English is confusing. I’ll be the first to admit it. As much as studying linguistics has taught me that the English language is very organized and has many rules, it seems that there are just as many exceptions and things that just plain don’t make sense. I’m sure most languages are like this. Most languages have a long and complicated history that involves many other languages, many cultures, and many groups of people who use it. Every language evolves, and it usually gets more confusing instead of less. That’s why it’s best to be a native speaker. You grow up learning all the strange spellings and when it’s okay (or even preferable) to break rules and how to communicate effectively on a number of registers. You learn slang and swearing just as easily as more advanced technical jargon, both of which take second-language-learners many more years to master. And when you compare English to other languages, you start seeing how other languages do things that English doesn’t, or do things in a better way.
There are a few features of the English language that I think we should have, or accept sooner rather than later. Not all of them are influenced by my studies of other languages, but some definitely are. I’ll list a few today, and as I think of more I’ll write additional posts.
The singular “they”
I think that English desperately needs this gender-neutral pronoun. Many have been suggested before, but none have stuck. I see “they” used quite frequently now, and though sticklers may protest, it seems to be gaining traction. I predict that it will become standard soon. It’s just too convenient and already too commonly used. No other word would be able to match and outmatch its popularity before it becomes standard. It may not seem formal enough, or acceptable in proper English, but languages evolve, and English has accepted a number of unusual things already. No one bats an eye at the verbs “google” and even “Facebook” (or the words that stem from its invention, such as the verb “friend”), though they certainly seem like words people would raise eyebrows at, and I’m sure they were when they were first introduced. I think the singular gender-neutral pronoun is a void that needs to be filled in the English language before any other and I think “they” will be the word to fill it.
This is just one of my personal beliefs, and to my knowledge no one has brought it up before. I am sure that I first considered this because I know some French and they seem to use the plural/singular distinction for every type of word. So now when I see the word “enough” used in front of a plural noun, it just seems weird. For example, “enough things” or “enough refreshments.” It sounded normal to me before, but in the past few years or so I’ve begun to notice and question it every single time. In French, there are singular and plural forms of articles (le/la/les) and prepositions (à, aux, de, des), among other lexical categories, so pretty soon you start expecting to have to conjugate* every single word that might come before a noun. And that especially sticks out to me with the word “enough.” It just sounds so undeniably singular. I’m not saying we should add
–s making it “enoughs” because that would be a pronunciation nightmare, but I really can’t think of any other equivalent that would make more sense. In French something like that would be reasonable—you add –s to the end of adjectives when they agree with plural nouns—but not in English. I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it.
“Funner” and “funnest”
This just makes sense. It seems perfectly natural to add the inflectional suffixes –er and –est to the word “fun” in order to create the comparative and superlative, instead of the unnecessary “more.” It doesn’t really sound strange, or at least it wouldn’t if we hadn’t been taught that it’s wrong. I was taught that “commoner” (as comparative adjective, not noun) and “commonest” were wrong too, instead taking “more,” but I’ve seen them crop up more often lately and I think they might actually be a thing (no proof yet though). But my point is that adding the suffixes to these words in particular don’t really ruin the spelling or pronunciation in any way. It’s easy to read and understand, and it follows normal English spelling rules. It’s time to adopt it already!
Conversely, there are a few features that I would be glad to keep out of English as long as possible, or features that I’m glad we lost. One of these is gendered language. It makes things about a hundred times more complicated, and I’m glad we didn’t try too hard to keep this part of Latin (though we worshiped Latin) or adopt it from French along with all the loan words. It’s also incredibly unnecessary. I don’t think we’re losing anything in English by not assigning our chairs genders. It just makes it really difficult to try to learn another language because most other languages are gendered while ours isn’t, so we a) aren’t used to the system and b) can’t think of genders in our own language when we forget those of the one we’re learning.
*I love how in English we can have four verbs in a row. “Start” as an auxiliary, “expecting” as a present participle, and “to have” and “to conjugate” as infinitives, with “to have” being an auxiliary infinitive.
So those are my thoughts about the features of the English language! I’ll have more to discuss real soon. In the meantime, do you agree with me? What are some features you like/dislike of any language?