Thursday, October 06, 2011

English Fun Facts

A psycholinguist wrote a book on language, and this was funny:

Mr. Pennebaker shows, for example, that someone is more likely to be lying if he says "Let me state clearly and without qualification" and more likely to be giving an opinion if he says: "There is absolutely no doubt that . . . ."
Another linguist comments on English, and argues
The advantage of the huge vocabulary of English, of course, is that it makes English a superb literary and scientific language, able to express fine and precise shades of meaning far more easily than other tongues. This is no small part of the reason English has become the near universal language of science. It also makes English more efficient. The English version of a lengthy text is always substantially shorter than versions in other languages.
English's verbs are simpler than, say, French and German, and nouns don't have gender. English isn't perfect, but it could be worse.


B. A. said...

"… to express fine and precise shades of meaning far more easily than other tongues"

I have hear this of about five languages so far :) all coming from people speaking of their mother tongues, and all with limited proficiency in foreign languages.

vonjd said...

So you are saying that the fact that first Latin, then German and now English are the science languages is based on linguistic reasons? Isn't this a little bit naive?

I think it has more to do with the scientific infrastructure and the number of scientists at that time.

My old English teacher from Cambridge University was completely bilingual (English and German) and always used to tell us that because of the better possibilities of referring to different parts of the sentence due to the different cases in German there are texts that are almost untranslatable (German -> English). The complexity gets lost in the process (lost in translation ;-)

Mercury said...

Gee whiz...what should we make of someone who constantly deploys phrases like "Make no mistake..." and "Let me be perfectly clear..." ??

JWO said...

I'm sure that he is right about that. In this context "I'm sure" actually means that I am not sure. If i was sure I would just say "He is right about that".

Blixa said...

Your second author is suffering from the common belief that the thing they're born with is the best in the world regardless of reality.

English has plenty of quirks and difficulties of its own that more than compensate for other languages'. As a lingua frinca, it's OK, but probably not much better than average, and surely below average for science: you can find lot of qualities to English but precision and ease of expression in formal matters is not one of them.

The main thing it has going for it is a deceptive learning curve: easy to get to the level where you can order a burger or a prostitute, but hard to master fully. It's the Gillette pricing model, not always good for the customer in the long term.

In any case whatever technical advantages a language has, ultimately it gets adopted as a lingua franca as collateral damage of political and economic dominance. English is where it is because of the dominance British and then American empires in the past couple of centuries. If the dominant power of the twentieth century had been speaking an impossibly tricky language, we'd all be speaking it nonetheless.

B. A. said...

I am with you, Blixa. On the side, I think the complexity of the language follows the complexity of the culture of the society that uses it. Grammar, spelling and pronunciation are just what a beginner studying a foreign language perceives as "complexity", and looks like our guy never got passed that stage. Language is ultimately a tool built to serve the needs of the users, and those needs are social and cultural. Saying that English is the language most able of all to express precise shades of meaning is equivalent to saying the same about the culture of native speakers of English as compared to the rest of the world. The guy doesn't seem to realize that a lot of the communication between people is culture specific. Try to translate several levels of politeness from Japanese to English in a way that the difference between them is still apparent in the translation. It just can't be done because the cultural equivalent is missing.

Anonymous #5 said...

Barack Obama, characterized at times in the press as "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun," in fact uses it least of all presidents since before Truman.

No far-reaching insights into strong priors and motivated reasoning from this?

Anonymous said...

The authors are right about the _efficiency_ of use, though. Compared to the Latin languages, English allows one to say the exact same thing with much fewer words.