forms, they want for the longer nouns, adding to it.


> But on the other hand that makes german much longer. Translations into german (e.g. SW or movie subtitles) are the longest in german than in any other major language.

I can believe that if you translate texts that are written in idiomatic English into German, they get longer. On the other hand, if you have a concisely written scientific text in German, translating it into English leads to something between gibberish and something barely readable. So you often have to completely rewrite/reexpress large parts of the text so that it looks like idiomatic English.


Having been involved in writing internationalised software, you can get into trouble if you don't leave enough space for your labels, button captions, messages etc to be translated into another language which may requires 10-50% more space.

An example: https://medium.com/dropbox-design/design-for-internationaliz...

From what I can see guidance is that Finnish and German are typically quite a bit longer than English...


This is partly a consequence of these languages using the alphabet that was designed to serve a different language. (Another striking example is Vietnamese.)


Latin is a dead language, and we did not have a will to adopt it as a universal language

I'm not sure what you mean by this. I used to believe that "Latin is a dead language" - until I learnt more about the subject. It was spoken everywhere in the Roman Empire, and the local differences evolved into the Romance languages. They are what Latin is today. And it (the relatively fixed 'classical' version anyway) was a universal language for a long time....until the 19th C in maths and the sciences. Thousands of years is a long time in language-years, and nothing stays still for that long, but changes totally. Latin's dead in the sense every language must be after thousands of years of evolution. English will be dead in that same sense in another 2000 years, and so will every other language of today.


Latin is still spoken today, on the radio of all things. The Finnish national broadcaster broadcasts Nuntii Latini, or the News in Latin.

The interesting part is they do not invent new words but find existing Latin expressions and combine existing words. That alone speaks a lot of how universal the language was and perhaps still is.

Link: https://areena.yle.fi/1-1931339

An example of the Indonesian tsunami catastrophy: "Plus mille quadringenti homines perierunt, cum fluctus tsunami ex motu terrae ortus in insulam Sulawesi Indonesiae (28.9.) incidisset. Magistratus timent, ne numerus victimarum in multa milia ascendat. Maxime afflicta est urbs Palu et proxima illi Donggala. In regione motui terrae et fluctui exposita circiter sescenta milia hominum habitant."


Thanks for the link - it's a good resource for those who would like to read and hear Latin being used in a modern setting. I only wish the voice were less mechanical-sounding, but the effort in trying to keep a dead language alive can only go so far... Also, the Finnish accent is not too bad - especially compared with the way Latin can be heard from the English or the French (or even the Italians).


> Romance languages. They are what Latin is today

That’s the same as looking at a tree and saying, “This is what I will be in a hundred years.”


How is it 'the same'? I can't see it. If somehow the tree was made from your molecules, sure, there's a sense that it would be true, but how that's 'the same' or anything similar to the continuous evolution of Latin into the Romance languages, I don't know.

It's more like, say, there was jazz in the 1920s, there are many types of jazz today, evolved from that early jazz but all very different from it, and different from each other.


Well, strictly speaking, Romance languages are not the evolution of Latin - each is a mix of (the Vulgar) Latin and a local language. For example, French has been heavily influenced by Frankish, so much so, in fact, that English, not even being a Romance language, seems closer to Latin than French does - simply because it imported so many words directly from Latin. (The closest example of a continuous and mostly unadulterated evolution of a now dead language into a modern one is Greek.)


The absence of foreign loans in German is not due to being "resistant to frivolous changes". It's due to an explicit reform effort to root out ubiquitous Latinate loans. You can do the same in any language, limited only by how much control the government has over the way people talk.


If you want, you can try Anglish. :)


The last time I was in Germany I noticed explicitly anti-English-language grassroot campaign signs on bus stops. They are definitely worried about losing their language and perhaps the cultural identity it confers.

I alternately love and hate German. Sometimes I have to fight through sentences with 5 clauses, and sometimes you get a beautiful and concise statement.


> They are definitely worried about losing their language and perhaps the cultural identity it confers.

Who is "they"? As a German who also has one friend (fluent in two other languages and living abroad most of the time and married to a non-German) who is in that camp and who even collected money to give to a local German language society, this is a small minority. The majority of people could not care less. Proof: Use of English words and phrases is ubiquitous, used for shops (even that exact word instead of the German "(der) Laden"), signs, marketing campaigns, everyday language. If it didn't work or if it caused any backlash they would not do that. We even have "fake English" words: "Handy" for mobile phones (and that is the word almost everybody actually uses) :-)


I took 4 years of German in high school, so I'm no expert, but I do disagree about it making sense any more than any other language.

There are at least 3 ways to say "the". Der, die, and das. Which one you use depends on if the object you're talking about is femanine or not. To top that off some geographic areas use "das" for everything.

It also has words that are similar to English; toilette (toilet) and hast (have) as a couple similarities.


Seems for casual reader with no knowledge of German you may be oversimplifying a little. Including the plural form and four cases you wind up having to learn 16 forms of the equivalent of 'the' which then serves as a mnemonic for adjectival endings for modifing nouns. Also compound that with gender and idiosyncratic plural forms and you wind up having to learn three aspects for every new vocabulary noun.

some geographic areas use "das" for everything - yeah good point. If you ever tooled around the German-speaking sections of Switzerland you'll still find locals complaining that they have difficulty understanding the dialect of another town only a few km away.


I've been learning Vietnamese for a few years and it seems to just fine without all the complicated tenses and cases etc in the grammar of European languages. I'm not sure if all those baroque rules really buy much.


They don't buy anything, but they don't cause any problems either. If they did, the language would have changed to accommodate it, or died out already. But since you're putting the effort in to learn it as it is, clearly neither applies...


The languages have changed - English used to have a more complex grammar (thee, thine, thou, etc) and I think it had genders, but that died out over time.


der, die, das, den, dem, des, all depending on case (likewise for indefinite articles + worse for adjective endings). German grammatical case presents information quite efficiently, often replacing the need for a preposition or other helper word, but it is mostly foreign to English speakers.

The "nouns have gender" stuff isn't quite as weird. It's in many other languages and eventually it isn't too hard to learn the noun as the full "der/die/das ________". Where it gets tricky is when an article (like "der" or "einer") is overloaded and applies to one gender in one case (male, nominative) but to a different gender in another case (female or plural, dative). I wish the mapping were one to one.

It's also worth noting that there are actually two ways to _say_ "the" in English (think "thuh" and "thee"). I would challenge any native English speaker to explain when you use each. ;-)


> It's also worth noting that there are actually two ways to _say_ "the" in English (think "thuh" and "thee"). I would challenge any native English speaker to explain when you use each. ;-)

I'd be surprised if you could find any fluent English speaker who says that either pronunciation is wrong in any context where the other is correct. If I'm understanding the description of the German definite articles correctly, the aren't all valid in the same contexts, which is hardly the same thing. (I don't actually know German, but I know a bit of Spanish and Dutch, and in both of those languages the definite articles are not necessarily interchangeable, which is my understanding of German from the above description)


If referring to phonetics then thee would be for emphasis to a construed subordinate with thuh used generally. Really idiosyncratic.

If referring to written words then use thee if you find yourself in Pennsylvania Dutch country trying to hail a horse drawn taxi or thuh if trying to play dumb while text messaging.


Well, IIRC the "official" rule is that 'thee' is to be used before a vowel and 'thuh' before a consonant.


True. The above was just for fun. But colloquial English these days behaves as if rules are to be made up as you go along. EG, locally I hear 'I'm going to thee Applebees Bar & Grill' as often as 'I'm going to thuh', but then again there isn't an abundance of Rhodes scholars in this neck of the woods.


Der, die, das makes at least more sense then the difference beteween the and the.


Curious, what geographic regions are you referring to?


You could say the same thing about Russian. Like German, it doesn't borrow very heavily from other languages; and a lot of the words are simple variations of each other with different prefixes and suffixes. It was even the Lingua Franca (or "Latin") of the Communist bloc.

On the other hand, Russian might be an even harder language to learn than German, given that it's Slavic and uses a different alphabet. There's always Esperanto, which has more than 200,000 articles on Wikipedia; more than Latin even.


Russian doesn't borrow heavily? There's a ton of borrowing from French in Russian.... I hadn't appreciated quite how much until I started learning French.


Lots of borrowings from Turkic languages as well. For example the common word for money "dengi" has the same roots as "denge" (balance) in Turkish and national currency of Kazakhstan "tenge".


> uses a different alphabet

The alphabet is trivial on the way to learning the language, constituting maybe 2% or so (unlike in Chinese).


As a native speaker I can confirm the observations of Mark Twain. What is ignored in such humorous tirades is that every human speaker will push information density to the very limit of understandability. In every language. They will use all the tools available.

Sure, the German case system is getting weaker as the centuries go by. And in some situations you will wonder why it's used still. But that doesn't mean the language will be easier to learn once it's gone. As the cases are lost, preposition will be added in many places. The choice of prepositions will likely come from English, which means it's arbitrary from a grammatical point of view.

I claim that reaching spoken proficiency requires the same effort in all human languages. If you want to speak at the level of a native, prepare for ten years of study. As a learner you'll use strings of terms that don't follow the arbitrary conventions, and people will have a hard time understanding.

It amazes me how many people claim English is easy to learn all while using unfamiliar preposition-verb combinations in unexpected order. You can't leave hard parsing work to the recipient and say it was easy!


> It amazes me how many people claim English is easy to learn

People think english is simple because we don't have the gender+conjugation+declension system of many languages. So initially, english appears simple. A boat is a boat is a boat. But everywhere else - from spelling to grammar to phonetics, english is irregular and has so many exceptions that it really requires effort to become native or even fluent.

One cow or many cows vs one sheep vs many sheep? One goose or many geese vs one moose vs many moose? Though goose can become gooses if you use it as a verb. Or look at envelope. You pronounce it differently depending on whether you use it as a noun, verb or adjective ( though it might be a regional thing ). And of course the nearly non-systematic accent/emphasis of syllables which you simply have to learn through listening. Whereas languages like latin have fairly consistent and systematic rules for accent/emphasis. And then there is the british insistence on adding a 'u' to words like labor or harbor.


"simple" is not synonymous with "easy to learn".

There is some research that suggests that it is easier for adults to learn isolating languages, like English and Mandarin, than it is for adults to learn synthetic languages like German, Russian, or Arabic.

In other words, adults are better at learning lists of words than systems for constructing words. The fewer grammatical morphemes they need to learn, the faster they can reach functional fluency.


> "simple" is not synonymous with "easy to learn".

I used simple in reference to "gender+conjugation+declension system of many languages". In that specific context, it does make it easier to learn english than german or spanish.

> There is some research that suggests that it is easier for adults to learn isolating languages, like English and Mandarin, than it is for adults to learn synthetic languages like German, Russian, or Arabic.

English is a germanic language and hence a synthetic language. Not sure why you lumped it with Mandarin. I don't know mandarin but I've heard that spoken mandarin is easy to learn since it very regular and has fairly limited vocabulary. Their tonal system make it extremely hard for people from non-tonal languages and their writing system is notoriously difficult.

> In other words, adults are better at learning lists of words than systems for constructing words.

Yes. It is easier to learn english on the front end because we lack the gender+conjugation+declension. My point is that what makes english difficult is the irregularities and exceptions.

> The fewer grammatical morphemes they need to learn, the faster they can reach functional fluency.

In other words "simple is easier to learn"?


> English is a germanic language and hence a synthetic language

This is nonsense. Morphological strategy is not a strictly genetic trait. This is like saying "your name is Baker so you can't be a barista". Every other Germanic language is far more synthetic than English, and English is the most analytic language in the Indo-European family.

> and their writing system is notoriously difficult.

Writing is not language. One is an invention, the other is a natural phenomenon.

> In other words "simple is easier to learn"?

No, simple morphology makes a language easier to learn for adults. Complexity can come in many forms.

Mandarin is easy to learn for the same reason that English is easy to learn: the bulk of the linguistic complexity is in the vocabulary, which is easy for adults to learn, not the morphology, which is easy for kids but hard for adults.


Interesting! Can you recommend papers on that?


I learned this from a linguistic typology course a few years back, and that professor didn't use slides, so I had to do some digging on my own, and this paper seems to cover all the bases, with a nice literature review to boot:

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.0114...


I've seen this quote attributed to G B Shaw: "English is one of the easiest languages to speak badly, but one of the most difficult to speak well"; however, I can't find a reliable citation.

At any rate, I think it captures something about English. As you say, languages like German and French take more effort to learn initially (conjugation and (in German) declension), but then there are only a few ways of expressing something correctly. English has so many synonyms with slightly different connotations and idiomatic nuances that it is hard to master.


But I think this is the way languages have to work if they're supposed to be spoken by non-native speakers or just spoken by a large number of geographically dispersed people. Even German is losing a lot of its initial complexity because of the last decades of immigration. This is mostly just in spoken German for now, but the written word will eventually follow.

And all languages with wide geographic dispersion have a disconnect between the spoken word and the written spelling, the most extreme example being Chinese.


> English has so many synonyms with slightly different connotations and idiomatic nuances that it is hard to master.

At some point I accepted that this is true for every language. First there's training basic grammar and initial vocabulary (a few months' study) and then there's mastering the long tail of idiomatic expressions (years of study). The first gives you the ability to talk about any topic. Only the second gives you effortless communication.


> English has so many synonyms with slightly different connotations and idiomatic nuances that it is hard to master.

You imply the goal was to be precise. The crux is, what you call slightly different connotation is often enough ambiguity and the goal is to be as ambiguous as possible to be understood by as many people as possible without loosing precision, that is without mistakenly falling in the trap of a nuanced connotation.

Point in case for you, my spelling correction does not know "connotated", so that may be a nuance of the English language I was not aware of. Point in case for me, connotated nuanced synonyms (or synonymous nuanced connotations) is a redundant bag of words with something for everyone, yet unspecific enough to leave me guessing, finding no difference between those my two expressions above. ...


I always say, English is easy with the basics, yet, hard to master while German exposes all the complexity from the very beginning.


Don't know German, but I've learned Spanish. I feel that English is easy because it's relatively hard for a learner to accidentally completely change the meaning of a sentence and make themselves misunderstood or, worse, say something offensive. In Spanish, a single letter changes the subject from him to me, the mood from indicative to subjunctive, etc. The use of pronouns in Spanish is especially difficult for English speakers.


This is very similar to French. I always said that French language and our love for philosophy means it that when someone makes a mistake, we will try to make sense of that when other countries would have guessed that this obviously was a mistake.


Same for Japanese I guess. 1 letter change and your tone can suddenly become aggressive but of course when non natives speak, people will try to understand their intentions.


> It amazes me how many people claim English is easy to learn

People say English is easy to learn because it's both fairly easy and very useful in the modern world. There certainly are languages that are even easier (e.g. Spanish, as soon as I've started learning Spanish I found myself wondering why would somebody need to invent something like Esperanto (which has cases!) when there is Spanish already).


Why don't you think removing genders will make the language easier? I studied German in college and memorizing these was my only complaint.


Not being too much of a linguist but ever ready to expound on the concept of economy in speech: We have a strong pressure to minimize communication effort both for speakers and for listeners. I would assume that genders help disambiguate and aid the listener discern words with higher certainty without increasing the syllable count.

Our mind builds hypotheses of the words to follow while listening to a sentence. Without this, we couldn't follow a conversation. You can decide faster on what you heard the more the words preceding a noun preclose on the choice of noun. So gender can make communication more robust over a noisy channel, or more compact over a clear channel.

In the midst of a German sentence, some nouns will be precluded because they would be impossible due to gendered articles and adjectives. This lessens the cognitive load (of the trained listener) or conversely allows omitting words when the gender narrows down the selection enough.

I'll go further out on that limb conjecturing that if you haven't been exposed to a gendered language as a kid, that facility will be untrained and quite the bother to acquire as an adult. If acquiring it as an adult is possible at all.

After all that wild guessing, I should close with the observation that in this case German would be more difficult to learn than ungendered languages, _for untrained adults_.

To close off (and to partially answer your question) I'll just say that gender takes little neurons overall in the habit that is language. Whether it'd come out a net plus in syllable economy I can't say.


> In the midst of a German sentence, some nouns will be precluded because they would be impossible due to gendered articles and adjectives. This lessens the cognitive load (of the trained listener) or conversely allows omitting words when the gender narrows down the selection enough.

This is an example for OP's notion of hard to parse foreign speaker English. I'm not sure what you are trying to say. No offense. I also noted the ease that comes from omission of a noun after an article if the grammatical gender hinted at by the article already indicates the noun (Was there anything else you were trying to say?). It's comparable to use of the indefinite it. I've seen that exposed as "omitting a word if the article makes it (word) clear" - you'd use "the" instead, then omit the noun, getting "... makes the clear".

It's used especially in subsentences "_Der_ Hund in dem Haus, _der_ dieses und jenes tat, ist ...", so the referred noun does not have to precede the subsentence directly. However, I find this a bad use of the language and think it's unnatural for spoken speech.

I suppose relational algebra would be informative to understand the problem better. One thing I remember from a first course is the limitation of one primary key per table. I like to liken this to the definite article. Hence, I find your first sentence is missing a definite article, but I don't know where to put it (there's so many options).


Regarding the first of the two sentences you quoted: While the two conjunctions do make it hard to parse, I don't see why there should be a definitive article in it.

I'll reword it for you: While we're listening to a German sentence, the choice of the next noun can be restricted by gendered articles and adjectives.


In some cases, the gender serves merely for contrast, sometimes historically grown, and it would be a shame to loose that.

E.g. female sun, male moon, female night, male day. Those examples might stem from codified personifications (e.g. nox).

In many cases though, I suppose it's a case of vowel harmony. If there was only one article, it would be "d'" with a semi-vowel ablaut, schwa, as in English "the". I don't know exactly why, I just recently heard of vowel harmony (ie. part of the native speaker's feeling for what sounds right) existing.

Gender has a minor advantage in some situations, I guess. I'm not sure whether the free word order is an advantage, but it helps for parsing this one: "Der Frau gibt der Briefträger einen Brief." - (to) the women gives the postman a letter.

Conversely, I find totally odd the neuter pronoun used on dogs. However, I do call all dogs "he" no matter the genitals, so that's no better, also because I don't exactly look for it. Whereas cat's are a priori female. It's not OK to neutralize (pun intended) a human person in any case.

Defaulting to "es", "they" or any alternative is still a crutch, as long as the inflection remains. And that has probably some reason to be there. Indo European had a two case gender system distinguishing animate and inanimate, female being a later innovation. In fact they had two words for fire, whence the ignition (animate) and the fire (inanimate). I do not know much about the case system, but taking Latin for example, that clearly got out of hand.

So, "die Flasche" (bottle) holds spirit. "der Wind" (wind) acts. But "das Wasser" just sits there waiting to be consumed. If it flows, it's "der Fluss". The sea is weird, "das Meer" is neuter, perhaps because as diminutive (Märchen, nightmare ...?), but "die See" is an abstractum (die Nordsee, rarely Nordmeer), whereas "der See" is any determined lake. Der Teich (pond), die Leiche (corpse), das Reich (realm), der Streich (trick) seem to resist the argument for vowel harmony, but if Streich and trick are from frankish or French, estrich, estriquer or sumsuch, then that's a different matter, same if Leiche was Lyke or so ... I don't know much about that.


There are definitely languages which are a lot easier to learn than English or German, like Malay. It has a simple grammar and no intonations, so you should be able to speak properly after 2 months full time study. I'm pretty sure you can learn most of the language within a year, faster if you are exposed to other native speakers.


Most of the effort spent in learning a language isn't mastery of pronunciation or grammar, but memorization of vocabulary.


English is not easy:

Dearest creature in creation, Study English pronunciation. I will teach you in my verse Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse. I will keep you, Suzy, busy, Make your head with heat grow dizzy. Tear in eye, your dress will tear. So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard, Dies and diet, lord and word, Sword and sward, retain and Britain. (Mind the latter, how it’s written.) Now I surely will not plague you With such words as plaque and ague. But be careful how you speak: Say break and steak, but bleak and streak; Cloven, oven, how and low, Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery, Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore, Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles, Exiles, similes, and reviles; Scholar, vicar, and cigar, Solar, mica, war and far; One, anemone, Balmoral, Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel; Gertrude, German, wind and mind, Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet, Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet. Blood and flood are not like food, Nor is mould like should and would. Viscous, viscount, load and broad, Toward, to forward, to reward. And your pronunciation’s OK When you correctly say croquet, Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve, Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour And enamour rhyme with hammer. River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb, Doll and roll and some and home. Stranger does not rhyme with anger, Neither does devour with clangour. Souls but foul, haunt but aunt, Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant, Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger, And then singer, ginger, linger, Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge, Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very, Nor does fury sound like bury. Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth. Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath. Though the differences seem little, We say actual but victual. Refer does not rhyme with deafer. Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer. Mint, pint, senate and sedate; Dull, bull, and George ate late. Scenic, Arabic, Pacific, Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven, Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven. We say hallowed, but allowed, People, leopard, towed, but vowed. Mark the differences, moreover, Between mover, cover, clover; Leeches, breeches, wise, precise, Chalice, but police and lice; Camel, constable, unstable, Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal, Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal. Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair, Senator, spectator, mayor. Tour, but our and succour, four. Gas, alas, and Arkansas. Sea, idea, Korea, area, Psalm, Maria, but malaria. Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean. Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian, Dandelion and battalion. Sally with ally, yea, ye, Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key. Say aver, but ever, fever, Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver. Heron, granary, canary. Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface. Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass. Large, but target, gin, give, verging, Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging. Ear, but earn and wear and tear Do not rhyme with here but ere. Seven is right, but so is even, Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen, Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk, Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation — think of Psyche! Is a paling stout and spikey? Won’t it make you lose your wits, Writing groats and saying grits? It’s a dark abyss or tunnel: Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale, Islington and Isle of Wight, Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough — Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough? Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!!!

(Apparently excerpted from The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité.)


People often confuse the English language and the English spelling. The English language is actually really easy to learn because it has a very simple grammar.

The English spelling is a different problem set because it often reflects how a word was pronounced centuries ago. It has no connection to the current pronunciation, so learning the correct spelling of a word is basically like learning Chinese characters.


> People often confuse the English language and the English spelling.

The written language is a subset of the language, spelling is a subset of written language; so, English spelling is part of the English language, there is no confusion.


> Hiccough has the sound of cup

Ok, I had to google that, having never seen it spelled this way. Merriam-Webster agrees that the etymology of hiccup/hickup is imitative of the sound. Wiktionary says "hiccough" is a later spelling, folk-etymology.

Fun, but this one's not to blame on the English language :)


I can confer that German has Schluckauf (swallow-up). But if your hiccup sound like hiccup, not just hick, then you have a real problem. Schluckauf is only attested for the 18th ct. so it might well come from English. Anything labeled onomatopoetic is doubtful. It's almost always a cop out.


As a speaker of Kannada, a Dravidian language, grammatically, I find Indo European languages strange in general, with all kinds of rules, and all kinds of exceptions to those rules. Eg: verb conjugation and noun genders. I have dabbled with German and Spanish - I really like these two for some reason - and a bit of Russian. Of this family, Sanskrit seems simpler; not sure if that's because it was explicitly systematized (refactored) millennia back, and hence objectively so, or its just subjective since every Indian is made to learn it at a young age. I find Semitic languages, of which I know some Arabic, quite attractive. I love how concisely are ideas encoded in these languages because Dravidian languages are somewhat concise similarly, though not to that extent.


Even if you don't know a word German, it's Mark Twain, and therefore well worth a read. If you don't know German, the essay makes you want to learn German so that you, too, can suffer along with the author.


Also this bit from Connecticut Yankee

"She had exactly the German way; whatever was in her mind to be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."


True. German sticks auxillary verbs in the middle of a sentence and main verbs at the end. Knew a guy from Lufthansa who joked that sometimes he would attend lectures with orators delivering long sentences and sometimes wouldn't know what was being referenced until the end of a sentence when the main verb showed up two minutes later.


Which is why I've read that jokes - where the format is setup and then the twist - are hard to express in German :)


I’m not German but spend a lot of time with Germans who are more often than not fantastic fun. And quite “freigeistlich” I find.

This is an excellent German stand-up comedian who plies his trade in London: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=48gV9W9UZHk

A curious thing that I have noticed that when Germans speak and write English, they often don’t differentiate between 2 previously mentioned subjects or objects. For example:

Dave and Andy went to London with lunch and a book. He forgot it at the train station.

Is it something in the structure of the German language that means this confusion is created in translation? Ie we are left unclear as to whether it was Andy or Dave who forgot something and whether it was his lunch or his book.


Yes, sometimes the grammar of German will make obvious something that would be easy to lose in careless translation, but not always. Using an example:

Dave and Andy each went to London with a pencil and a book. He forgot it at the train station.

Dave und Andy sind mit jeweils einem Stift und einem Buch nach London gefahren. Er hat es im Bahnhof vergessen.

Here it is NOT clear who forgot (they are both male), but it is clear what was left behind, because 'es' refers to the book (neuter), otherwise a different article would have been used for masculine pencil.

In careless English translation one loses the distinction because English uses "it" for all inanimate objects.


Interesting. This discussion of such an anti-leverage point(?) of a language reminds me of Japanese, and not having plurals as first-class citizens :-)


And not just plurals. Juxtapose the relatively sophisticated time sense expressable in English verb forms with the Japanese imperfective and perfective verb forms. With the imperfective form and without further cues you're expected to telepathically intuit whether the referrent is present or future.


Thank you. Good explanation.


Don't know about your example, but Germans tend to pack more information into a sentence, particularly in the written form (as Mark Twain rightfully noticed). Actually, I find English somewhat clumsy to write technical documentation in. Using short sentences, I frequently end up in restating things and having to find alternative words and idioms to avoid repetition. Moreover, using relative clause in English isn't quite as powerful as in German. But probably it's just me not being an English native speaker.


What I like about English is that it naturally supports gender neutrality. For example: "the user should upload their photo, and then they should press enter", instead of "the user should upload his/her photo and then he/she should press enter".


This is just a very recent conditioning. Doesn't (yet?) work for all of us. I cringe whenever I encounter this strange use of plural they to designate a single individual. In fact, I consider the old convention of 'he' in certain context meaning 'he or she' far less a rape of linguistic integrity.


Singular 'they' is not that recent. It's first attested in the 14th century and has been a subject of linguistic peevishness since the 1800s. The idea that 'he' is preferable to 'they' for a person of unknown gender is actually one of those modern inventions like the prohibition of split infinitives.

Also, you should maybe consider an analogy less extreme than _sexual assault_ for people using grammatical constructs you don't prefer.


Okay, never knew. I shall have to look into that. Point the point stands, the useage does irk me, but probably more from its latter-day signal value than from any deepseated linguistic belief. I did sort of allow for that interpretatation with my paranthetical yet?.

As for the rape expression. Now that usage certainly has quite a history. I find it occasionally useful, and shall keep using it whenever it suits my fancy, currently heightened sensitivities notwithstanding.


English still has he / she, so it’s not fully gender neutral, it still has gendered constructs in its ‘runtime’. There are a few fully gender neutral languages, Turkish is one.


Chinese is interesting because the spoken form has no gender but the written form does (he/she/it are written 他/她/它 but all pronounced “tā”)


I recall reading somewhere that these separate written forms were devised fairly recently (like the 18th or 19th century), in order to accomodate translations of Western novels. Same with Japanese (彼/彼女). Sorry, I don't have a source for this at the moment.


Chinese of course has numerous dialects outside Mandarin. Do any dialects change tones when using that “tā” phoneme for a "he" or a "she" or an "it"?


I'm living in a Cantonese speaking area (Hong Kong) and my Mandarin teacher (from Taiwan) claims that the multiple written forms of the third-person singular pronoun were introduced a generation or two ago in order to be able to more faithfully translate foreign works into Chinese. She says that many people, particularly the older generation, always use the older character, the one that now means "he".

As far as dialects that might have different tones to distinguish he/she/it, it's possible. It's also possible for a dialect of Chinese to have wildly different pronunciation of those characters, maybe something like "ta" , "ki", "zu".

Chinese dialects differ by more than most foreigners expect. It goes far beyond "Texan arguing with a Brooklyn cabbie" or "Texan arguing with an Aussie" level of dialectal differences. Cantonese and Mandarin are less similar than Italian and Portuguese. Cantonese uses the same two characters for rooster as Mandarin uses (公雞 "gong ji"), but reverses the order (雞公 "gai kung"). "gong" and "kung" sound pretty similar, but "ji" and "gai" are totally different. (On a side note, the Thai word for chicken is also "gai".) Also, I need to be careful about mixing up the numbers between Cantonese and Mandarin... the Mandarin word for one differs only in tone from Cantonese word for two, and my Cantonese tones are terrible. (1 2 3 4 5 is "yi er san si wu" vs. "yat yi san sei ng".) I have a friend who (I have no idea why he was so crazily naive) is a native Cantonese speaker and thought he could just go to Shanghai and speak Cantonese with a Mandarin accent and be understood. He ended up speaking English his whole time there because Cantonese just sounded like gibberish to the Shanghainese and Mandarin speakers.


Gender distinctions in the Standard Chinese written forms 他 (he), 她 (she), 它 (it) are indeed a recent introduction. In Cantonese there's a single character for he, she, or it (佢, pronounced keúih). This is a different word entirely from Mandarin tā, not a different pronunciation of the same word like 雞 being pronounced jī in Mandarin or gāi in Cantonese.

Because, as you pointed out, there's no mutual intelligibility, Cantonese and Mandarin are considered by linguists to be separate languages.


Gender references generally disappear in the English plurals. So the above should read "Users should upload their photos". Then you can just restrict gender pronouns for reference to specifics.


That does not work when the plural is not appropriate. For example, you would have trouble saying: "the above commenter wrote about their experience", i.e. when talking about a specific person with unknown gender. I'm glad that English still allows this.


As I understand it, use of they/their is on the increase even for singular rather than plural specifically because it is gender neutral. The older alternatives often exclude women (by saying 'he') or require the writer to spell out 'he or she' or 's/he'.


The various forms of singular 'they' are not exactly well/broadly accepted in written English...


English has a lot of unwritten rules as well. Which sounds correct?

I have a large red ball.

I have a red large ball.

I imagine german has the same, and I wonder if it's one of those cases. For example, to a german speaker, it would be completely clear that Dave is the one who forgot the book because the first subject mentioned is always the relevant one, or something like that.


There actually are "rules" for adjective order in English: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adjective#Order

For example, size precedes color, hence "large red ball".


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTm1tJYr5_M

It's worth checking out all of his language videos if that sort of thing interests you :)


There are "rules" for that, even if they are just descriptive: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/abo...


I'm German but have been living in the US for 25 yrs and my verdict is that the German grammar is overly and unnecessarily complicated. The pronunciation, on the other hand, is sane, which cannot be said of English.


It's not English pronunciation that's wrong, it's the spelling.



What If English Were Phonetically Consistent?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8zWWp0akUU&t=6s


Heh, its honestly not that bad of a language, and has undergone two reforms (maybe 3? I forget) since this document was created.

The "awful" parts of German are in some ways its saving grace. Example: surfing is Wellenreiten, literally wave-riding or riding waves. This whole thing is all over German with compound words.

Its really no different conceptually from "the old blue car" in English, its just mashed together as a single compound word without spaces. You get used to it fast and then get to (maybe) impress your friends by belting out insanely long words in German.


Some of the compound words are really quite funny, too... two of my favorites, randomly encountered recently: gloves/mittens are "Handschuhe" (hand shoes), and a porcupine is "Stachelschwein" (spike/quill pig).

Very intuitive actually!


Porcupine is the same thing, just using latinate roots rather than native English/Germanic ones.


English does this a lot with borrowed words too, like orangutan coming from Malay orang (man) hutan (forest), so man of the forest.


That’s a nice example where English fully compounds the word while German and Dutch, languages where compounding is more usual, use a hyphen (“Orang-oetan”, respectively “Orang-Utan”).

Looking at the various translations on Wikipedia (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orang-Utans#/languages), that could be because they took the word from different languages. For example, Bahasa Indonesia has “Orang Utan”, Bahasa Banjar “Uranghutan”


A lot of stuff is like this. If you replace Geology with Rocklore then it sounds kind of weird but it's basically what it was in Greek.


See also: this old essay about "Uncleftish Beholding" (Atomic Theory) - English without the non-Germanic words.

https://groups.google.com/forum/message/raw?msg=alt.language...


Rocklore would be lithology or petrology.

Geology is the study of the earth.


Ditto for Hippopotamus (Greek base for River Horse) and the German Nilpferd - Nile Horse.


Ah, yes, that makes perfect sense! So many word roots hiding in plain sight...


Then there are also slightly funny ones

-plane / Flugzeug / flight stuff

-lighter / Feuerzeug / fire stuff

-light bulb / Glühbirne / Glow pear

-eyeball / Augapfel / Eye apple


The 'Zeug' ending you're referencing doesn't just mean stuff - it comes from the verb zeugen (to procreate/beget).

So Flugzeug is really flight begetter (or perhaps flight creator)

And Feuerzeug is fire creator.

Much more sensible!


Yeah, English is funny language.

- plane - flat surface

- lighter - a lamp

- light bulb - empty bulb

- eyeball - a sport

(Non-native speaker).


Nice lateral thinking!


Yes, yes, but to my ear, "zeug" feels closer to "thing" than "stuff" in these examples. That's no less funny.


-zeug indicates that it is a set of things. Historically the fire stuff has been a set of tools to make fire. Zaumzeug was the set of gear you put on a horse etc.


Texas German has a less funny word for airplane: Luftschiff.


I think that would be an airship - zeppelin.


A Luftschiff is not an airplane, it's a Zeppelin because it floats in the air like a ship in the water.


Maybe it is in Texas German


To me, as a Germany, it felt rather strange that in English it isn't the same.

Like, why would you add a space between two words that are meant to be read together?


Oh cmon, it’s not as though German doesn’t have adjectives. Maybe we in English just use them more freely because for us they’re not a total pain in the rear to properly decline :)


If they get used together enough, they do become a compound word. Only two-word compounds though, English doesn't really do the three-word/four-word/N-word compounds like German does.


Especially when programming it's quite natural to put words together as variables can't have spaces in their names. No need for any underscores (under_scores?) as some styleguides propose, as long as it's a single noun just treat it as a single word.


One answer is parsing ambiguities.

https://german.stackexchange.com/questions/1705/w%c3%b6rter-...

(replaced with better link)

English has tons of ambiguities, including many possible parsing ambiguities of this kind, but written English would have many more ambiguities without a delimiter between words.


Separating parts of compounds by spaces prevents ambiguous decompositions, but allows ambiguous groupings. (Like "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.", which would be less confusing if "fruit flies" were written "fruitflies" or at least "fruit-flies".)

I'm not sure which is worse.


I had the intuition that the spaces strictly decreased ambiguity, but your point makes me really unsure of this.

But written German already distinguishes nouns from verbs with capitalization; can the grouping problem be made worse by spaces in the absence of ambiguities about which part of speech a word is? (Obviously the German convention doesn't totally eliminate all such ambiguities, since "wie" 'like (preposition)' and "mögen" 'like (verb)' are both lower case, although "Fliegen" 'flies (insects) and "fliegen" 'flies (verb)' can be distinguished sufficiently to remove the specific kind of ambiguity present in this particular sentence even if "wie" and "mögen" were homonyms.)

(corrected thanks to commenter below!)


mögen = to like

Magen = stomach


The hyphen seems like a very reasonable compromise, at the very least it tells you the space was intentionally omitted and it should be read together as a compound.


Yeah, hyphen seems best. Still wouldn’t solve cases where you need to embed one compound inside another, but otherwise it is good. Maybe languages should just have parantheses though to explicitly indicate the parse tree.


The good news is we are designing languages for humans, not computers, so we can make a big mess of it and still get the message most of the time. If we were designing for computers, we would certainly prefer more data to interpret the intent.


It makes for a different intended, pun, kind of?


Eh, it's not anything like it. German is very different from English, especially in the way you position the verbs.

It's a rather silly example, with one word. Following that logic, French would be a lot easier for anything English speaking person, with all their words that are 90% equivalent to their English counterparts


The hardest part of reading (not-simplified) German for me, as a sadly monolingual English speaker, is the word order. At times you have to sort of keep a mental stack of all the dative / accusative case nouns as you read, and then as you encounter the verbs at end of the sentence you kinda pop the nouns off that stack and piece together what's happening.

Reading Spanish has no such difficulty for me. The word order is much more like in English.


Yup. SOV word order is natural conceptually and generally has less ambiguity in parsing, but the working memory requirements are really high. This is why simplified modern languages tend to shift to SVO word order. It is similar to how math operators are written in infix which makes equations easier to read than if we had written then as postfix.


Those aren't the awful parts though, really.

I would do away with the 'formal' form of addressing people (Germans have two ways of saying 'you') which serves no real purpose.

I'd also get rid of gendered articles and finally simplify word endings (adjective endings can go for a start)!


Many people feel that having a formal way to address people is useful. It allows you to express very quickly how close you want to have them to you. A stranger you don't like? Formal. A stranger who seems to be your own age and from similar circumstances? Try using non-formal and see how they react. The most beautiful form of this is 'Sie Arschloch', I think. At the same time kind of polite and a rude insult.


> Many people feel that the having a formal way to address people is useful. It allows you to express very quickly how close you want to have them to you. A stranger you don't like? Formal. A stranger who seems to be your own age and from similar circumstances? Try using non-formal and see how they react.

Or when a couple came apart (in conflict). He started to formulate the letters/emails in a overly formal addressing - she was really furious about that, because this sent a clear message to her.


My native language has that distinction and I have never found it useful - it's nuisance at best. I'm thankful it's something I don't have to think about when speaking in English.


And two more for plural "you" since (ihr and overloaded Sie).

I like having a second person plural. I sometimes say "you guys" (although this is becoming less acceptable) or "you all" since we don't have one.


btw: "Surfen" is a lot more common than "Wellenreiten" in Germany.


I always have a little internal chuckle when I hear "gedownloadet". I realize that English does the same thing (uses English rules for pluralization/verb modifiers for foreign loanwords), but for some reason it just sounds really funny to me.


Yes, just ask any of the friendly and very patient surfers waiting their turn for the standing waves in Munich's Eisbach.


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