Why does language tell me what I must say?

Language, like a computer, is supposed to be the slave/tool of the speaker or writer, isn’t it? Then why do essentially all languages force one to specify attributes and other things about the subject matter that aren’t known by the speaker or are irrelevant to what (s)he wants to say or else are just legacies of useless associations made in the past, many of which hack away at the meaning trying to be put across at the moment by someone such as I, who originally had something he (not she) wanted to say here?

In particular, to skip over gender, the matching of subject(s) with verb(s) for number, and a lot of other thing(s), why is it that the language(s) god(s) early on, and has ever since, decided that number, i.e., either singular(s) or plural(s), must alway(s) be specified? Is it really so fundamental that 2 or more(s) be totally different than 1, whereas no special suffix(es) is/are required to distinguish 3 or more(s) from 1 or 2 or maybe 1/2 or less. And then we find that 0 (nada) is singular and indistinguishable from 1. Now, hey, 1 is an infinite % increase over 0. You can’t beat that for something needing distinction! Well, I’m dealing with English here, but all other languages I’ve heard of are not much different in this respect. Why doesn’t language evolution come up to speed, or even head in the right direction? And it just really grates on me to hear ‘someone. . .their.’ Like I just know you can’t blame it all on Valley girls.


Short answer: Because “UGH” just doesn’t cut it any more.

It’s an imperfect system, but it’s very much like us, imperfect people.

When you also take into consideration that whatever any of us say to one another is filtered and decoded through another whole set of brain cells, it’s a wonder ANYTHING we say to one another matches up.

your humble TubaDiva
Even if that’s what you heard, that’s not what I said.

Well, hey, you(singular) work here. I thought a little software patch here and there would make anything work right this/these day(s). When computer(s) started proliferating, I thought, “Jeez, now maybe this/these thing(s) will straighten out this/these horribly mixed-up English language(s).” Of course, all that ever happened was that the speaker(s) of English and all the other language(s) set about to contaminate the world of ‘1’(s) and ‘0’(s) so as to make computer(s) conform to all that/those linguistic historical mess(es). So much for “linear” thinking(s). :frowning:

Ray (ex-hardware-engineer)

And, actually, I think ‘Ugh!’ says it all quite well.


Ray, put the pipe down. And watch out - any minute now, someone will start talking about Esperanto.

Tre bona, Asemayo!

It seems that what you’re frustrated by is that grammar is largely a matter of convention instead of decision. A (largely) common grammar and vocabulary are necessary for communication; if we could dictate those two by fiat (as the french academy attempts), then we probably would have the sort of language you imagine, without hoary and apparently useless rules that seem to impede expression.

I don’t know what else to say, except that language isn’t like that. Esperanto and other attempts at “scientific” languages have failed to “reform” language use. The fact that languages grow and evolve by metaphor means that the literalization of those metaphors leads to further rules and exceptions. The development of language is a one way path towards fragmentation and dialects.

While the search for natural language programming may be wrongheaded (and is, in my opinion), the pollution of perfectly logical programming languages with English syntax and idiom is an unavoidable usability compromise.

Ray - language does not tell you what you must say, it tells you how to say it so the greatest number of people can understand you.

(Just answering the topic header, can’t decipher much in the body of the post).

Well, as for subject/verb agreement, that is part of the redundancy of languages. Redundancy helps language comprehension - you can miss part of what is being said and still understand the other person.

As for singular/plural - IMO, one thing is very specific, whereas two or more you start dealing with genralizations. Also, zero is grouped with the plural, not the singular:
The cat is black.
My two cats are furry.
No cats are dogs.
If you think modern languages are complicated - check out latin sometime.

Q) You want language?

A) You / they cannot handle it.


I have regressed / progressed to the point that when I go to a store, I bring their store ad (you know, from the Sunday newspaper).

I find myself a store clerk, make eye contact, point to the item in the store sales flyer and grunt …


Works Everytime.

Language is a collection of symbols for our thoughts. It is deficient in in the communication of our thoughts.

I believe if telepathy were possible, it would solve the world’s problems. I think we would find out that we are just one big person.

And I wouldn’t get beat up so much…

One beer is less than two beers.

Well, actually I got the idea of a language of perfect sytax and terminology out of my head back in high school in the late '40s, when Esperanto, Ido and I forget the third artificial language were still mentioned once in a while. None of them impressed me much, but I came to the conclusion that one didn’t always want precision; in fact, often one wanted exactly the opposite; so the need was for a controllably confusing language. And yes, zyada, later, in engineering school, I learned that redundancy is often good as a CYA tool. (Hey, but English Comp teachers often chastise you for it. And some English grammarians don’t even like ‘Dunno where it’s at.’ :wink: ) But most of the redundancy in English (and most other languages) is not of the sort that is helpful. There are so many ifs, ands and buts as to English word usage and formation, that any advantage from the redundancy is useless – as demonstrated by the exemplary phrase:

       Time flies like an arrow.

As to Nickrz, well, one might say we both speak English, but. . .

. . .is there any communication going on.

And back to zyada:

While it may be true that “no cats are dogs”, it is also true that ‘no cat is a dog’. So we have to split on that one. Clearly, when it comes to zero, the English-language spirit doesn’t give a damn about number, but only that the subject agree in grammatical “number” with its verb. Well, I’m not very clear on the standing of the concept of zero at even any of the beginning of modern English, Anglo-Saxon, proto-Germanic or proto-European. Before the Hindus, through the Arabs, got the modern notion of zero as a number across to Europeans, or before they sat down and though so much about nothing, I suppose any such notion might not have been thought of in Europe (or anywhere, in those “proto-” times) as one of numericity, multiplicity or whatever.

Do hunters ever get in much trouble over plurals of game animals (at least in English)? I much doubt it. Ya seen one deer , ya seen all deer, right? No wildcat are prairie dog. . .or suh’m like that. Hunters only get in trouble when they equate ‘All game moves,’ with ‘All that moves is game.’ (But nobody ever said hunters were logicians.)

Well, I never formally check in with Latin, but German and Russian were bad enough. Spanish had a lot of nonsense, but of course, it’s much easier: Mi casa is su casa, pero no la que de sus gatos y perros, ni aun un solo gato o perro.

And to Terry:

Rather than grunting, wouldn’t simply a click on a Web page (mouse language) get the proper delivery?

And to the User of Beer:

Telepathy would solve our problems? Did beer tell you that. I don’t much like beer. Would telepathy make everyone drink beer? Look at what too much connection via the I’net has done. Keeps a lot of lawyers in business, I guess.


But the main thrust of this thread was supposed to be: Given all the uncontrollable influences on language, why did the supposed need for distinction between one of something and more than one of it evolve so universally? This language-enforced “need” is a royal pain today, and I don’t see why it ever wouldn’t’ve been. (E.g.: If the number put in the blank is ‘1’, the program should reach out and chop that ‘s’ off the following word. . .if it’s a regular plural. . .and if the chop shouldn’t be on some later word, etc.) One guy with a club: I knock the sh** out of him. More than one: I run like hell? Is that what it’s all about? I got the stigma, not from a trauma, of one scotoma of glaucoma. Then I got the stigmata, not from traumata, of many scotomata of, well, still only one glaucoma, so that that eye’s pretty well shot. If I ever get that sort of thing in the other eye, will I have two glaucomata? (Guess I can’t quite see what’s goin’ on here, so to speak.)

Ray (The plural of ‘nothing’ is ‘nothings’, which is/are good for more’n anything. Ain’t that something? No way(s).)

The use of plurals is by no means universal. (And, on the other hand, you should know that the ancestral forms, including Old English, included both dual and plural:

I, we two, we three-or-more
Thou, you two, you three-or-more
He/she/it, they two, they three-or-more

Languages vary a great deal. In Basque, all verbs are passive. In Russian, verbs in the past tense are declined by the gender of the subject, and there are only three tenses, so there are two verbs for every meaning, one covering imperfect tenses, and one covering perfect tenses. (For verbs of travel, there is also a third word to express habitual action.) In Japanese, there’s a special tense reserved for speaking of the death of the Emperor. Welsh cannot distinguish between green and blue, and changes the first letters of words to harmonize with the last letters of the preceding word. In many Amerind languages, there is no word meaning “thing”. Modern English has no word for “male human being” – we have to make do with the “human being” word. We also dropped “thou” without replacing it, which causes no end of trouble when translating between English and the dozens of languages that still have words meaning “thou”.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Well, I found a page that explains why English is so screwed up, but I think the whole problem started before that:

I seem to recall that there are some languages that tend not to use it or make it optional, but I don’t recall which ones. Which are you referring to?

But that was only in the instance of pronouns, right? Some languages also have one ‘we’ for ‘you and I’ and a different one for ‘he/she/it and I’, right? (I don’t remember which ones.) That could save some ambiguity in English, but no, we relish that stuff in English (put it on hot dogs, whatever).

Well, I guess ‘man’ was originally used in place of ‘one’, as it is used as a singular pronoun of indefinite person, as it is one form or another in German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. Is that what you mean by the “‘human being’ word”?

Well, that’s a second-order problem; let’s just be able to speak English to ourselves first. And, anyhow, there isn’t any other language anymore, is there? :wink: Let the other languages cure the problem by dropping their familiar-form, singular 'you’s also. Anyhow, I would think this would only be a problem in infrequent situations where ‘you’ wasn’t a good enough translation. The ‘you’ that causes a problem within English is the indefinite-person one that is used in place of ‘one’.

The further recent fading out of the present subjunctive in English since I started speaking it as a first (and mostly only) language really confuses me these days also. by Visa, I guess, via my credit union, I’m told:

“Tear up your carbon sales draft receipts before discarding them. Request the merchant does too!”

(I would be inclined to say: “Request that the merchant do so also.” Is that archaic today? It seems that ‘lie’ as the present-tense form of an intransitive verb ‘to positin oneself horizontally’ is essentially archaic these days, in favor of ‘lay’. In a way, I guess that’s a trend back to regularity relative to the transitive form, though, and improvement against ambiguity with the verb ‘to tell a falsehood’.)

Ray (What is the sound of one ‘thou’ dropping?)

Some languages also have one ‘we’ for ‘you and I’ and a different one for ‘he/she/it and I’, right? (I don’t remember which ones.)[/QUOTE}

Tagalog does this.I think most of the Austronesian languages do also. Tagalog has inclusive and exclusive forms of we. For instance (i hope i get these right!):

Exclusive - Pilipino kami: We are Filipino (Meaning me and someone else, but not you, so there :))

Inclusive - Pilipino tayo : We are Filipino (you, me, and him)

However, Tagalog is ambiguous when it comes to he and she:

-Mabait siya - He is good.
-Mabait siya - She is good.

So, Tagalog is very ambiguous in the third person singular, but is specific in the first person plural. A funny thing about that is, often i will hear relatives mix up he and she when talking about others. I have heard my grandma say “She is a good boy”.

“Raw to the floor like reservoir dogs”
- A.V. Helden

German “man” is English “one” (indefinite pronoun).

German “Mensch” is English “man” (human being). cf. Latin “homo”, Greek “anthropos”.

German “Mann” is English “wer” (male human being, as in “werewolf”). cf. Latin “vir”, Greek “aner”.

I believe Chinese does not distinguish by number (beyond what is required for sense, of course). Chinese-English pidgens certainly don’t.

Translating “thou” is a nasty problem in fiction and drama, where a shift from “you” to “thou” can be of great importance. Sometimes use of a first name or a nickname can approximate it, but it often leaves translators pulling out their hair in great clumps.

Some Amerind languages, by the way, have “fourth-person” words. I, you, he, the other guy. (The artificial language Loglan adds three further, and also distinguishes “you and I” from “they and I” with two “we” words.)

Ancient Greek has “middle voice”, between active and passive.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams