Is English abnormal?
August 5, 2009 7:53 PM   Subscribe

language-philes -- Isnt English weird for not having conjugated verbs? Even its closest relatives - german and the romance languages - have conjugated verbs. Please to explain?

Most other indo-european languages (like Indian languages, and of course latin etc as well) have conjugated verbs too.
Conjugated verbs seems the norm in the linguistic, cultural, and ethnic environment in which English developed.

So how did it so uniquely escape conjugated verbs, within this european cultural and indo-european linguistic environment?

(I know there are very minor conjugations in English, like "I run" vs "he runs"; I'm talking obviously about the 6 or more types of conjugations (plus tense-conjugations) that all these other languages have...)

I'm just curious. Thanks!
posted by jak68 to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't remember the specific answer for this question, but the book The Mother Tongue probably has answers for this question, and all the questions you didn't even think to ask. I really liked it a lot when I read it several years ago.
posted by cschneid at 8:04 PM on August 5, 2009

In Swedish, verbs aren't conjugated at all for the subject. Jag är, du är, han är, etc. So not really, I guess.
posted by motorcycles are jets at 8:15 PM on August 5, 2009

First off, please do not read Bill Bryson's work on language. He is wrong wrong wrong with a side of wrongness.

Someone who knows more about English historical linguistics than I will probably come along and say more, but I feel I should at least point out that English did not entirely escape conjugation, or at least, that it hasn't always been this way. Old English had verbs agreeing in person. At least in the singulars, as far as I know. (There was one form for the plurals, and FWIW most of the cases were syncretic too. We've always been kind of a wacky Germanic language. I blame the French.)

If what you're asking about is not person/number agreement but how come English doesn't have a richly developed, inflected system of tense and aspect like many of our Indo-European siblings, I'm not sure I can give a better answer than "because it doesn't." Certainly we can express tense and aspect, but it's mostly periphrastic. Which is, you know, just one thing languages can do. This was explained to me once in a historical linguistics class as part of some kind of circle of life morphological thing: languages have affixes, then due to some sound change or other the affixes get less and less distinct, then they fall off entirely, then the language repurposes some other words to do the work other languages do with their single forms (the stage we're at), then the words run together and become affixes, then more sound changes, and so on and so on. I am unable to find a citation for this, but, uh, it's a really nice story?
posted by sineala at 8:37 PM on August 5, 2009

I wouldn't be surprised if that came from phonetic simplification of the language over time. French for example, has different conjugations depending on the person and number, but they are often pronounced in (essentially) exactly the same way. One can imagine that with time they spellings will merge. Portuguese, on the other hand, has had a few spelling reforms over the last century, so it is easier to find concrete examples where words which used to be spelled differently are now spelled identically, further simplifying the language.

I would not say that English does not have conjugates verbs. It just has much simpler conjugation than many other languages. Remember that these days we just don't learn English grammar in school, unlike other places of the world that place a heavy emphasis on the grammar of the native language (like Brazil, for example). After a cursory look at the grammar of English (and a few visits to Grammar Girl) you'd see that it is more complicated than you'd expect (especially once it is formalized) and that people (e.g. me) speak poorer English than you'd expect.

If you want a language that really does not conjugate verbs, check out Chinese.

In Japanese, on the other hand, even adjectives are conjugated.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:41 PM on August 5, 2009

Many languages don't have complex case systems. Case is generally a feature of morphology. Old English (~450-1100 AD) used to have an incredibly complex morphological system. Just the verbs alone were divided into two classes, strong and weak. The strong verbs had 7 subclasses, which were marked for person and tense. Much of this distinction is lost today, although you still see remnants of both strong and weak verb markings in certain paradigms today - sing/sang/sung, drank/drunken, see/saw, buy/bought, and the most common today: the -ed ending. In general, English lost most of its case markings. Today, English is hardly anywhere near morphologically complex as it used to be, and traded all that for the serious syntax its got going on now.

Also, many languages have case, but it is not marked on the verb. There are over 7,000 languages in the world. Only about 300 of them are Indo-European, but even among those, there are radical differences as to how and how much their verbs show marking today.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:45 PM on August 5, 2009

Later, in the 800s, the Northmen (Vikings) came to England, mostly from Denmark, and settled in with the Anglo-Saxons from Yorkshire to Norfolk, an area that became known as the Danelaw. Others from Norway ruled over the people in the northwest, from Strathclyde to the north of Wales. The Norse language they spoke resembled Anglo-Saxon in many ways, but was different enough for two things to happen: One, there were many Old Norse words that entered into English, including even such basic ones as they and them; And two, the complex conjugations and declensions began to wither away as people disagreed about which to use!

Source: the Evolution of English

Note that English conjugation also became simpler when the second-person singular thou was abandoned.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:54 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know there are very minor conjugations in English

I'm doing what I don't like to do - answering a question I'm not sure about - but I don't think conjugations in English count as "very minor."

I am
s/he is
you/we/they are

There may be fewer conjugations than in many other languages, sure, but what remains is hardly "very minor." English has plenty of conjugations.
posted by mediareport at 8:57 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

English has simplified a lot of things from its Germanic ancestry. We don't have gender, either. (Which is why there's only one definite article in English.)

This kind of simplification is not unprecedented. See, for instance, "Vulgar Latin".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:00 PM on August 5, 2009

Response by poster: fascinating answers, please keep 'em coming if you have more. I've put 'evolution of english' and 'mother tongue' on my reading list.
posted by jak68 at 9:14 PM on August 5, 2009

I think the things to bear in mind are:

1) English has conjugation, it's just simple and easy to remember in comparison to other languages.

2) The forms I run, you run, and so on, can just as much be seen as conjugating with a "null" suffix as much as she runs has an "-s" suffix. You can't hear or see the conjugation on these verbs, but arguably it's present.

3) Much of the work of conjugations has been shifted onto auxiliary verbs so that changes to the main verb don't need to happen.

4) English is simply parsimonious, using a few basic forms (participles and a simple past) together with the above mentioned auxiliary verbs to create a vast amount of possible verbs.

5) Don't be fooled by it's simplicity: English has more verb possibilities than a supposedly complicated language like Latin, and a verb like may have been seen is not always easy for non-native learners to process

6) English used to have a lot more visible conjugation on the main verb than now, and the language is because of changes unique to English, not a failure to conform to Indo-European norms. There's a long history with sound changes and influence from other languages potentially bringing it to where it is today.
posted by Sova at 9:21 PM on August 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

Uh, point 1) and 5) might seem to contradict, but in point 1) I mean conjugation on the main verb is simple, and in point 5) that English's actual system for conjugation is complex.
posted by Sova at 9:28 PM on August 5, 2009

Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of The Music of Language by Douglas R. Hofstadter is another you may enjoy reading...
posted by dawson at 9:44 PM on August 5, 2009

There may be fewer conjugations than in many other languages, sure, but what remains is hardly "very minor."

You're not wrong, but I think the spirit of the original question was that what conjugations remain are infrequent and irregular. So while "to be" is a pretty vital verb, there aren't many other verbs that get the same star treatment in English.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:45 PM on August 5, 2009

What English mainly has done is to strip out redundancy which is present in other germanic languages as a form of error checking.

Redundancy isn't a bad thing in communications; it increases the chance of the signal getting through without distortion. So gender is a way of making sure that the listener knows which noun a given adjective refers to, or which topic a given pronoun refers to.

Likewise, verb conjugations which change with person are a form of redundancy which makes more clear which of the noun clauses is the one that a verb refers to.

There are other kinds of conjugations as well. I haven't studied classic Latin but I've been told that in a lot of sentence the words can be scrambled into any order without significantly distorting the meaning. That's because the subject nouns are conjugated one way, object nouns are conjugated a different way, and so on. From the way each word is conjugated it's possible to determine its part of speech, irrespective of the order the words are given. (Or so I was told.)

For better or worse, English has dropped nearly all of that. There are good sides and bad sides to this.

One good side is that it makes it a lot easier for English to adopt vocabulary and language constructs from other languages. It's also easier for us to move words from one part of speech to another -- to make a noun out of an adjective or vice versa, for instance.

There are standard endings in English which indicate parts of speech e.g. "ly" for adverbs. By taking one part of speech e.g. an adjective and adding such an ending it can be used as another part of speech. So "wonderful" becomes "wonderfully" and no one is confused.

If you also had to include gender and person, it would far more difficult to do that, and most other languages don't really support that kind of change.

But just because English has dropped gender and mostly dropped verb conjugation by person, that doesn't mean English is simple, even English verbs. It isn't. As Sova mentions, English has a very rich set of verb tenses, because we have a very rich set of helper verbs which can be used alone or in combination. Things like "should have gone" or "could be going" are very subtle and powerful and, I am told, extremely challenging for ESL's.

have, be, shall, should, can, could, will, would, might, may... alone and in combination those yield a huge number of different tenses.

And they're all semantically distinct. We don't use them for redundancy, we use them because they mean different things.

I suspect that qxntgarblegarble's reason is correct: early English dropped most of that redundancy when it collided with other languages. But once that happened, it left English in a unique state that made it easier for it to absorb features, especially vocabulary, from other languages. That was the reason all that redundancy was dropped.

English is now widely known, in the famous phrase, to be "about as pure as a cribhouse whore" as a result. But it's also one of the most vibrant and alive languages extant, and well on its way to becoming the world language.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:51 PM on August 5, 2009

Just FYI for the conversation, the following are all of the "being" verbs (distinct from "action" verbs like "run" or "eat") in the English language. Some are explicitly conjugated, others experience a null conjugation. Obviously some are past/present/future specific:


OK maybe that contributed absolutely nothing to the conversation. It's just one of the few things I remember from 4th grade.
posted by stewiethegreat at 11:48 PM on August 5, 2009

Response by poster: where's languagehat when you need him.
posted by jak68 at 12:00 AM on August 6, 2009

Complex inflectional systems tend to simplify over time. None of the Romance languages have inflections as complex as Latin's, for instance.

Old English is somewhat intermediate in morphology. Nouns had four case distinctions in the singular, three in the plural. (Compare with two today.) Weak verbs (the most numerous category) had just four forms per tense (I, thou, he/she, and plural), which is down to two. (The thou forms only went away because people stopped using that pronoun.)

That leads to the question, how do complex inflectional systems develop anyway? Out of simple ones, of course. :) For instance, particles or auxiliaries may attach to the verb or noun, forming inflected forms. The Romance future and conditional developed out of two-verb forms. The verb in colloquial spoken French (e.g. je le lui en ai parle) is a complex form (whose complexity is hidden by the fact that it's written with spaces in between the parts). New cases have developed in the Baltic languages out of cliticized postpositions.

It used to be thought that Greek, Sanskrit etc. were simplified from an even hairier Proto-Indo-European (PIE); but many linguists (e.g. Winfred Lehmann) now believe that PIE may have had a small number of cases, and the more complex languages innovated new ones.
posted by zompist at 12:04 AM on August 6, 2009

Also: Worth noting that along the way English lost its second person singular personal pronoun (thou), which as I understand it, did have generally different forms for verb conjugation.

It's not that there isn't any conjugation, we just stopped using one of the pronouns, which would tend to hide things.
posted by vernondalhart at 1:35 AM on August 6, 2009

Hello, I am a linguist, but not your linguist...

Short answer: No, English is not weird for not really inflecting for person.

Long answer:

First, if you replace the word 'conjugation' with the word 'inflection' you might have better luck. That is, when verbs are inflected they are changed (usually morphologically) to reflect an added piece of information. That piece of information can be something directly about itself, like tense, negation, conditionality...or it can be a piece of information from its dependents, like nominal tense, number, or gender.

So, by 'conjugation' you probably mean the inflection of a verb according to the person and number of the subject. Yes, for regular verbs English carries only very simplified inflections (the '-s', 3rd person singular 'runs' vs. 'run' for everything else) . However, that means that English hasn't dropped verbal person/number marking all together (especially for irregular verbs), but that at some point English merged together most of that morphology. In a word, it's called 'syncretism'.

Now, if you look at English from this perspective, as a language that has merged some of its marking for person/number, suddenly it doesn't look so unusual among other Indo-European languages. Just look at the red dots on this map. Most of the Indo-European languages have undergone some sort of syncretism for verbal number/person marking. English might have fewer inflections than other related languages, but it is not alone in the trend toward this kind of simplification.
posted by Alison at 2:17 AM on August 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

> where's languagehat when you need him.

Sorry, late to the party. I would have said basically what Sova, iamkimiam, zompist, and Alison did; read their answers carefully and ignore most of the others. (Hofstadter? WTF does he have to do with this? And for chrissake don't read Bill Bryson except for laughs.)

Short answer: the development English has undergone is perfectly normal, it has happened in many other languages, and "cultural environment" does not influence morphological development.
posted by languagehat at 7:27 AM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: thanks all :)

>"and "cultural environment" does not influence morphological development."
well, in a broad sense it did in this case, no? In the sense of norse culture meeting anglo saxon culture meeting french culture, each of which was a stage on the development of english as the hybrid language (and grammer) that it is today? English history having been not-very-hermetic, it seems like the English language's morphology reflects some of that hybrid cultural experience.
posted by jak68 at 8:10 AM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: Alison you make an interesting point (that English isnt abnormal or in a class by itself, that rather, its merely on one end of a scale or pattern). Though its still on the extreme end of that scale, I think. I have to think the "porus" experience of English cultural history (invaded by others, then invading others) accelerated that pattern, then.
posted by jak68 at 8:14 AM on August 6, 2009

I teach ESL but find this question perplexing.

Verbs ARE conjugated, in English; many examples upthread.

Perhaps somebody could give examples of 'major' conjugation, in other languages.

German would be the most helpful example, for me.
posted by Rash at 3:31 PM on August 6, 2009

Rash, the discussion here relates to the kind of conjugation. Some conjugations refer to verb tense, indicating things like whether the action is complete or ongoing, whether it happened in the present, the past, or is expected in the future. English definitely has those. (In spades!!!)

Other conjugations refer to "person". What that means is that the verb takes a different form (or a different ending) as a function of whether the subject (i.e. the thing performing the verb) is "I", "you", "him", "we", "they". Generally English doesn't do that, except for third person singular.

In other words, "I run, you run, we run, they run", but "he/she/it runs." The big exception to that is the English copula: I am, you are, he is, they are -- and even on that we don't have as many forms as other languages. Conjugation (or inflection) by person was the issue the OP asked about.

English "have" and German "haben" are pretty much cognate, but they're not handled the same way.

Ich habe, du hast, er hat, wir haben, ihr habt, sie haben. (I think that's how it goes; high school German was a hell of a long time ago.)

The English equivalent is "I have, thou hast, he has, we have, y'all have, you/they have". The "thou" form is archaic and deprecated, and it leaves us with using "have" for every case except third person singular. And that's how it is for every English verb except the copula: we use the infinitive for every person except third-person-singular. That was what the OP asked about, and wondered if such simplification was extraordinary.

(I am not a linguist.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:41 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: @rash: as someone said above, i probably mean inflections rather than conjugations.
posted by jak68 at 8:19 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: sanskrit (and I believe, latin too) additionally have elaborate systems of declensions on nouns (rather than using prepositions).
posted by jak68 at 8:23 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: altho wikipedia entry on 'inflections' says:
"Inflecting a nominal word is known as declining it, while inflecting a verb is called conjugating it."

they provide some comparative examples between english and other languages.
posted by jak68 at 8:31 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: Who knew: there's a word for when langauges lose their former ancient inflections: Deflexion.

All members of the Indo-European language family belong to these kinds of languages and are subject to some degree of deflexional change. The process is typified by the degeneration of the inflectional structure of a language. This phenomenon has been especially strong in Western European languages, such as French, English and Afrikaans.

Deflexion typically involves the loss of some inflectional affixes, notably affecting word endings to indicate noun cases and verbal tenses.
posted by jak68 at 8:33 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: (above was a quote from the wikipedia article on deflexion, of course)
posted by jak68 at 8:34 PM on August 6, 2009

While I have nothing notable to add, I've just got to say that this is one of the most interesting threads I've read on Ask MeFi. Thanks.

What I would like to ask is how has the development of English led to its efficiency and adoption as one of the main languages of the world as Chocolate Pickle has mentioned? This might be slightly tangential but living in a city that has signs in both English and Spanish, the efficiency of English is clear (much shorter sentences).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:59 AM on August 8, 2009

how has the development of English led to its efficiency and adoption as one of the main languages of the world as Chocolate Pickle has mentioned?

It hasn't. Essentially unrelated.

As a practical matter, the reason English is coming to dominate internationally is because it's the language spoken in the US.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:32 AM on August 8, 2009

...and it's the default language of banking(?), aviation and now, computers.
posted by Rash at 6:36 AM on August 8, 2009

So it's efficiency and [past] ability to borrow and incorporate has had nothing to do with it? Just curious.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 7:22 AM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: >"So it's efficiency and [past] ability to borrow and incorporate has had nothing to do with it? Just curious"

well, speakers of languages that have inflected-verbs and declined-nouns would argue their languages are far more 'efficient' (as in compact, compressed). For examples of extreme compression and efficiency for instance you could take a look at Sanskrit, where a 3 or 4 word sanskrit sentence, in english translation, often runs 1 or 2 whole lines. In addition to elaborate declensions and inflections (both of whcih 'compress' word length), Sanskrit additionally makes extensive use of compound nouns (like German), further resulting in compression.

Yet, sanskrit died out (and fairly early evolved/devolved into a large group of related but dissimilar languages). So efficiency by itself I dont think is any guarantee of being picked up by others. On the contrary, that kind of efficiency arguably comes at the expense of a bigger learning curve, needing extensive training in the declension/inflection/compound patterns. And we all know how non-English speakers complain about how hard English is to learn, due to (what they see as) its lack of predictable structure.

So I think whether or not efficiency helps or hurts the spread of a language is very much an open question.

On the other hand, its quite obvious that languages spread rapidly along channels of economic, political, cultural power, and obviously Anglo-American English has been exactly that since the mid 1700s at least, first with britain and then with the US, and with the accelerated forms of cultural projection that come with modern technologies, technologies which were themselves developed in that language. So its hard to partake in the modern world without atleast having some acquaintance with English.

SO does efficiency and ability to borrow have nothing to do with it? I dont think efficiency has anything to do with it, quite honestly. "Ability to borrow", probably helped in the sense that we dont have a government-approved English board somewhere deciding by dictat (like the French do) what words to use and what not to use. (English dictionaries strive to reflect actual usage, new words are constantly added to the OED, based not on intellectual decision of worth, but based on actual instances of usage. If a word gets used in the public sphere often enough, the OED puts it in). Thats very different from the French model of vocabulary control.
This ability to borrow probably helps by keeping the vocabulary of the language "closer to actual usage" and thus less disruptive (for instance, dictating vocabulary from above, might be perceived as disruptive or heavy-handed, by the locals). So in that sense it probably helps or at least doesnt hurt the language's adoption.

But yes, mainly it has to be cultural, economic, scientific, political influence and power. This isnt inherently a bad thing, but it just makes sense. I think if the history of languages shows anything, its that languages themselves come and go very cheaply.
posted by jak68 at 12:02 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: English's ability to borrow also helped it survive the norse and french invasions of england, by allowing English to evolve in resonse, rather than be wiped out.

But as I sort of say above, I think even that "ability to borrow" obviously isnt the concious decision of a board of control that sits somewhere. Its an emergent result of *not* having such a board of control. In other words its a cultural, polical, economic phenomenon. Not a phenomenon inherent to the language itself. Thats what I would argue, anyway.

And that kind of culture and politics -- having a perpetually weak monarchy for instance -- affected English history in other ways too, not just linguistically, no?
posted by jak68 at 12:10 PM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: (btw, In reading what I wrote above, I feel compelled to add a caveat -- I'm not saying that highly structured languages are necessarily the result of fascistic political organization or control, nor that unstructured languages reflect democratic histories. I dont thnk the evidence supports either conclusion decisively. Highly structured sanskrit, for example, also produced some of the most advanced political and cultural and religious discourses in favor of non-violence and cultural non-interference.

So I'm merely saying I think one cannot say *decisively* whether a language reflects a society's politics or whether politics is structured by a society's language. All one can say is there is probably a complex reciprocal *interaction*. Beyond that I think it all depends on historically specific factors and the outcome varies in each particular case. Even if one can find a particular logic of interaction in one social history, it would be a mistake to make a "general rule" out of it, I think. Too many factors.)
posted by jak68 at 12:19 PM on August 8, 2009

Very interesting, jak68. Thx.

Based on my read of your comments above (and apologies to Howard Rheingold), you might say the development of English was, to some extent, determined by a Smart Mob. ;-)
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:21 AM on August 9, 2009

Response by poster: @outtacontext -- lol, i'd agree with that ;)

Btw my thoughts above are just a sort of "how I see things so far", as I work through this question and some of its various implications ;) I guess so far anyway I found two kinds of deterministic approaches to questions like this about unique (or relatively unique) language features. (And both of which, to some degree, I reject). One is "linguistic determinism", which says the internal structure of a langauge determines its history, its reach and successes and failures. The other is the opposite determinism, that says a society's politico-econ determines the life and structure of its language (which is kind of a marxist determinism, prioritizing the politico-economic 'base' over 'superstructural' effects like language and culture). I guess I reject both and am trying to tread a middle ground which I find more realistic (and more complex).

At the same time, to say language and social history affect each other in complex ways, is not to say that therefore one cannot say anything positive about the nature of that relationship. I think we can. Its just that we cant say anything with an 'absolute determinism' I guess that applies 'universally'. Cuz particular contexts and individual histories must matter at some point, to me anyway. As I say I think there are too many factors to be able to say anything more (and this is what keeps linguistic from being a 'science' like, say, molecular biology.)
posted by jak68 at 12:04 PM on August 9, 2009

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