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What’s the Deal with English?

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Many world languages, especially those of the Indo-European variety, use techniques such as noun declension, verb conjugation, and changes in verb tense and mood to convey meaning and avoid ambiguities. However, it just so happens that English, the language that I am writing in right now and an Indo-European language itself, uses these three devices in a rather limited manner, leading to verbs that are simple to use by conjugation to express ideas but lack specificity. Why? Why has English become such a simplified language, a far cry from even its Germanic precursors? Today, I’ll be taking a deep dive into the English Philology, or the study of languages’ history, to not only describe what common features of other languages English lacks but also to enumerate where such changes came from. The English language originated on the island where modern-day Great Britain resides, when Germanic tribes such as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes emigrated to the island. As anyone who watched Benjamin Bagby recite Beowulf in World Studies knows, the original form of English was far closer to German than to Modern English. However, later visitors to the island would change the fate of English forever, most significantly the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans brought with them the French language, which mixed primarily with Old English to eventually form the English that I am writing in right now. Interestingly, French and Old English both contained many of the systems typical of most Indo-European languages, such as inflection, or the changing of a word’s form to fit its grammatical place, including conjugation of verbs and declension of nouns. However, as the two languages had different sources, their systems of inflection were somewhat incompatible. When English-speakers couldn’t unite the two effectively, they decided to throw most of the changes in verb form out altogether, leading to Modern English’s lack of complex inflections, which I will now describe.

English’s most striking missing linguistic element is its lack of a large portion of verb conjugation, which those readers who have taken a foreign language class probably know more about than they would like to know. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, conjugation is the change in a verb’s form to associate with different subjects who perform the verb’s action. In many Indo-European languages, such as Spanish, each verb has a different form for each subject. For example, in the present indicative tense, the first-person singular form of the verb “hablar” is “hablo,” while the third-person plural form is “hablan,” and so on. However, most English verbs lack the majority of these changes. Let’s use “to say” as an example. The six conjugations of the English verb “to say” in the present indicative tense are “I say,” “you say,” “he/she/it says,” “we say,” “you (plural) say,” and “they say.” The only person that does not share the same form as the others is the third-person singular, the “he/she/it” verb. All other verb persons have the exact same form. While this is not the case with some irregular verbs, such as “to be,” in which the first-person singular form is, “I am,” the majority of English verbs lack conjugation.

In addition to this, all English verbs do not change to express moods such as the subjunctive, with one exception. The subjunctive mood is used to express hypotheticals, volition, emotion, or doubt. In Spanish, the subjunctive has its own set of conjugations, but in English, each verb in the subjunctive uses the exact same form as its indicative mood. For example, “I doubt that he can eat five tons of pizza” is a subjunctive phrase, even though it looks perfectly indicative. The exception is “were,” the subjunctive form of the verb “to be.”

Of all of the oddities possessed by the English language that I will discuss, the one that is probably the least known by English speakers is declension, which is the equivalent of verbs’ conjugation for nouns. Languages with declension change nouns to fit whether they are a subject, direct object, indirect object, or possession. For example, in Latin, the noun “angel” is “angelus” when a subject but “angelum” when an object. However, in Modern English, declension is almost nonexistent: “angel” is “angel” no matter what its place in a clause is. However, there is one vestige of declension in the English language seen in pronouns, which differ based on subject and object.

The English’s language’s many quirks stemming from its hodge-podge origin make it unique among languages, both simpler and yet more difficult. I strongly urge each of you to look more into the Philology of English or another native or second language, as there is far more to the subject than I could possibly describe here, so I won’t try. Until next time.

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The Asheville School's Voice
What’s the Deal with English?