Is English Uniquely Weird?

Objectively questioning our emotional attachments, be they to our religions, our sport teams or our countries, is difficult.  And often unbeknownst to us, we are emotionally biased even toward our native language. Though our attachment to our language is lighter than to that of our faiths or our politics, our minds use the same tricks to form those biases. So exploring our views of language can often reveal the same habits of mind that we use in our religious choices and our political choices.

We are all committed to our language of birth.  Even after learning other languages, most people prefer their own language and view their own language as significantly more unique and special than other languages.

John McWhorter (linguistic prof at Columbia Univ) tells us in a recent Aeon essay that “… English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable.  But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language.”

I loved his first sentence but was disappointed by the second where he seems to buy into the “my language is special” fallacy.

I am very sympathetic with McWhorter’s 2014 book, The Language Hoax, which apparently (by reviews) attacks linguistic determinism notions –strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Indeed his first sentence criticizes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  But his second sentence merely seems like an advertising ploy of specialness to get English readers to read his essay.  He is saying, English isn’t unique except that it is uniquely weird.  But that is false too.

McWhorter claims that:

  • English’s horrendous spelling is unique — claiming this evident because you won’t find spelling bees in any other languages.  But heck, Tibetan orthography is much more horrible than English (see my post here).  Sure, English spelling is one of its special weirdness.  But each language has special weirdnesses.  Not having a special weirdness itself would make a language unique.
  • He wants lack of gender to nouns to be special.  Sure, it was dropped, but so what.  Every language drops things that their related languages keep.
  • He wants the evolution of English to be a bit weird, and sure, it is pretty interesting, but other languages changed immensely with mixing cultures in similar ways.
  • He is right to say that “English started out as, essentially, a kind of German but mixed a bit of Celtic (the “to do”, for instance.)  And the Germanic English is a mix of various germans, much like various types of Chinese influenced Japanese (see their On Yomis).

Click on this diagram of mine below to see more about the evolution of English.  If you read McWhorter’s article, my diagram will help.


So, if you want to see the silliness of your own politics, your own religion, or any other jingoism, take a look at linguistics.  But the sad thing is that most of us have no time, nor inclinations to do such comparative studies, and so the march of specialism continues.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

2 responses to “Is English Uniquely Weird?

  1. Nice post. One wonders if languages can be characterized in an interesting way by the feature (structural or other) that they share with the fewest other languages. This question is prompted by comments from three multi-lingual (sort of) friends who tell me that English was the easiest to pick up at a very basic level and the hardest for them to learn well. No one could quite say why, but pooh-poohed my suggestion that it was it’s pervasiveness as school yard english in the media. Is there a deeper reason?

  2. @ egyoung:
    The author said, “In linguistics circles it’s risky to call one language ‘easier’ than another one, for there is no single metric by which we can determine objective rankings.”

    But on the other hand US State Department ranks languages by time needed to become fluent for their diplomats. See this infomatic.

    So it depends on the speaker’s language and their target language. Languages don’t have some inherent, non-relative difficulty.

    You are right, the ubiquitousness of English may help many learn.

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