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.