5 Ways You Didn't Realize the English Language Is Defective

English has become the unofficial world language, which is a pity because so many things about it don't make sense. I used to be an English teacher until I served four years in Guantanamo Bay for using "there's" with a plural noun. But before that stint of "career correction," I discovered a lot of stuff that we English-speakers can learn from our other-languaged brethren -- or as my warden called them: "enemies." For example, other languages can teach us how to handle problems like ...

#5. We Have No Standard Way of Answering Negative Questions

Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images

You're sitting in English-land, watching your English-speaking friend take a timid bite of a pie you baked for her because you're really proud of her English skills. "Don't you like pie?" you ask, noting that her eyes have never left your curled fist. "No," she replies. You start to sweat, because the pie is poison. But also because you're not sure you understand her response. Does your friend mean "No, I don't like your pie," or "No, I object to your assumption that I hate pie"? You have no idea if your plans to reward her with the sweet mortal release of murder pie will succeed, unless your friend chooses to elaborate. This is because negative questions in English are a black labyrinth of uncertainty, even for native speakers.

So how can this misunderstanding be fixed? Well, some languages just set down firm rules about the way to respond. In Japanese and Chinese, a negative question is always answered according to whether you're agreeing with the person who asked it. So if you hate kittens and someone asks, "Don't you want any more kittens?" your answer should be, "Yes, I don't want any more. Please stop throwing them at me." Other languages, like German and French, avoid confusion by actually inventing new answer-words that are used only to respond to negative questions. If someone asks, "Don't you want this stolen horse?" you answer with the normal word for "no" (which always means that you don't want the horse) or a special, unique word for "yes," which means that you do want it.

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Yeah, he's ripe. I'll take him. He'll make a wonderful horse salad."

How Other Languages Solve It:

In the past, English had a system similar to French and German. The word "yes" was mostly used to give a positive answer to negative questions, while "yea" was used for positive questions. But it's hard to say "yea" without feeling like you should be dressed in burlap and covered in pig shit, so clearly the solution is to invent a new word that answers a negative question positively. And since this is the Internet, I propose "crotchdick."

Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images
They're already one step ahead of me.

#4. Our Language Is Full of Confusing Science Words

Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty

What's the word for "something that relates to horses"? In a just and fair world, you'd expect it to be something like "horse-esque" or "horsetastic." But in our iniquitous English-speaking world, the word is "equine." This tendency pops up all over the place: Something that relates to whales is "cetacean"; something that relates to trees is "arboreal." It's like a magical secret wizard language, except without all the awesome ensuing fireballs.

This linguistic chaos came about because for much of our language's history, people thought that Germanic languages like English were for peasants. And they were kind of right: After the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century, the upper classes tended to speak French or Latin, while the people shoveling their poop spoke English. When the Enlightenment happened and people needed to invent new words to describe this new "science" thing, the English-haters chose to borrow from respectable classical languages like Latin and Greek, rather than working with the poop-shoveling language that they already had. The Germanic word "horse" was OK in everyday speech, but if you wanted to describe a horse in the science book you were writing in your poop-free office, you used a word derived from the Latin word for horse, "equus."

Digital Vision/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Please send help. I've been stolen. Yes, I talk -- just go get help!"

Today, English-speaking sick people must lie in hospital beds figuring out what their doctors mean when they say "coronary angioplasty," and "phalloplasty," and it's all because random dudes in the past were too fancy to let us call it "heart-artery widening" and "penis embiggening."

How Other Languages Solve It:

English-speakers might accept this scientific wizardry-language as being completely normal, but a lot of languages around the world have chosen the revolutionary tactic of using their own language for science words. In Mandarin Chinese, "horse" is "ma" and "equine" is still "ma." If you want to say "equine" in German, you usually just stick the word for "horses" (Pferde) in front of the noun you're talking about. Which is why you find that word in so many German porn titles.

So why hasn't anyone tried to fix this historical form of anti-English-language racism? Well, they have: It's known as the Anglish movement, and since the 19th century it has tried to build a form of English that can discuss science or technology without relying on Latin or Greek roots. The result has been a flowering of fake science texts that sound like they were written by Vikings:

Via Google Groups
Never so much has physics made us want to raid the northern coast of Ireland.

#3. We Have No Singular Gender-Neutral Pronoun

BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images

English lacks a gender-neutral word that refers to a single person, and this causes no end of problems for writers and college students everywhere. If you say "every person should hunt and kill his own food" you're being sexist, because you're implying that female people don't exist, or that they're incapable of killing animals like normal human beings.

People sometimes get around this by using "they," as in "every person should hunt and kill their own food," but some grammar professionals consider this unacceptable, because "they" is technically a plural word and people who refer to themselves as "grammar professionals" are typically assholes.

Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images
Please save all slapping for after the review.

How Other Languages Solve It:

Not every language is so mired in a choice between sexism and awkward wording. Some languages, like Indonesian and Persian, don't distinguish between "he" and "she" at all, and others (like Chinese) began to use gender-specific versions only after they started translating a lot of European writing. The Swedish simply invented their own word that meant "he or she" and ran with it. People have tried this trick with English as well, inventing gender-neutral pronouns like "xe" and "zie," but none of them ever really caught on, probably because most English-speakers don't like sounding like they're in a cyberpunk novel from 1988.

The irony is that this was actually solved as far back as the 14th century by using our now-incorrect "they" to mean "he or she." Chaucer and Shakespeare both used it, and it was only in the 18th century that a grammarian named Anne "Fuck Shakespeare" Fisher kicked off the anti-they trend and declared it improper.

Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images
Besides, what did he ever do for the writing world anyway? Dude was a hack.

Recommended For Your Pleasure

C. Coville

  • Rss

More by C. Coville:

See More
To turn on reply notifications, click here


The Cracked Podcast

Choosing to "Like" Cracked has no side effects, so what's the worst that could happen?

The Weekly Hit List

Sit back... Relax... We'll do all the work.
Get a weekly update on the best at Cracked. Subscribe now!