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Which grammatical features does English lack, which it is expressively poorer for? These could be features found in other languages – living, extinct or invented – or even be completely new imaginings. What features deny through their absence utile nuances of meaning? What features might drive us to more elegant and thus profounder speech? And what adaptations could be made to the way the English language is used to achieve equivalent results without creating ambiguity?

Please post each feature as a distinct reply, so that they can be up- (or down-) voted individually.

closed as too broad by tchrist, FumbleFingers, Kris, RegDwigнt Aug 17 '14 at 16:50

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Thank you all very much for your suggestions. They will be considered at the next meeting of The Academy. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 1:47
  • @John Lawler I assume your comment was just a sarcastic aside rather than a criticism of the last question of my question, but shall defend myself against the latter any case: when asking what adaptations could be made, I simply mean how could individuals modify the way they use English so that, whilst not necessarily "grammatical" to other people at the moment, nevertheless makes sense – and eventually such adaptations, whether literary or slang, might become mainstream. – R160K Aug 17 '14 at 2:14
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    Sure. And everybody does that anyway. I know that I feel more comfortable speaking a language where I can inflect the verbs and forget about the pronouns (like Spanish) than I do English, my native language. At speed I'm always putting a "he" where a "she" belongs, or something like that. But everybody's different. REALLY really different; so different that there is a vast personal difference between two individuals' internal grammar of their (same) native language. This is because the language and the brain grow together in each person, just like any other organ. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 2:21
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A way to form causitive verbs
I mean a regular way to form a verb that means "show" from "see" or "look", to form a verb that means "kill" from "die", to form a verb that means the auditory equivalent of "show" from "hear" or "listen" etc.

According to this question Nahuatl has such a system. Esperanto also does:
vidi – to see, vidigi – to show (to cause to see)
morti – to die, mortigi – to kill (to cause to die)
aŭdi – to hear, aŭdigi – to cause to hear
kuri – to run, kurigi – to cause to run
koleri – to be angry, kolerigi – to anger (to cause to be angry)

The question cited gives a perfect example of a situation where such a feature would be useful: "I show you a picture; I __ you a song." "Play" is the best fit, but is not quite congruous to "show". What if I wanted to __ you a sound, not necessarily playing it, but replicating it in some way?

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    English has a number of ways to form causative verbs, some syntactic, some morphological, but no single paradigmatic way, which is what you're asking for. I feel your frustration; it's much the same situation with inchoative verbs in Spanish. When I lived in Mexico, I was always looking for -- and failing to find -- some formula like English get that would always work to indicate change of state. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 1:52
  • I think that the entire category of things English does not need is a way of making up new words out of old ones. We have come far along a path of sheer accretion that there is no hope to create rules that will actually help. We already have the words we would create this way or we will borrow them from someone. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 2:22
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A clear way to clarify binding of negation, especially for modal verbs.

Every child has pretended that "You may not do that" means that "May(You, Not(Do(That)))" rather than "Not(You, May(Do(That))).

Tons of misunderstanding are all about where a given 'not' applies.

  • There you're right. Negation is a hopeless mess. However, that's true of all languages. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 2:02
  • I can't see that ambiguation makes English "expressively poorer", it just makes it ambiguous – Fattie Aug 17 '14 at 8:02
  • It makes it expressively poorer because it limits how many layers of negation one is willing to use at one time. It increases your odds of being misunderstood, so one finds oneself saying less. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 15:37
  • Negation is problematic, but not in the example you give. That is relatively simple. Not binds preferentially to the preceding main verb. It would only bind to the infinitive "do" (or other following negatable word) if an intervening word broke this binding. "You may not do this" must be the latter, but "You may perhaps not do this" is the former. – Wlerin Aug 18 '14 at 18:32
  • 'Not' binds in the opposite direction for 'may' than for closely related words like 'might'. That is why this is funny to children, because it is arbitrary. 'You might not win' means that not-winning is possible, like 'You might win' means winning is possible. It surely does not mean that winning is not-possible. 'You may not eat' means eating is not-allowed, rather than that not-eating is allowed. This is obnoxious. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 20 '14 at 5:36
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The ability to drop unnecessary determiners and copulae
In the Slavic languages (and many other languages) there are no words for "the" and "a", and the word "is" is not necessary in sentences like The car is red or you are funny – in Russian this is "машина красная", (car red) "ты смешной" (you funny). Such speech feels really clumsy in current English, but is in fact very elegant, and if used sparingly could really add conciseness and prosodic flexibility.

The words "the" and "a" should be kept for disambiguation or emphatic purposes, but should not be a requirement every time. The Romance languages often cause frustration amongst learners in the early days for their (in my opinion) drastic over use of the definite article. In German it is necessary because it denotes the case of nouns. In French (and other Romance languages) it denotes only gender. In English, it doesn't even carry that information.

Edit for clarification: I am not advocating the complete removal of "the" and "a", which do perform a useful function – nor even reducing their usage to the point of absolute necessity, using them only where one needs to distinguish definiteness. I am simply saying that it would be great if English-speakers could also get accustomed to article-less speech/writing to make the English language more flexible.

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    Whenever it comes to not doing something unnecessary, English will get there. We have no problem dealing with this when folks just do it without warning. So we would probably already have adopted such constructions, if we had not had Russians to make fun of. I think half the dumbest grammar in English exists because we like to mock foreigners for getting it wrong. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 1:46
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    You're mistaken here; English has dozens of ways -- rule-governed ways -- to drop unnecessary auxiliaries of all kinds. There are rules to get rid of prepositions, articles, auxiliaries, pronouns, repeated or predictable material of all kinds, and a number of combinations of such, like Whiz-Deletion. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 2:00
  • @JonJayObermark Indeed, it is strange we are notorious for making our language no more complex than it needs to be, but equally notorious for mocking foreigners who inadvertently find ways to make it even simpler. There is a quote from Jean-Luc Godard I can't seem to find again, something about how we decided that American Indians were uncivilised and therefore killable simply because they said "me welcome you" instead of "I welcome you" or something like that. – R160K Aug 17 '14 at 2:11
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    Because they talked different. That's good enough to murder people, if you want what they have. Or even if you just feel like it. The Americas were invaded ("founded") by European racists, with predictable attitudes. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 2:16
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    @JonJayObermark: Why not this one? This one what? If I don't know what you're talking about, the claim that it "works easily" is hard to evaluate. You've mentioned any number of things you don't like about English, but asking for specific reasons why one particular phenomenon exists (or perhaps doesn't exist -- it's not clear) is difficult to answer without some description beyond an indefinite pronoun. English does allow us to delete things, as demonstrated; but it's not always a good move, and causes endless fussing. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 18:58
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I think English is expressively poorer for the lack of a mood system, which we have let rot to the point where the subjunctive is only useful in very limited idioms.

It prevents us from leaving consideration open to alternative realities and pushes us too far into a logically-positivistic framing of everything.

This has been good for us as a people. We got Boole, Russel and Whitehead, Newton, etc. But clear is not deep.

In particular, it would help if we got a full optative and subjunctive, so that one could easily express what is presumably objective, what is affected by will, and what is simply questionable, without having to say so with full elaboration.

Someone has requested explication:

Languages like ancient Greek have verb forms that are used to deal with situations that may or may not be real, but that one wishes to play out at length without deciding or pretending that they are real. Two common reasons for considering alternate realities are the wish things could be otherwise, or the recognition that two cases are mutually exclusive, so both cannot be actual.

We have two different ways to deal with alternative versions of reality in English -- the subjunctive and modal verbs. But both of these are incomplete, or have so many of their moving parts co-opted by other idioms that they become hard to use consistently. So when you wish to discuss alternative versions of events, they do not even get used most of the time, and the discussion gets framed in terms of explicit separate cases.

Actual application of mood usually continues for less than two sentences, at which point, things get real, even if they are not.

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    Why do you want everything to be paradigmatic? English has a very fluid syntactic mood system, featuring modal auxiliary verbs and any number of useful constructions. Paradigms are features of certain types of language, but English is not that kind of language. At least not any more. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 2:09
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    Hold my hand ... (apologies to Borodin). – Edwin Ashworth Aug 17 '14 at 10:07
  • We fail to have mood via modal verbs, though, too. It has disintegrated on all fronts. We have the three moods I list, via basically 'can', 'would' and 'should', but we have removed the possibility for two of them to actually work by merging their meanings in awkward and bizarre ways. Does may not mean the same as might not, well, sometimes... Is 'must not' the opposite of 'can', of 'may' or of 'should'. Sometimes each. However you slice it, mood in English is incomplete and ends up requiring over-explication. So we neglect using it, because it would not be clear anyway. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 15:41
  • Re the paradigmatic. If you aren't after something paradigmatic, this question is nonsense. Every human language that bases a technological culture is complete. Humans everywhere say the same stuff, so they have a way. English can't really be lacking anything. But broken paradigms make us avoid saying certain things, or suppress certain subtleties because the forms are unnecessarily awkward. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 17:07
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The non-gendered singular pronoun. German, for instance, has'man' as a truly gender-free pronoun, it takes singular verbs and is not easily confused with other meanings.

Actually, following Latin, there could be a bunch of these. Latin legal arguments allow for a lot more parallel processing of alternative positions because it admits not just is/ea/id but ille/illa/illud and hic/haec/hoc as regular pronouns, and even sometimes quo/qui/quod and its decorated relatives can be used for extra pronouns. We translate out is, ille and hoc in Latin legal formulae with 'party of the 1st[, 2nd, 3rd] part' to the great loss of comprehensibility.

They do not feel artificial, or take up a lot of space like creating variable names, introducing featureless people, or referring to 'party of the third part'. It would be nice if somehow, say, 'one', 'you' and 'they' could be used simultaneously without objection for various interacting positions.

The problems with options in English include:

  • 'one' has an implicitly modal tone. (We could simply use it until it loses that tone.)
  • 'they' does not take singular verb forms. (We could all stop wincing when we hear it with them.)
  • 'he' perpetuates stereotypes. (We cannot undo history, so this one, although the current solution, is not acceptable.)
  • 'it' is implicitly non-animate (We could just get over the feeling it is insulting.)
  • 'hyt' has split into 'it' and 'he' and gone out of circulation when 'its' was invented and 'his' was changed from a form of 'hyt' to a form of 'he'. (We could reverse this split.)
  • 'he or she/she or he' interferes with refinement of the main subject and becomes hard to maintain in spoken discourse. Besides, it is not neither gender, it is both. If I say 'he or she' and then need to give them a more concrete existence for an example, it collapses.
  • 'you' could also refer personally to the listener. (Though this seldom happens in areas where the usage of 'you' for a third person is common. The objection is largely class bias.)
  • The non-gendered singular pronoun, "they", exists – the problem is that it is the same as the third person plural pronoun, just as the second person plurals (in standard English) are the same. Certainly though they could both do with being distinguished in terms of number. – R160K Aug 17 '14 at 1:47
  • Rationalizations aside, 'they' is not a singular pronoun. It never will be. If I talk about a single chair, I cannot use 'they'. So this is a solecism, and not real grammar. 'One' should catch on, but it reeks of class and permission, so folks would rather be ungrammatical than snooty. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 1:50
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    @JonJayObermark: Of course it is, if the rule is followed. If you don't understand the rule, you really shouldn't try to criticize it. One can't use singular they for neuter nouns like chair; one may only use it with a non-specific indefinite human referent. – John Lawler Aug 17 '14 at 2:07
  • @John Lawler -- The rule being that it takes singular, or plural verbs? Because, either way, it just doesn't. Even if 'they' is this pronoun, its grammar is not decided and it cannot be used regularly. So we need a complete one of these that works. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 15:52
  • @tchrist, I gave three answers, agree this one is kind of lame. But it does not deserve flame, condescension and implicit threat. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 17 '14 at 15:54

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