The complexity of grammar (one for you linguists)

I had a couple of linguistics classes in college, but there was one question I had that was never addressed and I was always too embarrassed to ask because… well, it just seems like a stupid question.

Why do languages have so many arbitrary grammar rules?

Let me try to explain. In English, when you want to show that more than one of a certain noun exists, you make it plural with a grammar construction (ie, cat becomes cats). Ok, that makes sense: it’s practical because it does something. Obviously, English would be sorely lacking if we didn’t have plural constructions of nouns.

On the other hand, take the gender of nouns in Spanish. WTF? What does this accomplish? Wouldn’t it be easier just to skip the el/la nonsense and just use one word instead?

Ok, we do a lot of stupid things simply because that’s the way we’re taught, or we’ve learned by example, etc - I understand that too.

But what I’m wondering is how do things like this get started?

Presumably, languages evolved from grunting among cavemen. I cannot imagine early humans with relatively small vocabularies and relatively simple grammar willingly introducing something like the el/la distinction. So where did it come from? And why has it stayed around?

Does anyone understand what I’m getting at?

No one really knows the answer. Languages evolved, and the earlier languages (such as, Latin or Old English) had many more rules than we’re use to today (primarily declension). Modern English streamlined a lot of things; one speculation was because the words were similar but the gender and declensions were causing confusion. So they were dropped.

Why is grammar so complex? Because it’s describing something. If you describe how a car works, for instance, it’s much more difficult than driving one. You can easily drive a car without knowing a piston from an alternator, and can speak your native language fluently without knowing the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb (to cite one of many possible examples).

None of us when we learn to speak are taught the difference between different conjugations of verbs or having our nouns and pronouns agree. We just picked it up as we went along.

I doubt that Finns find their language confusing, but to an English speaker the grammar seems impossible to learn.

What surprises me more, is that a child (and an adult) speaking/writing in a “simple” language (English: no declinsions, very few changing endings, short words) makes as many errors as one dealing in complex (Finnish, 17 cases, Hebrew, changing roots, etc.).

I’ve heard that English is considered to be one of the hardest languages to learn (that is, coming from another language.) This may not hold true for similar languages (French, Spainish,) though.
For instance, I’ve hears going from English to Chinese is easier than Chinese from English.
Does anyone know if this is true?

Only if you’re speaking about Indo-European languages, which have a tendency, as they evolve, to drop declensions. This doesn’t mean, also, that the earlier languages were more complex grammatically, only that they used affixes (prefixes and suffixes) more heavily to indicate the grammatical usage of a word than English. English has a much stronger tendency to do this by word order. In languages that use declensions and conjugate their verbs more elaborately than English, word order doesn’t count as much because it’s not as much of a grammatical marker.

Funny, I’ve always heard just the opposite, that English is a very easy language to learn, except for the spelling, which is horribly heterodox. Specifically, I’ve read that English has the third-worst spelling of any language, after Irish and Tibetan.

Oh, by the way, bouv, I recognized you by your signature line. That’s you – bouv!

Sorry, I meant user name, not signature line. Referring to this post.

I’ve heard this many times before too, but after consulting with friends from France/Germany/Italy/Spain/Brazil/Argentina/Portugal among others (I used to live in an International House) I am now sure it is total bollocks. I think there’s some kind of weird pride attached to the feeling that one’s language is difficult to learn. One or two people doing ESL did say that they found the vocabulary difficult; they got the feeling that synonyms were often used to avoid duplication and that this led to unnecessary complications and difficulty in learning. Overall though, certainly for those whose first language is a romantic language, they found English pretty easy.

Actually, I think that your original question – inserted above for your convenience – is flawed. It assumes that some grammar rules are arbitary and that some are not. I think it’s better to start with the assumption that ALL grammar rules are abitrary.

To your ears, the use of noun plurals in English sounds non-arbitrary, whereas the use of noun genders in Spanish sounds arbitrary. But this is merely a matter of perspective. In other words, it depends on your own peculiar view of what is “natural,” valuable, useful, rational, moral, aesthetically pleasing, sophisticated, etc.

To drag this out a little further, your OP says that English would obviously be “sorely lacking” without its plural nouns. But why would this be so? Take this sentence: “There are some cats in the room.” Here, even if there was no “s” on “cat” to make a plural noun, we can still tell from other words in the sentence (“are” & “some”) that there is more than one cat in the room. The plural noun here is redundant, in a sense; the sentence would not be sorely lacking without it. This is not always the case, of course, but it certainly could be so if the grunting cavemen had never developed the practice of adding an “s” on nouns to indicate plurality: they could instead have decided that it sounded nicer to always use verbs alone for indicating plurality. But for whatever reason they didn’t. Maybe Caveman Al bonked Caveman Bob over the head one day and declared, “We’re gonna do it my way!”

It’s pretty hard to do anything but speculate about the origins of grammatical rules like this, but some cases might be relatively easy to imagine. Why does Japanese have an elaborate grammatical system for indicating various levels of deference? Well, maybe one day Caveman Akira and his followers conquered Caveman Kotaro’s village and then declared: “OK, now that we’re your masters, I want you to bow before us whenever we pass. And speak some pretty words while you’re at it. I don’t want you to forget who’s who around here.” Maybe something similar happened in France, when Caveman Albert…

As for why people today would persist in using something as “stupid” as an el/la distinction, even when they know through their exposure to English and perhaps other languages that they don’t NEED it, strictly speaking: all I can suggest is that you dig up some of those old Esperanto threads.

[mini-hijack] well thank you scratch1300, at least I have one friend around this joint.[/mini-hijack]

speaking of english plurals…

I’ve always been puzzled that the plural of a noun is indicated by -s, but a present-tense verb, when preceded by a second-case singular pronoun, is indicated by -s.

For example

the book vs. the books (noun)
he swims vs. they swim (verb)

It would make more sense to me if a verb never had -s as a postfix, since it seems to serve no purpose other than increasing complexity.