Why is English grammar so simple vs other European languages?

So I’ve decided I’ll be taking a vacation to Germany in the next couple of years. In the meantime, I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of German, since two years in high school is all the exposure I ever had. I have no delusions about self-teaching leading to fluency, but I’d like to learn it to a competent enough level to function. Besides, I don’t want to be “that guy”, the tourist who can’t be bothered to appreciate the native tongue.

In the course of immersing myself in the language, I’ve once again become acutely aware of the differences between English and other languages. One thing that really strikes me is how “simple” English grammar can be.

English may possess about the most varied vocabulary in the world, due in no small part to its tendency to steal words from almost any source. And God knows that spelling and pronunciation aren’t nearly as standardized as many other languages. In these respects, English must be a bitch to learn as a second language. But those ESL-types really get off easy on verb conjugation, noun case, and a bunch of other things.

Nouns are only marked to distinguish number. Case doesn’t affect the writing or pronunciation of a noun, and noun gender has basically vanished from the language. This is in direct contrast to German, as well as the Romance languages. Why is that book female, anyway?

English makes almost no use of declension, except for pronouns. That means one definite article, and one indefinite (with the fairly straightforward vowel-based a/an distinction). It means adjectives don’t change to match the noun. The red apple…The red apples. And those phrases would be the same if those apples were the subject or the object. How simple!

While English has its share of irregular verbs, the regular ones are more than simplistic enough to make up for it. English conjugation is a joke compared to memorizing dozens of verb forms in Spanish, all of which will vary based on how the infinitive is spelled! In English, the only change in ending a regular verb will experience is an -s, -ing, or-ed. Most English verb tenses are constructed with helping verbs, which may be a new concept to some foreign speakers. But once understood, the rules for helping verbs also apply pretty uniformly.

In general, English grammar seems to have the overall trait of being stripped of unnecessary complexities. Conjugation, declension, gender…they’re all barely there or totally nonexistent. The other languages I’m familiar with have all retained these features, and they seems to be the trickiest thing for native English speakers to get around. (I’d be much better at Spanish if I could just remember how to conjugate the preterite tense…or remember what the hell the preterite tense is good for.)

So how did English come to get so stripped down in the grammar department? It appears to have started around the time that Middle English was spoken. Were the English just lazy back then, or what?

NB: I have only a passing familiarity with the more popular European languages. I don’t really speak any of them well, but have always had an interest in languages from a comparative standpoint. I may be making some generalizations that aren’t entirely correct, and it’s possible I’m just biased in thinking English is a little simpler than it is. I also recognize that the apparent grammatical simplicity belies a spelling and pronunciation nightmare.

IIRC, it began to start around 1000 A.D. Old English was inflected, but in 1014, the Danes conquered Britain.

Danish and Old English were very similar in the use of root words, since they had a common ancestor. However, they used different declensions, ajective agreements, etc. The simplest way for both groups to understand each other was to forget about declensions and just use the root word.

Though the Normans invaded in 1066, adding French to the mix, in the North of England, there was still a lot of trade with Scandinavia. Because of this, the language simplified. If you forgot declensions, the words were similar enough for both sides to understand.

By 1300, Middle English had supplanted Old English and the declensions were bone.

What we call “English” is a descendant of a creole language, a cross between Anglo-Saxon and Norman French (with a few other bits mixed in).

It’s a characteristic of creole formation that when the two languages cross a lot of the complicating grammer gets tossed out.

It also accounts for word pairings like “assualt and battery” and the quite a number of synonyms. Legal courts of the time would use the AS and NF terms so all parties would understand the proceedings more easily. We also have “pig” the animal and “pork” the meat, likewise deer/venison, cow/beef, sheep/mutton, and so forth.

Um, no, it’s not. And if you really believe it is, you need to bring cites.

The term “creole” describes languages that arise out of pidgins, which are simple “semi-languages” that develop when populations speaking two or more languages come into contact and need to interact but don’t share a language with which to do so. Creoles then develop when children are raised in families whose only common language is pidgin; these children then add grammatical complexity to the language in order to suit their needs, turning the pidgin into a full-fledged language.

This doesn’t describe the history of English at all; spoken French and English belonged to different classes, and English remained in continuous use, with plenty of native speakers of its own, all throughout the period of French occupation. While the ruling class spoke French at first - and contributed no small amount to the lexicon of English - within a relatively short time, the rulers of England began to use English again.

Because the languages were spoken by separate groups of people, there wasn’t nearly enough intermarriage to raise children speaking any sort of English-French pidgin; bilingualism in the Norman rulers was widespread enough to make such a thing unnecessary anyway. There are no records of any such pidgin existing; influence of French upon English isn’t enough to support that theory anyway - while quite a bit of vocabulary was borrowed, there was not nearly the thoroughgoing replacement of English words following the Norman Conquest that one expects in a Creole; much less borrowing took place in the realm of grammar - none of English’s function words come from French (or at most, very few, depending on what you treat as a function word). English’s grammar is not typically Germanic, given the loss of much inflection, but its basic syntax and morphology are purely Germanic in origin.

The loss of inflection is largely the result of historical changes that took place or at very least began during the Old English period, prior to the arrival of French. Some have argued that the extensive contact between English and other Germanic languages was the stimulus for this loss, but to my knowledge these claims are not well-proven, but rather interesting hypotheses. But evidence for the very thorough nature of contact between Old English and Old Norse can be seen in the fact that English borrowed the third person plural pronouns they and them, which are functional words; personal pronouns tend to be borrowed only in cases of extensive language contact, which shows that while language contact might have been a substantial force in restructuring Old English, it was not nearly so much so in Middle English.

Plenty of vocabulary came from the French, but very little grammar did, and changes in phonology were minimal, which suggests (again) the relatively limited extent of restructuring of English under French influence. Further, English phonology is relatively atypical of creoles; one of the prominent theories regarding creoles is that they tend to exemplify Universal Grammar (as always, I need to note that depictions of Universal Grammar are different from theorist to theorist) - and particularly in English phonology we can see how atypical English is in that regard. English permits all sorts of scary-ass consonant clusters; look at “strengths”, which is CCCVCCC - three consonants each in the onset and coda. Such a thing is very atypical for Creoles - you can examine other French-based creoles like Haitian Creole or Réunion Creole to see how French words are restructured into a CV, consonant-vowel syllable paradigm. The same thing can be seen in English-based creoles to varying extents. English phonology is extremely atypical for a creole.

English borrowed a lot from French, but not nearly enough to qualify as a creole. There simply wasn’t the same sort of restructuring of English that you see in true creoles. The loss of inflections preceded the arrival of French, and French only made miniscule changes to English’s syntax and morphology and small changes to its phonology.

Before you start assuming that English is “simple,” ask yourself the following questions (or better yet, come up with an inviolable rule that you could use to teach a non-native speaker how to do this 100% correctly!):

What is the difference between “I **went **to Smith Elementary School when I was six” and “I have been to Smith Elementary school before.” (Note that standard English does not allow either “I have been to Smith Elementary School when I was six” or “I went to Smith Elementary School before.”) Both verbs are definitely past tense, but the tense is not interchangeable. Then for laughs throw in “I was going to Smith Elementary School when I was six and got chicken pox.” :dubious:

Now let’s throw in spelling. While I realize that spelling is not part of a language’s natural evolution (and I have graduate degrees in linguistics to prove that I know this!), the English spelling “system” is so convoluted that not even native speakers can figure it out. I also speak and read French fluently, and while French may not be 100% predictable when going from pronunciation to written, it is very close to that going from written to pronunciation–in other words, if you understand the French spelling system, and you see a new word in print that you have never heard before, you have a pretty good chance of knowing how that word will be pronounced. English doesn’t work in either direction. You can’t always predict how a pronounced word might be spelled, but you also can’t reliably predict how a spelled word might be pronounced. When you factor in all the “standard” English spelling lists, it’s no wonder that we can’t get SpellCheck to work correctly in our word processors. I have learned a variety of other languages that use phonetic spelling systems (as opposed to character writing systems that are not meant to represent sounds at all), and English is by far the most irregular.

That said, we do still have remnants of case and number agreement in standard English. For example, we say “these books” and “that book”–demonstrative is still number-sensitive. Most pronouns also show case–“I” vs. “me” vs. “mine,” for example. We also still firmly believe in the genitive case, even if we tend to get the spelling mixed up. Pronouns also still reflect gender to some extent–we’ve all heard boats referred to as “she” and babies referred to as “it”–even if we don’t have true grammatical gender left in our grammar.

On the other hand, English is very word-ordered, meaning that word order grants case more than morphology. For example, there is a distinct difference between “The man bit the dog” and “The dog bit the man”, and there is no room whatsoever for ambiguity in either of those sentences. In case-sensitive languages, though, where morphology is used to indicate case, the word order is a lot more flexible. The English sentences “The man the dog bit.” or “The dog the man bit.” are nearly incomprehensible as complete and isolated sentences, because we literally can’t tell which noun is nominative and which one is accusative. (This becomes clearer if you “finish” the sentence: “The man the dog bit is recovering in the hospital.”)

You can’t even use morphology to explain this completely, though. In German, you can use the accusative, topic-first, to create a perfectly reasonable sentence like “The man, the dog bit,” where “man” would be accusative and “dog” would be nominative. French and Spanish (and even ASL) can do this solely with inflection, since there is no case morphology left in those languages, either, but there is frequently some repitition, where the accusative topic is “repeated” as an accusative pronoun on the verb (e.g. “Cet homme, le chien **l’**a mordu.”) English has a hard time with topic-first syntax period.

Your extensive answer is definitely appreciated, Kiminy, but I don’t think that it addresses much that I didn’t bring up in my OP.

I conceded that English spelling is a bear…but also separated it from my observations on grammar. As you point out, they’re different topics.

I also mentioned that we still see declension present in our personal pronouns. But that’s the only place you’ll find it, and it makes sense to me because they’re some of the oldest words in the language.

Also, “I went” and “I have been” are distinct tenses, and not both the past. The former is the past tense, but the latter is the present perfect. Besides, other languages have a set of tenses that cover the same ideas. I don’t believe English is unusally confusing in that regard.

But you do rraise a good point about the extreme importance of word order. I suppose when you strip the inflections, you’ve got little choice but to keep a strict word order to denote case. Just trading one complexity for another, I suppose.

And RealityChuck, am I to assume based on your post that modern Danish also lacks the myriad of word endings that German has retained?

As other people have suggested, you’ve focused in on morphological complexity as an indication of the difficulty of a language. Morphology aside, some aspects of English grammar are extremely tricky for non-native speakers, such as the syntax of auxiliary verbs. Just try explaining to someone why the following sentences are ungrammatical:

“How did your presentation went?”
“Only by planning ahead we can do this correctly.”
“Do you know who is he?”
“I could neither do it then, nor I can do it now.”
“You already came here yesterday, aren’t you?”

Of course, fixing these sentences is trivial for any native speaker, but explaining why they need fixing, or teaching a non-native what the relevant principles are, is a different matter.

Nope; they’re both the past tense. English has two tenses: Past and Non-past. What you’re referring to for ‘have been’ is mood, not tense.

Oops. ‘Have’ of course is the non-past. The bit about mood is still correct.

Fair enough. I never really meant to imply that I thought English grammar was easy in all aspects. I just lacked the linguistic terminology to get to the point. What caused English to trade morphological complexity for trickier syntax?

And Monty, I don’t want to dive too deep into the tense thing. A cursory bit of Googling reveals that there seems to be plenty of disgreement about what constitutes an English tense. Plenty of sites say there are technically only two, but the majority indicate that there are many more (9, 16, 30, pick a number…depending on how you count them. Present progressive, future perfect, etc.) This jives with my understanding of the definition of tense since grade school.

And aren’t moods in English the declarative, interrogative, subjunctive, etc? My memories of English class—and foreign language classes—lead me to think mood is a totally different property of verbs than the whole “went/have gone” deal.

No matter…nitpicking over tense and mood is trivial with respect to my original question, which basically boils down to: “What historical processes caused English to be stripped of its noun and verb endings?”

Now that is a well-formulated question!

If only there was a correspondingly good answer . . .

English has two tenses, past and non-past. “Tense” is used in linguistics generally to refer to time period and time period only; for instance, a language might divide the past into the distant past and the recent past, or have a past tense only to describe events that happened the same day (not uncommon, actually), and so forth, and thus have more tenses than English. But “progressive” and “perfect” and so forth are aspects, not tenses.

Aspect describes sort of the makeup of the action from a temporal perspective. If it happened before another event, or while something else was happening; if it was repeated habitually, or occurred at a certain point in time. Those are all the sorts of things that can be communicated with aspect. The reason “aspect” and “tense” are treated separately from a linguistic perspective is that much of the time, you can combine different aspects and tenses.

Simplified example: English has a present perfect and a past perfect, a present progressive and a past progressive. Those combinations suggest that there are two separate dimensions to describe a particular verb - presentness versus pastness, and perfectness versus progressiveness. We’ll call the first dimension - past versus present - “tense”, and the second one, “aspect”. (N.B. The tense commonly referred to as “present” is often technically described as “nonpast”.) We can conclude that they’re separate because you can easily vary one or the other independently, suggesting that they describe inherently different grammatical categories.

Yes, though exactly which of those English has depends on who’s counting. Monty said “mood”, but he meant “aspect”. Tense, mood, and aspect are all separate things.

I wish I knew this better, as it’s an interesting question. I don’t know all that much about English, never having studied it. I know that in some cases, a loss of inflection is the result of changes in the sound system. For instance, the late Vulgar Latin vowel system changed pretty dramatically around the time the Roman Empire was ending; changes occurred, too, in which consonants were allowed at the ends of words. The result was that case endings became indistinct, and they were replaced in most circumstances by stricter word order and the use of prepositions; that’s why the modern Romance languages lake cases.

It’s possible that such a change occurred early in the history of English; that sort of thing is not uncommon. But that’s just a guess on my part - I only know the broadest outlines of the history of English.

Thanks, Excalibre; I’m always forgetting about aspect.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake to say that any particular natural language has a simpler grammar than any other natural language. From what I’ve encountered, one part of Language A may be simpler than a corresponding part of Language B, whereas another part of Language A may be more complicated than its corresponding part of Language B. So, IMHO, all natural languages are equally complex.

What about Pirahã? Now they’re saying it doesn’t even have embedding. If the stuff they’ve been saying about Pirahã is even close to the truth, it sort of puts a dagger through the idea that all languages are equal in complexity.

But generally I’d agree (and I think the data on Pirahã are way too speculative to start revising all our theories just yet.) Languages all seem to have the same expressive power, which sort of necessitates equally-complex grammar. While a language might be deficient in morphology, syntax picks up the slack, and vice versa. Same for most other aspects of language - while one language might be comparable simple in one area, necessity dictates that it will compensate elsewhere.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I absolutely trust the idea in all contexts - looking at the morphological complexity of, for instance, some American Indian languages, I start to wonder if their grammar really is more complex. There’s a tendency for languages spoken only by small isolated groups to start using all sorts of wacky grammatical categories and mark them explicitly in ways that languages like English don’t do.

I wouldn’t say the data on that language is speculative. I’m leaning towards calling it creative.

I’m going to talk about Scandinavian here, but me not being a linguist there’s small chance I might actually be talking about things that only apply to Norwegian.

Apart from the possessive s (which should not be preceeded by an apostrophe), the Scandinavian languages only have remnants of dative and genitive noun declensions in fixed expressions. We have more word endings than English, but that’s because we use postfixes rather than the definite article, and the postfixes change with the gender of the noun.

a knife, the knife, knives, the knives
en kniv, kniven, kniver, knivene

a window, the window, windows, the windows
et vindu, vinduet, vinduer, vinduene

a house, the house, houses, the houses
et hus, huset, hus, husene

a jacket, the jacket, jackets, the jackets
ei jakke, jakka, jakker, jakkene

There are words with other patterns, but that’s enough for illustration purposes. Are the English noun declensions simpler, sure, but in other ways Scandinavian is simpler.

I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you are, they are
Jeg er, du er, han er, hun er, det er, vi er, dere er, de er

I walk, you walk, he/she/it walks, we walk, you walk, they walk
Jeg går, du går, han går, hun går, det går, vi går, dere går, de går

Ignoring the (IIRC) singular case of am/are/is, I think we’re about evenly matched for irregular nouns and verbs. And our spelling makes much more sense. :wink:

Yes. Moden Danish is a fixed word order language like English, whereas Scandinavian languages (Icelandic, Faroeise) that more resemble tenth century Nordic has retained them. Though it’s not clear from RealityChuck’s post why that should be, since Danes in Denmark was never pressed between to different languages.

I don’t know, and it would not be a good thing to assume that. The issue occurred with the Danes and other Scandinavians living in Britain, and it probably didn’t affect the language back in Denmark.

Interestingly, the encounter between English and Danish seems to have had a similar effect on Danish too. Danish today is the outstanding example of a Continental language that has become almost as simple in its inflection system as English. Danish does not even inflect verbs for number and person at all, having lost even a third-person singular form that would be analogous to the ‘-s’ ending in English. On the other hand, if the Wiki article is to be trusted, Danish does have more irregular verbs than English, as well as non-biological gender of nouns.

As has been explained, the grammatical simplification is the result of the interaction between Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Norman French supplied a lot of vocabulary, but not grammatical structure.

Agree. I was once in the situation of trying to explain why, if someone is not obligated to go to dinner, you do not say “You must not go to dinner with us.” I could tell them what to say but not why.

I would disagree with the OP’s premise that English is simpler than European languages. I studied French for 5 years (although have lost any degree of fluency I never had :slight_smile: ) and although some parts were more difficult than English, some were easier. I studied Italian on my own and found it easier than English or French, although I might have come to a different conclusion were I to have studied it formally and rigorously.

The OP seems to dismiss the difficulty of irregular verbs out of hand; I still have to remind my 7-year-old not to say “brang.” Every week I hear native English speakers say, “It’s broke.” Further, the use of auxiliary verbs, especially “did,” is difficult.

It is a shame that American children are not taught more formal grammar. In reading this thread, I am seeing references to tense and mood that I never learned in English class in school, and was exposed to for the first time when studying French. In fact, our French teacher assumed we knew what things like “past perfect” were but we had no clue. And I have never even heard of “aspect” until today.

I would guess that if you asked, most people of the world would say that their own language is easier than most others they have tried to learn.