This week's Q&A thread -- please read before asking or answering a question! - January 27, 2020

Hi people. I have been thinking lately about the difference between systematized languages (such as French, Spanish, Portuguese) and unsystematized languages (English, Arabic?, ???), and how they have developed over time.

One would think that in terms of international trade, that a systematized language would reign supreme, yet this appears not to be the case. I’m Canadian and English is my first language. My wife is Brazilian and her father speaks Portuguese as his native language, but he has learned English as have many Brazilians. He often does business in China, with Chinese businesspeople and they obviously speak Mandarin or Cantonese (or whatever local language they have there), but they too speak English. When they meet they don’t mutually communicate in either of their mother tongues, and communicate instead in what one could describe as “international trade English”.

We cannot of course merely discount the obvious bias towards American business culture in international markets, and thus the international language they “force” (via money essentially) upon others, but I don’t think that can fully account for the difference. Surely, one would think that one of the most important things about commerce is mutual comprehension, and since systematized languages (codes of language order which denote official correct versus incorrect usage) are easier to learn in a sort of mathematical sense, you would think they would have an advantage over English and it’s lack of systematized usage.

The thing is, how do you determine if someone speaks English as their native language? How do English speakers know what is correct and incorrect usage? I have a theory and I want to hear what you think about it. In English, you know something is correct or incorrect by how it sounds...if it sounds wrong or weird you basically know it is wrong. This is like the native “ear” which does vary by locality (Australia vs UK vs USA vs Canada vs NZ), but in general you will always know a native speaker from a non-native speaker, especially since English contains within it a lot of so-called “rules” that don’t make a lot of sense to people from systematized language groups. You won’t find a systematized language with a rule like “I before E except after C; unless ei makes an “ay” sound as in neighbour or weigh”, and when presented with such a rule in their English classes are quite confused because that’s hardly a rule, and is more of a contradiction.

I can appreciate the confusion, and I think the attempts by early-years English teachers to get the “English System” across to native English speaking children is rather draining. I wouldn’t call it pointless, however. I do remember as a young teenager taking French lessons and thinking “Wow, if English were taught like this, it would be much easier to learn other languages like French.” I thought this for a long time, until recently. Although I still believe the notion that English if systematized would be far easier to learn, I now think it would fundamentally harm the core strength and structure of the language, that it is a living breathing tool that slowly adapts to its environments.

So what makes usage right or wrong? Well one might say that is decided by lingual authorities like the Académie Française. In such a case a centralized bureaucracy decides upon proper usage. But what gives them authority over such claims? I can see nothing decisive in this regard other than “fancy bureaucrats think so”. It also seems that with the ever so often “updates” to the official codified usage that the Académie Française is sort of running just ahead of the crowd, estimating the direction and speed of the masses and saying “Follow me! Follow me!” All the while looking over their should to make sure they aren’t leading themselves off to nowhere while the masses diverge into elsewhere.

One could also derive something else fundamentally different from English and systematized languages, such as how most modern English speaking nations have not functioned under dictatorship (save maybe South Africa, though I believe that is a special case that can be argued away with enough time). France since Napoleon has had the idea of centralized authority, and when conquered by the Germans many were fine with the Vichy arrangement as it brought orderliness to their lives; Germans clearly had experience with the Nazis whose base premise was centralized authority over all (language, trade, etc); Italy too has had experience with fascism, as did Spain and Portugal. Russia too went from the Tsarist Centralized authority, straight into the centralized government of the Bolsheviks, and today you have Putin. Much of South America experienced long-term dictatorships, as did China, and until the end of WW2 so did Japan (both do to some degree even today, especially China). In contrast, English speaking nations have remained essentially stable democracies or republics since their founding (or in the case of the UK, it has slowly evolved from an absolute Monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, but also the “Mother of Parliaments”). Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Ireland, and since the end of the British Raj, India, have remained dictator-free. India boasts the biggest democracy in the world. Most of these nations lead the world in terms of human rights, economic and personal freedom indexes, and general happiness.

I will now point out a place that is interesting, Iceland. Iceland has given a strong attempt to systematize Icelandic. This has the goal of preserving its language in the face of the overwhelming mass of English. If you observe Icelandic, you will notice that some of the rules it contains are similar to other Nordic language systems and their cousin German system. But something is not the same. You will find that the rules are quite ominous, quite widespread, sort of like English. Some don’t make a lot of sense, like English. It is almost as though, just like in English, that the rules are “post-hoc rationalizations” rather than actual “rules”. So here is a good question when it comes to Icelandic: “Is the systematization saving Icelandic usage or killing it?” This is always a question for Icelandic scholars who are putting in a very noble effort to preserve their beautiful mother-tongue. It is just the the answer is not always so clear.

/r/linguistics Thread