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

It turns out other languages can teach us how to handle problems like these.
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 ...

We Have No Standard Way of Answering Negative Questions

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

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

5 Ways You Didn't Realize the English Language Is Defective
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They're already one step ahead of me.

Our Language Is Full of Confusing Science Words

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

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

For although light oftenest behaves as a wave, it can be looked on as a mote, the *lightbit* We have already said by the way that a mote of stuff can
Via Google Groups

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

We Have No Singular Gender-Neutral Pronoun

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

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

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Besides, what did he ever do for the writing world anyway? Dude was a hack.

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We Suck at Politely Addressing People

5 Ways You Didn't Realize the English Language Is Defective
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Modern English is about as egalitarian as a language can get without discarding words altogether and just communicating by hugs. We think nothing of using the same words to talk to our friends, our bosses, people we hate, and the president. It's convenient, but it also causes problems, especially for those among us racked by social anxiety. Without different sets of words to reflect how close we feel to others or how much we respect them, English-speakers must resort to making faces at people and occasionally pepper-spraying them if they don't get the point.

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

It's what I like to call my "debate kit."

How Other Languages Solve It:

Other European languages spank English's ass in this category. Almost all of them have something called the T-V distinction, which means that there are two different ways of saying "you." In most languages, the one that starts with "T" is used to address a close friend or a person you don't respect very much -- it's more casual, the way you call your best friend a bitch, but not a judge. The other usually starts with "V," and it's used in formal or polite situations, like when you're talking to your boss or your friend's parents or criminal gangs that you owe a lot of money to. Other languages take this way further: Japanese has about a dozen words for "you", ranging from a "you" that means "I hate you" to a "you" that can mean "we are intimate friends and possibly married." In fact, in Japanese you can express your hatred just by yelling the right form of "YOU!" at someone, something that is sorely lacking in our culture and which must confuse English-speaking anime fans to no end.

TOA Japanese  Pronoun  TOOr (romaji teme) 1. E: (vulgar, male) you, you son of a bitch
Via Wiktionary.org

This is the version that Hulk Hogan uses when he points at a guy who just gave him a chair shot to the back.

English once had its own form of the T-V distinction: "You" was the formal/polite version, while the friendly, familiar version was "thou." Unfortunately, "thou" disappeared from our speech, and today most of us associate it with people making Bible-based jokes on Twitter.

But hey, that doesn't mean that this old-timey pronoun has to stay gone. The next time you want to let someone know that you want to be close friends, you can call them "thou," and then explain that it's a pretty obscure pronoun and that they've probably never heard of it.

Unfortunately, that's not the only problem with English when it comes to addressing another person. There's also the fact that ...

We're Lacking a Plural for "You"

5 Ways You Didn't Realize the English Language Is Defective
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In English, the word "you" can refer to one person, two people, or every person outside your house with torches, demanding that you cease all witchcraft. Our regional dialects have tried to solve this problem by inventing plurals like "y'all," "youse," or "you guys," but none of these are considered part of "standard" modern English. In Standard English, we're forced to ask a single person, "Will you come to my 'getting out of prison' party?" and just hope that everyone in the visiting area doesn't think they're invited as well.

5 Ways You Didn't Realize the English Language Is Defective
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Which is always a pain because who has enough ramen noodles to feed them all?

How Other Languages Solve It:

Some languages simply use their formal version of "you" to indicate a plural. For example, in French, you say "tu" (informal) when you're talking to one of your friends, but use "vous" (formal) when you're talking to a bunch of them. Others have entirely separate words: "vosotros/vosatras" in Castilian Spanish and "ihr" in German both essentially mean "y'all," except without any of the attached stereotypes that make Southerners start loading their muskets.

The fact that English is lacking a word like this can actually lead to translation problems: It's impossible to translate a lot of the New Testament accurately into modern English, for instance, because its original language, Koine Greek, used different words for plural and singular "you." So a Greek-speaking person reading the Bible will understand whether a bit of text is addressing a single person or a crowd, but there's no way to make this clear in standard English.

5 Ways You Didn't Realize the English Language Is Defective
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"About that no-murder thing. Did you mean all of us -- or just Chad?"

As a quick fix, I propose that the plural of "you" remain just that. And the singular will henceforth be "Betty." Problem solved. You're welcome, English.

Follow C. Coville on Twitter.

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