Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In The English Language


Most monolingual speakers think that other
languages are basically just their language with different words in a slightly different
order and maybe a different way of writing. Turns out, though, that there are lots of
interesting features in other languages, some of which English would really benefit from
having. I’m going to talk about four of them. Number one: Time independence. If you want to describe an activity in English
you have to say when it happened, or when it will happen. You have to. That’s how verbs
conjugate. I danced — past. I am dancing, I dance — present. I will dance — future.
There is no way in English to describe the concept of a person and dancing, but not to
mention anything about time. Chinese, on the other hand? Verbs do not conjugate. In most cases, the meaning is obvious from
context. I don’t mean to imply that Chinese doesn’t have a tense system, just that it’s
not a requirement. It’s not baked into every single sentence. Side note: tenses aren’t as simple as past,
present and future, and there’s some lovely subtle tenses in other languages. More on
that in a later video. Anyway, if you want to write poetry with a
more vague sense of time: Chinese is one of the languages to choose. Number two: Clusivity. The word “we” is confusing. Imagine going
up to someone and saying “we’ve just won the lottery!” There are two possible meanings there. Number
1: “we” refers to the speaker and the listener. We’ve just won the lottery! Brilliant! Number
2: “we” refers to the speaker and the speaker’s friends… but not the listener. We’ve just
won the lottery! But you haven’t. In languages with clusivity, there are different
words for “we”, depending on whether you’re including the listener or not. It shows up
in languages in South Asia, Australasia, and all over the world… apart from Europe. And
I really wish English had clusivity, because once you describe it, it’s a blindingly obvious
missing thing that we — er, we all — could really use. Number three: Absolute directions. This isn’t all that useful, but it is cool.
In a few languages, notably a couple of Australian ones like Guugu Yimithirr — that’s the one
that’s been extensively studied — there are no words for left, right, forward or backward.
Instead, you always use cardinal directions: the equivalent words for north, south, east
and west. In this studio, north is that way, so right now, I have a north foot and a south
foot. If I turn, I now have a west foot and an east foot. I think. I’m having trouble
tracking something simple like that: but if you’re a native speaker of a language with
absolute direction, your brain just handles it. You always know which way you’re pointing
— and if you don’t, you have trouble speaking. As a language feature, I’d say relative
directions are a lot more useful, particularly for those of us that go on the London Underground
often — but it’d be great to always know which way was north. Number four: evidentiality. In the same way that time is baked into English
sentences, there are languages all over the world where evidence is baked in. If you’re
reporting something that happened, you have to include whether you personally witnessed
it or not. You can do this in English, of course: “I saw that”, “I heard that”, but
it’s not required. Some have five or more different categories of evidence, based on
whether you saw it with your own eyes, experienced it firsthand but it didn’t involve seeing
anything, whether you’ve inferred it from something else, whether you’re reporting what
someone else said… all these concepts, which are complicated to explain in English, are
expressed just by how you change the ending of a word. These fantastic features are one of the reasons
why keeping minor languages alive is important. If English had dominated the world and stamped
out every other tongue, then we’d lose not only these rich languages, but we’d lose the
insights that we gain of what the human mind’s capable of. So here’s my question to you: can you think
of a brand new language feature. Something that every language should have, but doesn’t. Next time: why things aren’t always black
and white. Or blue and green. [Translating this video? Add your name here if you’d like credit!]

Comments 0

  • In Arabic we have a feature that I can't help but miss when speaking English or German. The same way there is Grammar for Singluar and Plural in English, we have Grammar for Singular, Plural AND Pairs. Basically, you have times that apply for when you're talking about a thing with the number of one (Singular), multiple things that are 3 or more, and finally "Pairs" for anything that is exactly 2. This gives a certain flavour for Pairs that I don't feel when talking in English

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