Simplicity of English

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Mon Oct 2 04:41:20 UTC 2000

Whoever it was commenting on how easy English is to learn hasn't had to do
it as a second language, or taught ESL. Compared to most languages, it is
one of the most complicated, inconsistent, exception-ridden linguistic
systems on earth. One has only to look at the number of consonant and
especially vowel contrasts for starters. The most common verbs are, thanks
to our Germanic linguistic ancestors, the most irregular. Where most
languages may have one standard form of nominalization, we have four or
five. Where many languages obey X' principles and are uniformly left or
right-headed, English has splits, as in adjectives preceding and relative
clauses following nouns (it even takes children longer to learn relative
clauses in English than in Korean). Even our plurals have a variety of
allomorphs. Then to add insult to injury, SPE to the contrary, we have one
of the most difficult orthographic systems outside Chinese characters to
learn. I have long thought that if a group of linguists sat around and
tried to design the most difficult language on earth to learn (as a second
language, minus the genius of UG), they might possibly have come up with
English, and then again they might well not have been able to imagine one
so preposterously complex. Chinese or Japanese, on the other hand, might
well win the prize for simplicity and regularity. Personally, I would vote
for Chinese as the best candidate for a world language. Eventually it may
become that. The veneer of English outside Anglophone countries is rather
thin, and commercial advantage in the future could well shift to China.
Besides, Chinese characters are a good way to write most languages, with
some adaptation, as the Japanese and Koreans have done.


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