Do all languages have redundant features?

Hulalessar

Senior Member
English - England
In this thread http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1525739 effeundici said: “When I started to study a little Arabic I was completely stunned, at first, when I realized that that language lacked the verbs to be and to have. But after a while I realized that these 2 verbs can be, actually, completely useless.”

The interesting aspects of these comments to me are:

1.They show that learning a foreign language, even if you never get to use it, has the benefit of (a) opening one's eyes to the possibility that there is more than one way of doing things and (b) helping one to understand ones own language better; “And what should they know of English who only English know” (Kipling) applies to every language.

2.They suggest that if one language can get along without a feature, another language that has that feature does not really need it.

Any language when viewed from the perspective of another has redundant features. Of course the native speaker of any language considers all its features both necessary and perfectly normal. When another language lacks a feature that ones own language has one can feel the language lacks precision, whilst the presence of a feature that ones own language lacks may strike one as being overly fussy.

So, are they any languages without any redundant features? My answer is to assert that since different languages have different ideas about what can and must be expressed the question is meaningless.
 
  • Mishe

    Senior Member
    Slovenian
    Interesting question and very true. We feel it is always OUR native language that is the most precise and expressive, whereas we treat foreign languages as having reduntant features (when having features our language lacks) or lacking features (when they lack features our own language possesses).

    For example, when I started learning French, I had very many problems with subjonctif, because I couldn't understand it and even today when I speak French I don't quite understand it, I just learned how to use it, but still I have to consciously remind myself to use it in certain circumstances, when I would normally and naturally (as in my native language) use indicative.

    However, there are also examples that prove the opposite. I really miss the expressive richness of English and French tenses in Slovenian, which has only 3 tenses. Also I find the grammatical dual relatively redundant, although it is a grammatical feature that makes many Slovenians very proud about their language.
     

    jmx

    Senior Member
    Spain / Spanish
    I suppose that the most likely candidates for "languages without redundancy" are isolating languages like Chinese. But I suspect that there's still some amount of redundancy even in those languages. The opinion of someone savvy about them would be helpful.
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I suppose that the most likely candidates for "languages without redundancy" are isolating languages like Chinese. But I suspect that there's still some amount of redundancy even in those languages. The opinion of someone savvy about them would be helpful.
    Well, not quite - or so I have been told.

    I don't know any Chinese but I've read some articles about Chinese Pidgin English (now probably almost extinct?) where there are redundant formulations like "look-see" if someone just wants to say "look", and I was told that this were so because that's a strategy of Chinese to disambiguate their own language where there are (allegedly) many homophons. The Chinese equivalent of "look-see" is 看见 kanjian [German page] according to Wiki (but obviously I can't make head nor tail of that ... probably someone else can).

    Anyway, to summarise - this strategy, if I understood correctly (and remember correctly), in Chinese would be:
    - use two words A + B with similar meanings but different sounds to express one meaning;
    - this is disambiguating homophons because if you'd use only word A this would be a homophone to C (with entirely different meaning) while word B would be a homophone to D and E (with two different meanings), but A+B combined only could have the meaning intended.

    Hope that's not too complicated to follow this line of argumentation. :)


    In a broader sense, and back to Slavic languages: speakers of Romance and Germanic languages might think that the aspect system of Slavic languages were "redundant"; it takes time to learn that Slavic aspect expresses meanings which you cannot quite express with similar means in Romance and Germanic languages - but you can express them with other means: you need to use other verbs, and sometimes those verbs in different combinations of tenses.

    Also, coming back to the copula (and its absence) = "to be/to have": it isn't as if the copula wouldn't have any grammatical meaning at all - in past tense (simple past) of Slavic languages (copula + participle) copula carries the grammatical distinction of person which isn't represented in the participle (which carries a marker for gender and number).
    In Russian, where the copula is left out, person still is represented with the personal pronoun which however is left out in other Slavic languages except for emphasis. An example to illustrate (blue = personal pronoun; red = copula; green = participle):
    Russian:
    Я
    писатель. (I am a writer - present tense.)
    Я был писатель.*) (I was a writer - past tense.)
    Slovenian:
    (Jaz) Sem pisatelj. (I am a writer - present tense.)
    Bil sem pisatelj. (I was a writer - past tense; also "(jaz) sem bil pisatelj", in Slovenian word order is free here.)
    *) I've checked with machine translations, some suggest I should use писателем(which I find hard to believe, but then my Russian is almost non-existant) - so this Russian phrase might be wrong grammatically; this just for the record; it doesn't matter that much for the context at hand.

    So the point is, there's exactly the same "amount" of redundancy here in this case, between Slovenian and Russian.
    Both Slavic languages express person, gender and number - in Russian the copula is left out while in Slovenian there's no personal pronoun.

    In Slovenian you may add the personal pronoun for emphasis (in which case you still mustn't delete the copula; I've edited in the Slovenian PP above in parenthesis as it is optional), while in Russian you won't ever add the copula - not even for emphasis, as far as I know.
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I don't know any Chinese but I've read some articles about Chinese Pidgin English (now probably almost extinct?) where there are redundant formulations like "look-see" if someone just wants to say "look", and I was told that this were so because that's a strategy of Chinese to disambiguate their own language where there are (allegedly) many homophons. The Chinese equivalent of "look-see" is 看见 kanjian [German page] according to Wiki (but obviously I can't make head nor tail of that ... probably someone else can).
    The problem seems to be the loss of phonetic distinction; a common problem in many East-Asian languages. Even taking into account different tones for disambiguation, there are still a dozen different meanings per distinguishable syllable (=word in Chinese). Have a look at the meanings of min2 (the "2" mean second tone, i.e. rising pitch like at the end of a question in English: "min?"). It seems evident that these are not differentiations of one primitive meaning but homophones caused by lack of phonetic distinction. Take e.g. the meaning "people" of "min2". A close synonym is "ren2". The normal expression for "people" is "ren2 min2" (something like "men-people") as in the currency name "ren2 min2 bi4" (men-people-money=people's currency). By the way: Did you notice the exorbitant number of meanings of bi4? I once sat in plane with a Chinese colleague and I asked her questions about certain Chinese words. After a while she said, slightly annoyed, it makes no sense asking her questions about individual words. In Chinese individuals words cannot be understood. Only sentences can be understood. Only the context and redundancy of the sentence make words intelligible.
     

    rusita preciosa

    Senior Member
    Russian (Moscow)
    Russian:
    Я писатель. (I am a writer - present tense.)
    Я был писателем) (I was a writer - past tense.)
    писателем (instrumental case) is correct and illustrates well my point below.

    Speaking of redundancies, Russian declensions could be a good example. With six main cases + others that are either retained in some archaic expressions or used for certain groups of nouns, combined with 3 genders (fem., masc., neuter) + plural/singular, the noun system is extremely cumbersome.

    Another example that comes to mind is double negatives
    Russian: y мeня ничeго нeт - "I don't have nothing"
    Spanish: no le dijo nada a nadie - "He didn't say nothing to nobody"
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Well, Esperanto has...

    1. Tenses, which Thai manages without.

    2. An article, which Russian manages without.

    3. An accusative case, which English manages without.
    These examples don't necessarily have anything to do with one language being more redundant than the other:

    Ad 1: East Asian languages add words as tense markers. E.g. "le5" in Mandarin to mark past tense. Languages with tense conjugations don't need these additional words.

    Ad 2: I don't know too little about Slavic languages to have anything to say here. But, e.g., Germanic languages developed articles rather late. They had (some still have) definiteness declensions instead.

    Ad 3: English replaced case declensions with strict word order or prepositions. Case inflected languages can vary word order for various purposes, like emphasis. Non case inflected languages like English needed to invent different mechanisms for this purpose which again increased redundancy:
    German: Diesen Stuhl wollte meine Frau.
    English: This is the chair which my wife wanted.
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    (Thanks Rusita for correcting my Russian. :))
    Yes, but if you read my previous comment, boy do we pay for the luxury of not having articles!! :)
    Bulgarian and Macedonian have articles (to stay within the Slavic family), also in informal registers of some other Slavic languages articles exist (they're not accepted features of standard language - this is the case e. g. in Slovenian).

    But the point is that an article isn't necessarily a redundant feature - it may be redundant in some contexts but in others it isn't, it is revealing new information.
    In German article may be used with proper names (very common in Austria but also in some other regions): "Der Toni kommt, die Gretl nicht." vs. "Toni kommt, Grete nicht" (Toni will be there, Grete won't): article (in red) is completely redundant here, it doesn't carry a specific meaning.
    It is different however in sentences like "dort ist der Toni" vs. "dort ist die Toni" (over there's Toni) - article is not adding definiteness here (as with proper names it is intrinsically clear that a very specific person is meant), but gender is added as "Toni" may be both a male or female name.

    And of course articles are not redundant in many other phrases: some languages do not express definiteness, others do - either way definiteness is not redundant except if it is clear that a subject has to be definite (like usually is the case with proper names).

    Back to Bulgarian and Macedonian, they share another interesting feature: they have a verbal aspect system like all other Slavic languages and which in a way (but not quite!!) allow to express similar meanings as the three Spanish tenses (and similar tense systems in other languages); nevertheless, both Bulgarian and Macedonian still also have a three-tense-system like Spanish (and indeed Old Slavonic too had).

    So in Bulgarian and Macedonian you will find aspect (perfective and imperfective) very closely entwined with tenses (imperfect = more or less similar to Spanish imperfecto, aorist = more or less similar to Spanish indefinido, and perfect = not quite the same as Spanish pretérito perfecto but the closest you get). (I won't mention pluperfect as it is complicated enough already.)
    This creates new meanings which are not redundant at all, and which one cannot express easily in languages like English, Spanish or German.

    Redundancy is for example when gender is expressed in one sentence more often than once as (technically) it would be sufficient to mark gender just once. Natural languages usually contain more or less plenty of redundancy because this makes it easier to understand language even if you don't listen too closely. A Slovenian sentence to illustrate the point made:

    Ona je bila pisateljica prej, a ni pisala nič odkar je skočila z mostom.
    (She was a writer once but she hasn't written a word since she jumped from the bridge. - And please allow for the odd mistake, my Slovenian is far from perfect.)
    "Ona" could (and should) be left out here but may be used for emphasis: it adds number and gender which is marked extremely redundantly here already.
    The letters marked in red all mark gender (and number) - 5 grammatical markers where one would suffice.
    But still all those gender markers have to be used correctly in Slovenian, else the sentence would be grammatically wrong: this is now what we call redundancy. :)
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    So, are they any languages without any redundant features? My answer is to assert that since different languages have different ideas about what can and must be expressed the question is meaningless.
    Excuse me if I am a bit pernickety about the title given to this thread. Redundancy usually refers to two or more grammatical or lexical features that express nothing more than only one of these features ; so using a paste tense with an adverb like yesterday is redundant.
    Your point is different , and it's a very interesting question : linguistic means we cannot even imagine through the prism of our own language may look either meaningless ( because we don't need it ) or practical ( because we can't express the same or have to add many words to say the same ). Am I going by you ?
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France

    I don't know any Chinese but I've read some articles about Chinese Pidgin English (now probably almost extinct?) where there are redundant formulations like "look-see" if someone just wants to say "look", and I was told that this were so because that's a strategy of Chinese to disambiguate their own language where there are (allegedly) many homophons. The Chinese equivalent of "look-see" is 看见 kanjian [German page] according to Wiki (but obviously I can't make head nor tail of that ... probably someone else can).

    I think you are partly right. Dissyllabic verb ( made of two verbs ) chiefly spread in spoken Chinese because they are more audible than monosyllabic words . But there are other reasons. As Chinese is basically a monosyllabic and analytic language, it's impossible to make derives with prefixes, particles, endings, and there are very few suffixes. So making compounds ( and it’s the same for nouns ) is a process for increasing and differenciating vocabulary. I am unsure if we can consider and real synonyms. Let’s say they belong to the same lexical field
    like to see, to watch, to look at and so on. Both of them have their own use,even though their use can sometimes intersect and they can be used on their own. For example is used for watching T.V., seeing a film, reading a book while means to see, to meet somebody and I think emphasizes the notion, used for example in a sentence : “Did you see what happened ? “.

    Very interesting and enlightening, thanks a lot. (And frightening. Opens all doors to plays on words. :D)
    Fine intuition ! Chinese indeed plays on homophones. This is an example : To say that a so-called new situation does'nt change anything in fact, people can say : " wàisheng dǎ dēnglóng ", what means "Nephew to light up a lantern" or "(It's like) a nephew would light up a lantern". It really sounds like a riddle. Well, a nephew lighting up a lantern is supposed to do it for lighting his uncle, in Chinese : "zhào jiù" , "to light uncle", but this phrase has a homophon written :" " zhào jiù" which means "the same as before" . So nothing has changed if the nephew is lighting a lantern !
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Excuse me if I am a bit pernickety about the title given to this thread. Redundancy usually refers to two or more grammatical or lexical features that express nothing more than only one of these features ; so using a paste tense with an adverb like yesterday is redundant.
    Your point is different , and it's a very interesting question : linguistic means we cannot even imagine through the prism of our own language may look either meaningless ( because we don't need it ) or practical ( because we can't express the same or have to add many words to say the same ). Am I going by you ?

    I think you are probably right. Can you think of a better word for my question than "redundant"?
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Any language when viewed from the perspective of another has redundant features.

    So, are they any languages without any redundant features? My answer is to assert that since different languages have different ideas about what can and must be expressed the question is meaningless.
    Thanks to T.F. de TROYES I now do understand your original question better. :)

    This is indeed a different question; and Slavic languages again offer an excellent example:

    From the point of view of a speaker of Romance or Germanic languages verbal aspect seems quite pointless and redundant while in Slavic languages aspect is obligatory and wrong use of perfective or imperfective aspect may change meanings dramatically or render sentences grammatically incorrect.
    So for Slavic languages aspect is not redundant at all, only learners of Slavic languages think so at first.
    And on the contrary, native speakers of Slavic languages feel that they lack expressive means when learning other languages because of the absence of aspect (I've had this confirmed already by native speakers :)).

    It takes a lot of time for Non-Slavic speakers to get the hang of the aspect system (I never really did, honestly); and the other way round it takes plenty of time for Slavic speakers to learn using other means of expressing the perfective-imperfective-differentiation in Non-Slavic languages.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    In German article may be used with proper names (very common in Austria but also in some other regions): "Der Toni kommt, die Gretl nicht." vs. "Toni kommt, Grete nicht" (Toni will be there, Grete won't): article (in red) is completely redundant here, it doesn't carry a specific meaning.
    we call redundancy. :)
    I'd like to know if using articles here does'nt add kind of familiarity,casualness or even disdain ? I am thinking of a similar use in French with such connotations, but old-fashioned at the present time .
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    The problem seems to be the loss of phonetic distinction; a common problem in many East-Asian languages.

    Yes, that's a reason. To-day it is agreed that old Chinese had consonant clusters which don't occur in any of modern Chinese languages and many linguists think the tones that arose in Middle Chinese evolved from final consonants that don't exist any more. But I believe that if Chinese has so many homophones, it's basically due to its monosyllabic feature and forming compounds made of two ( and more rarely three words ) was the semantical means to get over this phonological limitation.
    Even taking into account different tones for disambiguation, there are still a dozen different meanings per distinguishable syllable (=word in Chinese). Have a look at the meanings of min2 (the "2" mean second tone, i.e. rising pitch like at the end of a question in English: "min?").

    A famous example of Chinese polysemy is the Classical constrained writing Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den by Yuen Ren Chao , made up of 92 characters, all pronounced shi (with one of the four tones).
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I'd like to know if using articles here does'nt add kind of familiarity,casualness or even disdain ? I am thinking of a similar use in French with such connotations, but old-fashioned at the present time .
    Well, this actually depends.
    In Austria, so in a region where everyone is speaking like that, the use of article with proper names don't really carries any such connotations but its absence may, that is if you don't use article with proper names in informal (spoken) language this sounds odd, probably creates more social distance, or sounds quite formal.

    In written language however (I'm still talking about Austrian use of German, of course :)) use of article with proper names indeed creates a kind of familiarity as written language is considered to be a formal register; or lets be more precise, novels and newspaper language is considered such.

    Chatstyle written language like you see in internet forums or in any of those new social networking services may contain plenty of this use of articles as this kind of written language is informal.

    In Germany it might be that at least in some regions (I'd say predominantly the north but it is difficult to define the region exactly) use of article with proper name may have vastly different connotations: probably this would be considered uneducated, or foreign ("sothernish"), or whatever.

    So from the point of view of connotations carried by this use the feature may be considered not redundant; it is redundant considering grammatical meanings only.
     

    Meyer Wolfsheim

    Senior Member
    English
    Interesting question and very true. We feel it is always OUR native language that is the most precise and expressive, whereas we treat foreign languages as having reduntant features (when having features our language lacks) or lacking features (when they lack features our own language possesses).

    For example, when I started learning French, I had very many problems with subjonctif, because I couldn't understand it and even today when I speak French I don't quite understand it, I just learned how to use it, but still I have to consciously remind myself to use it in certain circumstances, when I would normally and naturally (as in my native language) use indicative.

    However, there are also examples that prove the opposite. I really miss the expressive richness of English and French tenses in Slovenian, which has only 3 tenses. Also I find the grammatical dual relatively redundant, although it is a grammatical feature that makes many Slovenians very proud about their language.

    Not true. My native language is English and find it incredibly vague and at times too analytical. When I read newspaper headlines, I often get confused and it sometimes takes me a minute to figure out which idiom/expression/ellipsis is being used for a given set of words, because some phrases can have many meanings depending on context. English I can say is one of the most unexpressive languages in terms of communicating without confusion; its only redeeming qualities are the ability to create new verbs/words on the spot and the beauty of its phrasal/prepositional verbs. I also find many features of English redundant, like the verb "to be" and I was surprised when I first realized that English didn't even have a working plural form for the definite article "the" (let's not count null plural markers here).

    Other redundant features of English include the relative pronoun/clause words which no longer hold any differences; you can use "that" for almost any situation. It wouldn't make any sense obviously to drop "to be"; it is used as a modal verb and it helps keep a certain pace/rhythm to English.
     

    ireney

    Senior Member
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    I have been following this thread with interest but I must say I am not all too "comfortable" with the idea of redundant features. Each language does away with some features and uses some others to make communication clear. Modern Greek has done away with pitch and whatnot but has kept declension which may be considered redundant but then if we had done away with declension then we'd have to use more prepositions which can be considered redundant too.
    Chinese has a lot of homophones and uses "redundant" features to distinguish between them. But has done away with all the redundant features of, let's say Greek (and many more IE languages).

    And where do we stop with features that are redundant? Are we talking about "Me Tarzan, you Jane", "I hungry eat (food)" ("food" can be considered redundant) kind of formats that can be considered completely free of redundancy?
    And what is "worse"? "I eat in the past" or "I ate"? How do we choose what is less redundant? Is any of the two that word I don't want to type again?
     

    Heitor

    Senior Member
    Português (Brasil)
    This is an interesting discussion and I don't think anyone has touched on what I'm going to mention:

    If languages do have redundant features, then we should expect that not to be the case with computer languages. I can't imagine the designer of a programming language throwing in features that serve no purpose whatsoever.

    Well, as it turns out, computer languages do have features that seem redundant. And this is clearly another case of a feature seeming redundant because the language is foreign to us (all computer languages are foreign, except for the person who designs them). Here is an example of a seemingly redundant feature in one computer language (Basic):

    dim salary as number

    That statement means define a variable capable of holding a number and call it "salary". Here is the same statement in another computer language (Java):

    number salary

    So clearly from the Java perspective "dim" and "as" seem redundant in Basic. But there is a reason for that: the "redundant" features allow the program that translates Basic into the bits and bytes used by the computer to be far simpler than the program that does the same thing for Java.

    I was quite surprised to find that the same is true for human languages. What we perceive as "redundancy" in foreign languages are actually things that make the language simpler to understand for native speakers. A little extra work on the speaker's side saves a lot of work on the listener's side.

    Another interesting thing is that we are usually bothered by the redundancy in foreign languages because it makes it harder to build sentences. It does not, however, make it hard to understand sentences, since we simply ignore what we perceive as redundant (which is why it seems redundant in the first place).

    So, yes, languages do have some redundancy but the redundancy is there to make it easier for listeners/readers to understand sentences as they are being spoken/read.

    As a side comment, someone has complained about how ambiguous English is, which I think is not entirely correct. If English were ambiguous it would not be possible to write scientific papers in it, which is clearly not the case. The problem with English is that it is too "efficient", that it lacks those extra words whose only function is to help the listener quickly figure out what is being said without having to think too much. Notice how the same person who complained about the ambiguity of English said that he often has to think too much to find out what a sentence really means.

    Well, that is all I've found. I hope someone enjoys reading it as much I enjoyed finding out about it. I also hope I don't sound redundant :)
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    And yes, it is true that supposedly "redundant" features make it easier to understand language.
    This is one of its two main functions the second (not entirely independent) one being error correction.


    You all probably have experienced this: If you listen to someone on a bad phone line or in a noisy environment you can usually manage to understand the essence of what is being said. But as conditions deteriorate there is a point when you suddenly can't understand any more. That is the point when the error rate exceeds the redundancy. A well known phenomenon also for IT people (like myself) who have worked in telecommunications: If the error rate is low, error correction mechanisms built into the protocol will be able to recover the lost information from redundancy built into the message. If the error rate increases there is a point where suddenly communication slows down because the protocol has to perform too many recoveries. That is when the error rate exceeds a certain level. This threshold is a function of the redundancy in the message.
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    Not true. My native language is English and find it incredibly vague and at times too analytical. When I read newspaper headlines, I often get confused and it sometimes takes me a minute to figure out which idiom/expression/ellipsis is being used for a given set of words, because some phrases can have many meanings depending on context.

    That is not a fault, it is a design feature! That is part of the game of writing headlines.

    English I can say is one of the most unexpressive languages in terms of communicating without confusion;

    Is this a problem of English, or just incompetent users of the language?
     

    Miguel Antonio

    Senior Member
    Galego (Rías Baixas)
    It is very common in everyday Spanish speech to say things like subir arriba (go/come up + up), bajar abajo (go/come down + down) and salir para afuera (go/come out + out).

    Is this what we are discussing in this thread (sorry, I'm a bit confused)

    :)
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It is very common in everyday Spanish speech to say things like subir arriba (go/come up + up), bajar abajo (go/come down + down) and salir para afuera (go/come out + out).

    Is this what we are discussing in this thread (sorry, I'm a bit confused)

    :)

    I had not intended the thread to be about semantic redundancy. Rather it was about whether any language can be so reduced that you cannot say about it that it has any "fancy" features.

    My first post in this thread was a response to another poster who had said: “When I started to study a little Arabic I was completely stunned, at first, when I realized that that language lacked the verbs to be and to have. But after a while I realized that these 2 verbs can be, actually, completely useless.” The point is that for English speakers these two verbs are not "completely useless." I suppose I am just trying to draw attention to the fact that the whole thing is a bit subjective. When we study another language we have to consider it in its own terms and not think of it as being deficient if it does not do something our mother tongue does. Equally, we ought not to start getting the idea that our mother tongue is lacking in some way because it does not do something another language we know does. All languages are complete systems.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Equally, we ought not to start getting the idea that our mother tongue is lacking in some way because it does not do something another language we know does. All languages are complete systems.
    I seriously could not agree with you more on this point :thumbsup:

    Some are just different, I remember someone mentioning Hungarian and they said something along the lines of "It'd take a whole paragraph of English to fully explain one single sentence in Hungarian, to explain and detail all the nuances that are implied". That made me think and wonder, and it made an impact because I still remember it today, but that doesn't mean English 'lacks' in this respect, even though I'd love to know Hungarian and be able to understand fully what this point means, but English is just a different system, there are probably many things I love about English that I wish Hungarian had (if I were to learn / speak it), different languages have different qualities, and even if someone can say a language doesn't have a particular function that is desireable, it will have many other aspects that are good, because (to re-iterate) they're different complete systems.
     
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    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    No doubt the following is also true: "It'd take a whole paragraph of Hungarian to fully explain one single sentence in English, to explain and detail all the nuances that are implied".
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    No doubt the following is also true: "It'd take a whole paragraph of Hungarian to fully explain one single sentence in English, to explain and detail all the nuances that are implied".

    I’m not sure I get you, I know Hungarian is notoriously a difficult language to learn (based on its case structure and it was also surveyed to be the ones that people have the most problems with, out of all the British Council staff working in foreign embassies)

    The idea is, the cases you put nouns into show / reflect certain relationships between what is being talked about, between speaker to speaker or speaker and object and there are many differently subtleties that a certain inflection can show that would require a good few words of English to underline the meaning.

    That is the logic behind what I said, as I said, I’m not a speaker of Hungarian but I am wondering what makes you say that, because English is a simpler language than Hungarian in what can be expressed with less words, you can add (I believe) 16 endings on words, and to illustrate each difference would require more English words. I assumed English nuances (even in one sentence) are handled perfectly with a simple tag at the end of a word to indicate differences in the meaning / nuance.

    Could you tell me why the reverse would also be true? (Just curious!)
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I’m not sure I get you, etc

    I think first of all that one must not fall into the trap of thinking that one language is more complex than another. I think linguists agree that (in so far as complexity can be defined and measured) all languages are more or less equally complex. Complexities in one area are compensated for by simplicities in another. Complexity should not be confused with difficulty in learning since difficulty in learning is subjective and depends on how similar the language being learned is to any language that is known. All languages have hurdles that a learner has to leap. All that differs is how high the hurdles are and when you encounter them. I have never tried to learn Hungarian, but from what I have read about the language I suspect that there is quite a high hurdle to negotiate early on. (If the Hungarians are anything like the Finns they take a delight in telling foreigners that they can can never hope to master their complex language; that only sets up a psychological barrier.) In contrast to Hungarian is the example of Malay where it is famously asserted that it takes ten weeks to speak it well and ten years to speak it properly - lots of low hurdles to clear.

    For a native English speaker having to learn conjugations or declensions is perceived as a complexity because English does not have them. But mastering them is just spade work. I know French quite well and think I can conjugate any verb (OK maybe not haïr) but sometimes agonise over which preposition to use. It is also my experience that the more complex the system, the more regular it tends to be. Latin has more forms of the verb than French, but far fewer irregular verbs.

    Complexity does not necessarily equate with subtlety. Where word plus ending in one language is represented by two words in another it is still the case that the idea is expressed by two different things. It is of course the case that sometimes a single word in one language needs more than one in another - the Spanish word madrugar is an example - I know of no single English word that means "to rise early in the morning."

    What one language expresses another leaves unsaid. One of the complexities of an analytical language like English is that meaning is often dependent on context. So the meaning of John put James down depends on us knowing whether John has picked James up or whether John felt it necessary to give James a dressing down.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I agree with a vast amount of what you said.
    I have read similar quotes about languages being equally complex but I personally feel that motivations for this are sometimes not always empirical but rather for equality in comparison.

    Let’s take a language like Icelandic.
    There are 74 groups of nouns classed over 3 genders with strong / weak groups in all of them, and the mind has to rely on functions of sentence fragments to determine which one of tens of options to use, i.e if in English we might be feeling out the nuances and using different words, all we need to do is think of another option, whereas in Icelandic you need to get to that word, jump to it’s gender, it’s sub-group, is it strong or weak, and within that paradigm chose the appropriate case and then take into account if you’re using a definite article which thus changes the forms of the adjectives you have to pick up..

    Whereas English has its difficulties in spelling where the written form can be different, or we have sentences that heavily rely on context, it’s no comparison to say “all languages are equal” and somehow compensate for each other.

    I do agree there are compensations of course, but the degree to which difficulties cause problems, just because there are some, don’t make them equal.


    You raised a good point about classifying difficulties of languages depending on the original language you are learning from, like it’d be easier for a Danish person to learn Icelandic rather than Chinese, or it’d be easier for a Japaneese person to learn Chinese instead of Arabic, so that’s a very valid point that I agree with you on.

    Back to the comparison with English & Icelandic, English has no gender except obvious natural gender, one form of the definite article, no adjective declensions, no noun groups, 99.9999% of words form the plural by adding ‘s’ and the definite article still doesn’t change. In a typical conversation these elements are so fundamental to even the most basic sentences that, to compare a sentence prone to confusion without context is definitely something that is difficult, but to get along for the most part it’s a lot easier in English, it has elements that can be confusing but compared with a language like Russian / German / Hungarian / Finnish that rely on the mind to constantly subconsciously realise what each word is doing takes a lot more effort and (to me) means it is without a doubt more difficult to learn.


    I’ve read a lot of books on linguistics (or I should say, I’m halfway through reading many books on the topic) and I do know the sort of comments you are referring to, it always comes up in the contexts of primitive languages and even the languages found in Papa New Guinea still have complicated structures to rival that off the languages of many countries in the developed world.

    After these stages (or rather hurdles) have been (jumped over?) then the difficulty disappears, so for speakers then it is as easy as anything else they know.

    I would assume that if a language is more difficult to learn, then it is generally a more complex language (though I have to state I am referring to English native speakers as we said before there is a massive degree of difference depending on the language you are starting off with).

    So my point is only that, well, you said:

    I think first of all that one must not fall into the trap of thinking that one language is more complex than another


    . All languages have hurdles that a learner has to leap. All that differs is how high the hurdles are and when you encounter them. I have never tried to learn Hungarian, but from what I have read about the language I suspect that there is quite a high hurdle to negotiate early on


    If languages have higher hurdles, I’d say they were more complicated (harder) to learn (therefore because of the high hurdles, in the case of case-based languages more difficult to understand, which would stem from complexity in the way the language works.

    I take your point about English not having easy ways to say like a Spanish word (ie. Madrugar) but this point is about an individual word in a language that means you need more words to express one concept in English.

    My point references much more words, the idea of using endings on nearly all nouns to reflect relationships, it’s a very different thing from one / a few concepts that need a full sentence to be explained in English.


    I am enjoying this discussion a lot!
     

    Sepia

    Senior Member
    High German/Danish
    No doubt the following is also true: "It'd take a whole paragraph of Hungarian to fully explain one single sentence in English, to explain and detail all the nuances that are implied".


    This happens in other language combinations too - that is the situation where you often have to be less exact in your translation or construct some very odd clauses, sometimes add some footnotes. What you decide to do all depens on the purpose of the text you are translating.

    It often happens when translating German into Danish - it is often easier translating Danish into German, especially when it is a legal or technical text.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    When referring to hurdles what I meant, but did not perhaps make clear, is that some languages have front end complications that need to be grasped before you can make much progress, whereas with others the complications are more scattered. Over all the same amount of energy is needed to clear all the hurdles.

    You are right that the emphasis that linguists put on all languages being equally complex is at least partly motivated by a desire to demonstrate that languages spoken by so called primitive peoples are as rich and subtle as those spoken by the so called civilised. Even so, the proposition, if it is indeed meaningful, is either true or false and we ought to be persuaded by the evidence. The problem is that you have to decide what your evidence is and when you have it how you assess it.

    I am not sure though that to show that all languages are equally complex requires a lot of evidence gathering and assessing. There is a minimum degree of complexity that a language must have if it is to be useful as a means of communication. However, the complexity must not be so great that children cannot acquire it. Since there is no natural language that cannot be acquired by children, this would seem to suggest that the band between the minimum degree of complexity a language can have and the maximum degree of complexity language can have is quite small and roughly equal for all languages. Even if you do not accept this argument, it is still the case that any language when analysed shows great complexity, so any argument about complexity is probably going to be about small differences in overall complexity.

    When it comes to complexity, or the perception of complexity, I think we can talk about overt and covert complexity, the terms being relative. We start with the idea that every feature of every language is a complexity. When you learn a foreign language it is only those features that differ from your own that you perceive to be a complexity. Those complexities are overt from your point of view. They are like tight clothes. When a foreigner learns your language it is only those features that differ from his own that he perceives to be a complexity. Those complexities are covert from your point of view. They are like comfortable clothes. One man's comfortable clothes are another man's tight clothes.

    When comparing an inflected language like Latin with English an Englishman is not aware of the covert complexities of English that he takes for granted. But perhaps we can imagine a Roman schoolboy who has been learning English for a while explaining it to his younger brother who is soon to have his first lesson:

    "English is horribly complicated. First off the words don't change their endings so that you know what work the word is doing. In fact the words don't really have endings so you can't tell whether a word is a verb or noun just by looking at it as you can in Latin. Half the time time you have to guess. The most common ending is an 's' which does three completely different things. Then you have to get the words in the right order. If you get them in the wrong order it means something different. You can't put the most important word first like we do in Latin. What's really tricky is that when you use a noun you have to decide if its definite or indefinite and then put the right word in front of it, only sometimes you don't put any word in front. Then when you use a verb it always has to have a subject. And don't talk to me about the passive; it's not simple like it is in Latin where we usually just use one word, you always have to use two. And when you're using verbs you have to think all the time about whether the action is continuous or not. And they have a special form for emphasis. And you'll never get the hang of negation. I mean if you want to negate the past tense you have to use the present adding in an unnecessary word. And questions can be as tricky as negation involving the same extra words that you use in negation. And sometimes what looks like a question is in fact a conditional. And then there are prepositions all over the place where we don't need them. But what's really weird is that when it comes to the dative you can either use a preposition or drop it, but if you drop it you have to get the word in the right place. How mad is that? It sort of has a genitive but the ending they stick on can apply to more than one word and, if you use the ending, you can't tell if the noun is singular or plural except when you write when you have to get a little tick in the right place and apparently that confuses English greengrocers."
     
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    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    After reading your paragraph about Latin and its comparison I really saw deeply into what you meant and you might have swayed me a bit! :)

    This is only me (half) playing devil's advocate but there are some points that I don't really agree with without evidence, like the arguement that the range of complexity is small because of a child's ability to learn it, I don't really make the connection that it has to be small and there couldn't be massive amounts of difference and the child can still learn it.

    At the end of the day when a child learns a language the switches are flicked into the certain grammatical patterns common to all languages (depending if you subscribe to Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar or not...) and the rest of the detail (which I would also label the complexity, by which I am not saying it is 'complicated' per se, but maybe rather the extra detail).

    This has really made me reflect so much over the course of today my mind is a bit of a mess, I never thought about this aspect of language in so much detail.
    Woops yeah, the other point I wanted to raise was:

    it is still the case that any language when analysed shows great complexity, so any argument about complexity is probably going to be about small differences in overall complexity.

    This is something I'm not sure about, I just don't see why it has to be that way, why it probably would be small, why can't it be massively different? The fact is on this Earth it's not the way things generally work (in my experience) that all languages equally make up in some way or another of complexity.

    But I have to admit I had a different impression of what you were talking about before and you've clarified your points quite well so what I said before was in relation to something I assumed that you meant. I think English in comparison with any language with gender forms that aren't obvious are in a band higher of complexity, but like you said this would be 'front-end' and once you've learnt it, it'd be fine.

    I see the 'front-end' complexities as 'detailed goings-on' and since English lost its 3 genders many a hundred years ago I've read a lot of authors of English history's comments about how much easier the language now is.

    I think not having to subconsciously form a gender and chose forms to go along with it makes a language a lot easier for people to learn, even though once you've learnt all the words it's no more difficult than a language without it, it's in the learning that shows the detail / complexity.

    So I think we're sort of in agreement, but focusing on different things, I meant more the learning and 'tuning' of new languages is more difficult while you meant the general function of what is going on, which I can see completely (now) that I agree with what you said about it.
     

    ireney

    Senior Member
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    I beg to disagree :) It was far, far, way, way far more difficult for me to "tune" in all the subtleties of English than ancient Greek. While modern Greek is a much more "simplified" or, if you wish, analytical form of the Greek language, the basic "logic" of the language hasn't really changed much (in most cases it hasn't changed at all). So getting all the sub-context and all the minute differences between two verbs or constructions or whatever is quite, quite simple (for a Greek at least -and one who does know modern Greek well enough I should add :D).
    English now; I started learning English when I was 9. I'm now 35. While I pride myself on the level of understanding the works of such authors as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and the fact that I can read Shakespeare and really get it, I still lack the almost intuitive understanding I have of ancient Greek. Oh, and I really, truly, loath English prepositions and am convinced they are out to get me. And I won't even go into the matter of pronouncing words I've seen written but have never heard. For most foreigners, at least 8 out of 10 times it's worse than a game of "pin the tale on the donkey". :D


    What I mean by all these, very personal notes is that complexity and "fine tuning" are two completely separate things. And the depth of the English language is one that most people do not appreciate really.

    And, back to topic, I fail to see how any language can be said to have "redundant" features, whichever meaning of "redundant" we care to use.
    While there are cases where we could, in fact, do without some features words, it is far simpler to have a "rule" across the board than to have exceptions of the exceptions of the rules.
    To take an example from modern Greek:
    George painted the wall = Ο Γιώργος έβαψε τον τοίχο (O Giorgos evapse ton tiho)
    The subject is in nominative and the object in accusative. This way we can change the word order to "the wall George painted" "painted the wall George" or any other order we wish and the meaning will remain the same.
    Passive voice now:
    The wall was painted by George = Ο τοίχος βάφτηκε από τον Γιώργο (O tihos vaftike apo ton Giorgo)
    Now in this case, because there's the "apo" ("from", the equivalent of "by" in this case) there, we could actually change the word order to "By George was the wall painted" without needing to use the accusative. It is however more simple to have it in accusative than to create an exception to the rule.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Woops yeah, the other point I wanted to raise was:

    it is still the case that any language when analysed shows great complexity, so any argument about complexity is probably going to be about small differences in overall complexity.

    This is something I'm not sure about, I just don't see why it has to be that way, why it probably would be small, why can't it be massively different?

    I think something like Occam's razor or the law of economy applies; systems are no more complicated than they need to be.

    As to the loss of gender in English I am not sure that is a huge simplification. I think there is a tendency for native English speakers (apart from harbouring the suspicion that foreigners invented grammatical gender just to be annoying) not to ever quite grasp the feeling for gender that a native speaker of a language with gender has for it and to appreciate just how internalised it is. I have known occasions where French native speakers have failed to understand what I have said when using the wrong gender. Using the wrong gender amounts to using a word that does not exist!
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Using the wrong gender amounts to using a word that does not exist!
    Exactly! This is why loss of gender in the English language was a huge simplification (in my view and that of authors of the books I've read) because even though you might know a word, if you got the gender wrong it was like a word that didn't exist (in your experience) whereas now in English we don't have that problem.

    In my experience gender hasn't really been that much of a problem, I've always been corrected with the gender but I cannot speak about French because I don't know enough about it.

    The idea of not varying your forms for 3 genders at least to me is a significant reduction in complexity. There was a stage in the development of English where the declension endings where becoming similar for more than one case that there are documented letters where people are basically saying "This is ridiculous now", there's a chapter devoted to it in one of the books I'm reading now.

    Imagine children acquiring English, internalising rules and making mistakes to be corrected by teachers / parents, anyone who has children or lives in a household with young children will hear it all the time, now imagine the additional correction they would need when internalising gender, having mistakes corrected because they have selected a neuter suffix rather than a masculine one. This doesn't happen in Modern English and is why I do think it is simpler (of course, in this respect).

    Though after reading Irene's post it has given me a greater appreciation of what your earlier arguement was about (fine tuning) and how that's an independent issue from general functional complexity like I was talking about (things going on at the basis of sentence formation) which, once internalised I imagine are pretty easy.

    So complicatedness (which turns out to be a word to my surprise) I think can be seen on two different levels, complexity (hurdles) for a learner, the first steps at internalising rules and second of all, 'fine tuning', basically referring to what Irene was saying and having trouble with aspects like prepositions and basically all the other stuff she said.
    The complexity in the "first hurdles" differs significantly between languages (my main point before) but after these things are learnt, complexity (in the 'fine tuning' stage) I agree to be pretty equal for all languages (this is what you were referring to Hulalessar, right?)

    So after splitting up what we're talking about, all the points make sense now!
    Thanks guys. This discussion has really opened my eyes to how I view this issue in other languages.
     
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    Meyer Wolfsheim

    Senior Member
    English
    I beg to disagree :) It was far, far, way, way far more difficult for me to "tune" in all the subtleties of English than ancient Greek. While modern Greek is a much more "simplified" or, if you wish, analytical form of the Greek language, the basic "logic" of the language hasn't really changed much (in most cases it hasn't changed at all). So getting all the sub-context and all the minute differences between two verbs or constructions or whatever is quite, quite simple (for a Greek at least -and one who does know modern Greek well enough I should add :D).
    English now; I started learning English when I was 9. I'm now 35. While I pride myself on the level of understanding the works of such authors as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and the fact that I can read Shakespeare and really get it, I still lack the almost intuitive understanding I have of ancient Greek. Oh, and I really, truly, loath English prepositions and am convinced they are out to get me. And I won't even go into the matter of pronouncing words I've seen written but have never heard. For most foreigners, at least 8 out of 10 times it's worse than a game of "pin the tale on the donkey". :D


    What I mean by all these, very personal notes is that complexity and "fine tuning" are two completely separate things. And the depth of the English language is one that most people do not appreciate really.

    And, back to topic, I fail to see how any language can be said to have "redundant" features, whichever meaning of "redundant" we care to use.
    While there are cases where we could, in fact, do without some features words, it is far simpler to have a "rule" across the board than to have exceptions of the exceptions of the rules.
    To take an example from modern Greek:
    George painted the wall = Ο Γιώργος έβαψε τον τοίχο (O Giorgos evapse ton tiho)
    The subject is in nominative and the object in accusative. This way we can change the word order to "the wall George painted" "painted the wall George" or any other order we wish and the meaning will remain the same.
    Passive voice now:
    The wall was painted by George = Ο τοίχος βάφτηκε από τον Γιώργο (O tihos vaftike apo ton Giorgo)
    Now in this case, because there's the "apo" ("from", the equivalent of "by" in this case) there, we could actually change the word order to "By George was the wall painted" without needing to use the accusative. It is however more simple to have it in accusative than to create an exception to the rule.

    I agree with you with what you are saying as well as your loathing of English prepositions. I would say that they are perhaps one of the most trickiest parts of the language but fortunately you don't have to remember which case they demand as prepositions in English no longer have their targets agree with them in a random pattern (as German does for example). Of course there is the so called 'objective-case' when using a human pronoun.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Exactly! This is why loss of gender in the English language was a huge simplification etc

    I still feel your perception of gender is coloured by the fact that your native language is one that has no gender. When I was a schoolboy learning French I think there was somewhere in my mind the thought: "I have to remember the gender of every word I learn." Such thoughts do not, I think, enter the minds of French children learning to speak. It would be interesting to hear the views of a native speaker of a language with gender on this question and also to know how they feel about learning another language with gender.

    As to relative complexity I think what I am saying is this: if a system could be devised for measuring the complexity of all languages, every language would get more or less the same score. To put it another way, a visitor from outer space would find any language on earth as difficult/easy as any other.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I still feel your perception of gender is coloured by the fact that your native language is one that has no gender. When I was a schoolboy learning French I think there was somewhere in my mind the thought: "I have to remember the gender of every word I learn." Such thoughts do not, I think, enter the minds of French children learning to speak. It would be interesting to hear the views of a native speaker of a language with gender on this question and also to know how they feel about learning another language with gender.
    We have essentially the same problem because genders often do not agree in different languages. This might even add an additional difficulty because you tend to make mistakes induced by gender assignment in your own language.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I still feel your perception of gender is coloured by the fact that your native language is one that has no gender.
    Of course it is, I have never denied it, what I made clear in an earlier post was the learning of languages from the point of view of a speaker of (genderless) Modern English, you're absolutely right that my perception of gender is coloured by the fact it's not in my native language.

    I don't see how this affects the validity of my comments about relative complexity when learning a foreign language from a point of view of a native English speaker. Part of me is trying to understand the link between perception of gender and how it fits in to what we are talking about, the idea for this topic is gender of words means 'more to learn / understand' so how one views gender is, well, I just don't see how it changes what we're talking about...

    As to relative complexity I think what I am saying is this: if a system could be devised for measuring the complexity of all languages, every language would get more or less the same score. To put it another way, a visitor from outer space would find any language on earth as difficult/easy as any other.
    I agreed with you on this point as for 'fine-tuning', getting it perfect.
    What my point was, picking it up and getting used to it as a learner is where there are more detailed things going on differs, but after these are learnt then I'd agree with your point.

    We have essentially the same problem because genders often do not agree in different languages. This might even add an additional difficulty because you tend to make mistakes induced by gender assignment in your own language.
    I can imagine that is quite tricky!
     
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    Meyer Wolfsheim

    Senior Member
    English
    We have essentially the same problem because genders often do not agree in different languages. This might even add an additional difficulty because you tend to make mistakes induced by gender assignment in your own language.


    I still think you would have a more acute sense to learning gender in other languages when your native one has gender distinctions in its nouns and other articles. As for example the usage of "elle" in French to refer to a noun which has no natural gender (une voiture) seems quite bizarre to an English speaker at first but I do not think it would seem very alien to a German native speaker.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I still think you would have a more acute sense to learning gender in other languages when your native one has gender distinctions in its nouns and other articles. As for example the usage of "elle" in French to refer to a noun which has no natural gender (une voiture) seems quite bizarre to an English speaker at first but I do not think it would seem very alien to a German native speaker.
    This is particularly difficult because a car has a natural Gender for a German and that is masculine.

    It is not so for all objects, but for some the gender is a very important part of the identity of that thing. There are a few reflexes of this in English. E.g. a ship is always referred to as "she".
     

    Erick404

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Brazil
    I still think you would have a more acute sense to learning gender in other languages when your native one has gender distinctions in its nouns and other articles. As for example the usage of "elle" in French to refer to a noun which has no natural gender (une voiture) seems quite bizarre to an English speaker at first but I do not think it would seem very alien to a German native speaker.

    I think so. In fact, it sounds very strange to me when a baby or animal is referred as "it".
    But anyway, I think that the lack of gender in Modern English is a huge bless to all its learners. Even French, with most of its vocabulary being cognates with my mother tongue and having the same gender, can be annoying with the genders of exceptions and non-cognates.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I think so. In fact, it sounds very strange to me when a baby or animal is referred as "it".
    On the contrary. The origin of the three genders is most likely representing the trinity of father, mother and child.
    German children when they learn their bits of grammar and being asked to give names to the genders very consistently call the neuter "kindlich" ("childly"). The official German name is "sächlich" ("thingly") but children associate the neuter much more with "child" than with "thing".
     

    jazyk

    Senior Member
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Maybe männlich (masculine, male, manly) and weiblich (feminine, female, womanly) also have something do with it?
     
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