This has become even more reinforced as I've helped my children learn how to read English. Trying to explain to a child why a certain word is pronounced the way it is, even though it looks nothing like how we are pronouncing it, usually falls back to "that's just the way it is" unless I want to try explaining to them the niceties of Old French/Latin, Old English, Old Germanic, the great vowel shift, etc. Eh, that's just the way it's pronounced.
There are so many people who already speak Spanish and it is such a nice sane language that I think it is a real shame that it did not become the universal language.
I'm told that some of the advanced forms of verbs (like the subjunctive) are real trouble for non native speakers, although at least learning that isn't a fruitless task.
I know those are exceptions. The thing is... there are a lot of exceptions.
English’s main issue is spelling, but every language has its quirks.
There is no reason for two different words for the depending on how the noun ends, but since the rule is easy and there are only two I'm fine with it - it is exceptions and complex rules I'm against, not rules.
My 5 year old is learning to read and write in English; his spoken English is quite good (his pronunciation is way better than mine of course), but I'm at loss of how to teach him properly to map the written to the spoken word (and the reverse mapping is even harder); he seems to be learning fine anyway.
What's your definition of "sane" here?
>The problem is that they are two unrelated languages
Sounds like Chinese/Mandarin to me. :)
I do not understand what do you mean here. In spoken English, the only way to know about one word is by having heard it, so you know how it is pronounced. Illiterate people can speak perfectly correct English.
Then you move, and local people (in UK, say) pronounce the word differently (eg bath, heard).
Re: 'That's just how it's pronounced' --> In your regional dialect of the language, which can probably still be understood, with >99% certainty, by anyone else in the world who is also a native speaker, and probably by almost anyone who speak English as a second language...
If you want a phonetic English, you'd need an alphabet with about 40 characters in it. And for what gain exactly...?
And suddenly dialects are writing the same word completely differently, because the sounds are different..
To that end dialects need to die. They harm communication. Even when they are close enough to each other for understanding they slow down the speed of communication.
I don't care if we need 100 characters in the language, one sound per character would greatly aid English. Enough of this to/too/two nonsense: one pronunciation, one and only one spelling. (if we could reform word definitions to get rid of those issues so much the better)
I want an ELI5 about this, please. I'm sure there's room for swords, dragons and secret treasure maps somewhere in that story. :)
Of course, you know of odd plurals such as house -> houses vs mouse -> mice.
why is womb pronounced "woom" and tomb "toom" but bomb is not "boom"?
gh: tough and laugh (as f) vs thigh (silent) vs ghost (hard g)
Why is tear (crying) pronounced the same as tier (levels) but spelled differently when tear (ripping) spelled the same as tear (crying) but pronounced differently?
The list of weird English oddities just go on and on. English is just plain weird.
English is not my first language, but I have come to deeply appreciate the idea of a common language that people share so that we can all work together regardless of where in the world we are.
Knowing more than one language adds lots of value, because each language offers different modes of thinking and conception. But also having one common language adds an insane amount of value, because now you can both win by having the capability to exchange ideas with people that otherwise might not happen and the opportunity cost is unpredictable.
(Example - German and Japanese teams use a universal language as a common language to work together on a groundbreaking energy project. That collaboration might not have otherwise happened due to language barriers. But if both parties learn a "Universal language" as a collaborative base, we can all gain advantage from that product of that win-win scenario. )
There's a secondary thread about native speakers being useless at adjusting their language to simplified English when talking to people for whom it is a second language. IME, that's something most people only learn to do when they learn a second language themselves.
Its not the end-all that English is that language, but I think its fair to say that anywhere in the world atm English might be the closest to a "universal language".
I for one would rather stick to English, until a better alternative "proves" itself in the "marketplace of ideas".
As for the main argument about the phonetics, I think most languages have this problem, for instance in Germany every region has its own nuance and dialect, but the common one is "High German".
Same thing in English, and I would argue (even as an American) that our common version is "RP English or BBC English". If you can speak in this dialect, not only will (almost) everyone understand you, but speaking it also comes with a hint of "Respect", as its not so easy/common to do.
Is it not possible to consider that part of the English languages perceived disadvantages as a universal language could be also perceived as an indirect advantage? In that learning its grammar and structure is fairly easy (Barrier to entry is low), but perfecting the nuances of its depth in precision and pronunciation is fairly difficult.
The most reasonable scenario change at the moment would be a world dominated by China and then Mandarin becoming the new lingua franca. I wouldn’t bet on either of these events, but it seems plausible.
I love the variation that allows a sense of place in a "common" language. I can just know where the character in a novel is from by their idioms: Is it "couldn't care less" or "could care less", "pavement" or "sidewalk", color or colour etc? It only fails when the author gets it wrong. It's disappointing that regional accents have homogenised somewhat from entirely national TV programming in a country that must have 50 regional terms for a bread roll.
So long as we can understand each other, I delight hearing the more musical cadence of English from some non-native speakers, or the idioms of my Indian, Geordie, Scouse or Scots friends (OK, I confess it took me a little while to tune-in to full on "Weegie").
This is so controversial that some regions have propaganda music videos about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O98qd7-dAaU
I'm a native English speaker, even though picking a different language would be worse for me I still agree English is a bad choice. Maybe if we reform our spelling we could improve - maybe.
Currently Spanish is the second most spoken language, after Chinese. But English is still first second laguage for most people.
And there are, what, ~16 verb tenses, ~8 of which are compound (ancillary verb+participle: easy to learn) and several are very rare in common discourse.
Personally,if I had to pick a universal language based on how easy it is to learn, I'd definitely pick Spanish!
In English it's mostly done with mandatory pronouns and ancillary verbs (have, should, will) and only present tense is different for third person, everything else is just the same. Of course the pronuntiation and the phrasal verbs ruin the party.
You must be very proficient already, so you don't realize how many irregular verbs there are. I won (ex aequo) a competition at school and it was very hard. Ser (to be) is specially pathological, stealing from ir (to go) half its conjugation, but hardly the only common irregular verb: have, go, say, walk, want, put, know...
Use at low power only.
Therefore the obvious solution would be to construct a language with the properties we desire. The difficulty would be in keeping it from evolving on its own and just becoming as complicated as the rest of them.
I think you're making an assumption that there is some central authority that has the power to make this selection on behalf of everyone.
I think the reality is that each person is making language learning choices based on their own utility. It's a network effect situation where everyone wants to learn the most popular language. English is ahead for historical reasons but that is enough.
We don't select a common language. English is the common language because of many historical reasons.
It seems to me that antirez strongly agrees with that. He mostly has issues with English as a verbal communication medium.
I'm at the point that I can have a technical conversation with all my colleagues without issues, but when moving to more mundane subjects, I have difficulties following the conversation. As many, I have learned most of my English vocabulary by reading (I'm at the point that I can read a book written in English as well as an Italian book, and I vastly prefer to read in the original language when I can), but that means that I do not know the pronunciation of most of the words.
Also when going out of London (where 50% of the population is not native and the natives, especially in professional environments, are used to deal with us non natives), I really have an hard time understanding the various accents.
In that regard, there isn't a single European non-native English experience but the non-native experience is split between dubbing culture and subtitling culture.
(Standard) American English and RP are easily to understand. Some other standardized styles/accents in other countries are easy to understand as well.
But regionalized accents are far harder to understand.
In effect, non-natives are good at communicating in English with other non-natives.
Whereas native English speakers occasionally mix in "difficult" words and grammar, thus making themselves less understood in the company of non-natives. Additionally, while most American accents are easy, many British accents range difficult to really difficult to understand, even for someone who's spent decades in international teams speaking English, but mostly with non-British.
I remember one workshop, listening to talks by Chinese, Finnish, German, Indian, Russian, Swedish etc. speakers. The one native British presenter was the only one with whose talk I really had to concentrate, and maybe I missed some of the details.
This can put native speakers (especially those with difficult British accents) to a disadvantage in international teams. People will not understand everything they say, but will probably be too shy to ask for clarification.
I guess it wouldn't annoy me so much if my job and social circles (many of them involving foreigners who don't speak my native language) didn't require me to consume so much of it. There's so much subtlety, nuance and "color" that's lost in a conversation where both participants aren't speaking in their native language. Even if both are relatively good at it.
Then there's the issue of native English speakers who seem to be only very dimly aware that other languages exist and think that everyone speaking their language fluently is a given. (This shapes a lot of current politics, such as language policing or the whole 'pronouns' issue - I'm mentioning it because antirez was the center of a controversy for not changing terminology that's loaded for Americans only). And many native speakers think the less of people who struggle with English, even unconsciously.
And then there are languages entirely without any concept of grammatical gender or gendered pronouns, such as my native Hungarian. So the controversy doesn't carry over easily to Hungary, at least not in the same form. Of course someone may explicitly use words like "woman" or "boy" in the unpreferred way, but you don't have spend extra effort to be neutral/ambiguous. This also makes translation quite difficult, when a writer relies a lot on he/she to mark who is speaking in a conversation between a man and a woman. In such cases the translator has to sprinkle in the names to better keep track of who's speaking.
This can affect you even when you're aware of it. I've spent a lot of time with non-native speakers and I've been the non-native speaker in other scenarios. I've gotten close with a non-native English speaker who recently moved to the states for engineering. I forgot how the language barrier can unconsciously affect me. I knew he was at least smart enough to be an engineer but just this past weekend he told me more about his life and career. He was modest but blunt and straightforward about his accomplishments, in my own words I'll say it's prolific. It was a good reminder for me. Unfortunately most of the exposure I have these days with people in the category of "struggling to communicate" are children. What a terrible mistake it is to subconsciously associate non-native speakers with the intelligence of a child.
Then we hit 'night'. Ni-eye-ga..."no, no", I say, "gh" in the middle of a word isn't pronounced. Luckily the book didn't have "though" and "thought" in it.
English pronunciation and spelling are basically no more related than second cousins at this point. I can't imagine having to learn to pronounce it simply by reading it.
That's only the German bit of the language, the French bit is subtly different, and then the Greek bits work just a little bit differently as well.
Then there are native American loan words, usually as place names, that weren't regularized (or maybe they were but aren't anymore?). Is there another word with a gh pronounced like the first pair in Youghiogheny (j ɒ k ə ˈ ɡ eɪ n i)(yock-a-gain-y)? I think it's probably via Scottish? But I'm not sure.
However, it’s a mainstream idea that artificial languages are always going to fail because geographically separated people will create dialects and “ruin” the language. It’s a bummer, because Esperanto is really useful (and there might be other artificial languages even better!).
Would that I had learned this earlier. Native english speaker, but I grew up reading voraciously from quite a young age. This meant that though I got a big vocabulary and context as to the appropriate uses of a word, I would have difficulty pronouncing them and often come up with something completely wrong. I'd go and look words up in the dictionary, as taught by my parents. Unfortunately, I was not aware of the meaning of the IPA symbols, let alone how to decipher them; they looked to me as foreign script might to another. It was rather amusing for friends and family, but rather humiliating for me.
>> Italian is phonetically one of the simplest languages on the earth
The fundamental importance of the double-consonant and its pronunciation is very difficult for non-italians. Same goes for V and B sound differences.
I agree that English for an Italian is a nightmare. Did you know that Italians can't pronounce the english 'H'? Like in 'hate' they will pronounce 'ate'? That's for starters. You can guess some text was written by an italian if you find something like "that task is an hassle".
Spanish is as difficult as Italian, but it has more rules that are useful when reading/writing (Italians: if I don't know how Modena and Milano are pronounced, where do I put the accent?), but spanish has also a lot of exceptions that are difficult to learn and remember.
English is perfect for tech stuff. Short, concise and clear.
As a Spaniard who's also fluent in French, I agree that it's the best of technical lingua franca of the three. Like the article says, the most convoluted part about English is its pronunciation ("lead" as in leading a team vs. "lead" as in the metal - WTF?), but otherwise I'd say it's easier than Romance languages.
A very interesting conversation has ensued in the comments of the article, where some Esperanto speakers claim that it would be the best lingua franca. I don't have trouble believing that a well-engineered artificial language might solve many of the problems that natural languages present, but in the latter category perhaps English is one of the least difficult.
What infuriates me the most of the english language is phrasal verbs. There is no rule and no context-parsing, and can mean completely different things.
I don't speak Italian (except the usual hello/goodbye/thank you), but I can read a sentence to a native (say from a travel guide) so that they'll understand it. Try doing that with English.
There's enough commonality that you can follow things, but it's pretty hard to understand the specifics if you don't speak the same language.
I've been using Google Translate to bridge the gap and while the translations miss all kinds of things, it's close enough that I can understand the important things and am able to even participate, though not at the level I can in English.
There are people saying that there are essentially multiple Internets, split by language barriers. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that argument, other than it kinda made sense to me, but my personal experience through my hobby definitely made me realize it's most definitely true.
I always wonder what it is that prevents people from switching to a more standard version of the language, is it not obvious the message is getting lost? is it some sort of pride in the accent? lack exposure to foreigners?. I've experienced this many times in Spanish, English and German.
Sometimes, there is no standard version of the language. With British English for example you used to have Received Pronunciation (RP) but nowadays it's not that widely used anymore. It's also associated with social class. In some ways it's always been an artificial accent only people from a certain background used consistently.
These days, even BBC TV presenters often use their respective regional accents (Still optimised for clarity and comprehension, though. You won't hear a thick Glaswegian accent from BBC newsreaders).
Arguably, there's "Modern RP" but in many cases that's just a South-East England / general London (i.e. non-Cockney, non-MLE) accent.
Anyway, you probably need to have some linguistic awareness to be able to recognise and make these distinctions for your own speech and change your register accordingly.
And after years of conditioning to sound "right", it's very hard to unlearn all that and sound "wrong", in order to perform that accommodation.
There has never been an enjoyable conversation with the German uncle.
on edit: damn these English typos!
* Articles (Der, Die, Das) which you need to know correctly in order to form a correct sentence with nominative, akkusative and dative objects.
* Plural of the nouns (maybe after a while you would get a feeling of it, but not as easy as adding an 's' to the end of the noun like English)
You just have to remember a lot of stuff :-(
Many languages have undergone spelling reforms, e.g. Irish Gaelic in 1948, (if I remember correctly).
English is now a World Language rather than a property of the English, and so this no longer appears possible.
But that can be learnt. Studying phonetics, despite its theoretical aspect, is essential to know how to pronounce but, also (and most importantly), what sounds to expect. Only when you try and make them do you realize what you should be "expecting to hear". Otherwise, sound becomes simple noise.
Accents are, of course, an aggravant and a difficulty: for this you need exposure.
The international version of English is shaping up even without a governing body. And I do expect children in traditionally English-speaking countries having to take classes in it to make themselves understood. It would be nice if some warts could be removed in the process. But no authority with enough pull exists. We'd need a WEO setting standards and nobody wants that badly enough.
— James Nicoll
And prononcuation of English is, of course, a special hell - but one that you very quickly get over with, once you start systematically watch movies and tv series with subtitles instead of dubs. And what other language has as much movies, tv series, music and videogames other than English, through the whole 20th century and up to this point?
I'd echo a lot of the sentiment antirez has; it's harder for me to be my extroverted self here, and reading complicated documents is hard enough that I often ask someone else to translate them to English. But I expect those issues to go away after a while of living here.
I think that the key to solving these language problems is exposure. Many Scandinavians that I've met attribute their countries' strong grasp of English to not having dubbed movies--they have to watch it in English with subtitles.
Is this a fact? I wasn't under the impression that there is a general problem of communication among UK/US/Canada/Australia people. Maybe with some of the more extreme Scottish accents? Or former African colonies with very thick accents?
In any case, the comparison with Italian is moot if the issue is with foreigners learning the language. It's great if all Italians understand each other's accents, but this doesn't say anything about whether learners of "school Italian" understand Sicilians. Or whether foreign learners of the "school dialect" of German would understand my Eastern Austrian.
Which makes it all the more surprising that Italians in general were hesitant to speak English, with the notable exception of my 74 year old neighbour, who picked up some phrases specifically to communicate with me.
Some of my friends back in Poland often express frustration with the fact that they had to learn English, since they don't see it as something strictly related to their work.
>My long term hope is that soon or later different accents could converge into a standard easy-to-understand one that the English speaking population could use as a lingua franca.
I suspect the opposite has happened and will happen.
When populations become fluent in English they decide that their accent is a valid way of speaking English, so stay hard to understand to other populations.
I think it happens to the extent that people will sometimes tailor/'round off' their accent and vocabulary depending on context.
But people are attached to their accents - it's part of who they are - and having to put on somebody else's accent in certain contexts is not something that most people would be okay with. The idea that, for example, I would affect a, say, American accent if I was making YT videos, is completely crazy. Let alone in everyday life.
Discussed at the time: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6314628