I assume that the reader's mother tongue is some European language, but I guess it could apply to other people with few modifications.

Do you remember when you first learnt another European language at school? You had trouble with the pronunciation, you could not understand why they put the adjectives before or after the noun, why their irregular verbs were different from yours. These people sucked, their language was irrational; but at the same time it was fun.

Later you decided to learn Japanese, and you had even more trouble. The sentences were completely different, the writing system made no sense at all.

What's happening here? Let us consider three languages. The first one is French. French is my mother tongue. French is usually considered as one of the most difficult languages in the world. Not everything is difficult in French though. For example, the sentence stress always occurs on the last syllable. The pronunciation is not very difficult either, once you have understood the rules. So it could be a nice and not-too-difficult language but, for some reason, French verbs are extremely difficult to use, the grammar is awfully complicated, and the orthography, well, we'd better not speak about it. In French schools, the pupils spend ten years of their life learning the rules, the variants of the rules, and the exceptions to the variants of the rules.

It would be nice to have a language where the verbs would be easier to use and where the adjectives would be always on the same side of the noun. I'm speaking about the English language. Alas, sometimes you need to speak English, not just read it, and the trouble begins. Each vowel may be pronounced in four or five different ways, and you never know which words should be stressed and which ones should be nearly mute. As a foreigner, you know that you may live in Oxford for twenty years, you may marry an English woman/man, you may even understand the rules of cricket, but you will never, never sound like an Englishman.

So what? Let's find a language in which pronunciation is easy. Yes, it does exist: Japanese. The Japanese language does not contain any weird sound, and the syllables are extremely simple. Of course you need to learn the grammar and the vocabulary again from the ground up, but it seems normal since that language has no common root with the languages you already know. So, is this the perfect language?

No, it is a new nightmare. You can speak the language, but you cannot write it, and you cannot read it, because the Japanese use the most incredible writing system in the world. They write their language with Chinese characters, but the Chinese characters were invented for a language which has no inflection, and which uses so many kinds of slightly different sounds (tones) that an alphabet would be either huge or inaccurate. Japanese is just the opposite: it cheerfully adds suffixes to the particles and particles to the suffixes, until the sentence is completely unreadable for a Western mind. And, as we have already seen, it uses very few sounds.

Anyway, they still decided to use the Chinese characters, and they called them kanji. Since the kanji were clearly not adapted to their language, they also invented a fifty-character syllabary (hiragana) for the inflections. Because it was not complicated enough, they created a second fifty-character syllabary (katakana) for various purposes, including writing foreign words. So you have it: the weirdest writing system in the world. And that language, which could be simple, nice, rational, is a complete mess. Just like English. Just like French. The Japanese children spend ten years of their life learning how to write their language, and after that more of them can read and write than in Western countries.

I can see only one explanation: we need complicated languages. It's something within us, we can do nothing about it: we love the subtle intricacies of each language. We don't think a language can be worth learning if it is simple. This is why Esperanto and Lisp will never win.


Thanks to Juuichiketajin for a correction about the number of Japanese kana.

Hmmm, I don't know if all of this really suggests that We don't think a language can be worth learning if it is simple. It seems that the complexities of various languages reflect more the organic nature of language than any sort of conspiracy by language users.

The linguist Steven Pinker points out, for example, that irregular verbs can often be explained in terms of phonology: generating inflected verbs by our language's regular rules could produce words we'd find too difficult to pronounce, whereas "Irregulars ... all have standard Anglo-Saxon word sounds such as grew and strode and clung, which please the ear and roll off the tongue." (p.19). The ability to pronounce a word obviously falls outside of our language-psychology.

It is also interesting to note that across various languages the irregulars tend to name the same concepts ("be, have, do, go, and say") (p.18)! Pinker points out that any irregularities in the naming of these concepts (which might, for example, stem from the diverse origins of the language) are more likely to be retained because of their frequent use.

Were we to suddenly adopt an artificial language such as Esperanto, a number of irregularities would come into parlance after a few generations. This is not because we love inconsistency. Rather, these inconsistencies are actually less obviously advantages to breaking the rules that emerged as the language was thrown back and forth (there was definitely never a single user of our language who suddenly decided "hey, it’s a lot easier to say grew than growed!").

The genetics of languages - the origin of a particular aspect of a language in an older language - could also account for many of inconsistencies in a language as a whole. This is certainly how we should think about the complexities of Japanese orthography that thbz discusses. I'm sure native and foreign speakers of Japanese would prefer a simpler system for writing their language, but that's just not the way their language evolved.

In summary, the complexities of languages take form in an unconscious way - through an organic process of trial and error that reflects more than what individuals enjoy about using their language.




Both quotes are from "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language" by Steven Pinker.

Thanks to Albert Herring, for pointing out an error in the first version of this write up.
The difficulty of learning the English language is indeed great, but it seems to be made even greater by the notion that languages are only learned through systematic studies of grammar and vocabulary. Picking up phrases and sentence patterns and breaking them up into individual pieces is another important way of acquiring a language which shouldn't be ignored.

As for Japanese, spelling words using kanji can certainly be more difficult than English spelling, though it can at times also be more intuitive. The problem with removing these kanji is that they're so tightly woven into the Japanese writing system that, even if you should want to, it would be hard to weed them out. In spoken language, it's easy to guess the meaning of individual words using a limited vocabulary and guessing from context; however the Japanese written language has borrowed a vast number of one-syllable (monosyllabic) words from written Chinese, that when put together to form complete meanings, form so many homonyms that abolishing the use of kanji in written texts would be very impractical. That being said, I've personally found Japanese to be a fairly logical language at the beginner level.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.