The Unsuitability of English


Utrecht, Holland— My mission in this pleasant central Holland town: giving a keynote address at the 25th anniversary conference of Sense (originally the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors, now a general professional organization of anglophone editors in the Netherlands) in the palatial surroundings of the beautifully restored 16th-century Paushuize (pictured). Knowing that the editors and translators who belong to Sense are much concerned with the international character of English, I chose to speak about the global role that the English language has taken on. And I stressed that English doesn’t deserve its role, linguistically: In many ways it is a terrible choice for a world language.

For example, to mention an obvious demerit, it has probably the worst alphabetical writing system in the world. The Chinese and Japanese orthographies are much worse for the learner, of course, but they aren’t alphabetic. Chinese uses a logographic system, with symbols corresponding roughly to concepts, and not at all to vowels or consonants. Japanese uses two different syllabaries (one symbol per syllable) plus a selection of about a thousand Chinese characters sprinkled in amongst them just to ensure that learning will be time-consumptive and difficult. Thai and Cambodian also have very difficult, complicated, and opaque writing systems, but those are abugidas rather than alphabets. What an alphabet does is spell out the sounds of words at the level of consonants and vowels. And I don’t think you can find a language that does it worse or more perversely than English does.

Jokes about this, often attributed to G.B. Shaw, go back to the 1800s (see Ben Zimmer’s Language Log post). Can you say ghotimboungyrrh? Easy: gh as in tough, o as in women, ti as in station, mb as in comb, oung as in younger, and yrrh as in myrrh. The usual spelling is fishmonger. (Yes, it’s somewhat unfair, because gh for [f] is always syllable-final, and ti for [ʃ] is always medial; but hey, you get the point.)

English phonology is a horror show too, as judged by speakers of more typical languages. Where Spanish has just five vowels (si, se, la, lo, tu), nicely spaced out through the acoustic spectrum, the English vowel system is a nightmare of more than 20 distinct vowels, diphthongs, and triphthongs. In my original native dialect of southern British (the one I spoke before I emigrated to the U.S.A. and began to Americanize), it seems to be 25, because the red parts of the following words all represent clearly distinct vowel sounds:

fair hear boar hour cure
choice cloth comma cute dress
face foot fleece goat goose
happy kit mad mouth nurse
palm price strut thought trap

The fine distinctions of English vocalism are beyond many adult learners’ phonetic abilities, which is why some foreigners pronounce modal and model the same, or bird and bed the same, or seat and sit the same, and so on.

English also has consonant clusters that would seem grotesque to the speakers of some other languages: Whereas in Hawaiian no consonant is ever followed by another consonant, the underlined part of Our strengths spring from our unity  has between 5 and 7 in a row (various renditions occur, but a careful one has [ŋkθsspr]).

There are plenty of other undesirable features as well. One is the absurdly large multilayer vocabulary. For many concepts there are four different roots: one Anglo-Saxon, one Norman French, one Latin, and one Greek. You may think of this as a rich lexical treasure-house that we should prize; some might call it a needless and memory-burdening overstock of alternatives, reminiscent of the cereal aisle of a modern supermarket. The English lexicon could have been far less profligate, given a little forethought. But of course languages never get forethought; they just grow.

Even before we get to grammar, then, and the roughly 200 irregular verbs of our misbegotten language (Swahili, by comparison, has none), English reveals itself as a very poor choice for a global language.

My talk to the Sense conference reviewed a few points of this sort, and then went on to discuss how English managed to attain its astonishing (and increasing) global status despite its manifest unsuitability. It’s an interesting tale that I may decide to tell here. Perhaps next week.

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