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english - effective or chaotic language?

Posted on 2011-09-15
Medium Priority
Last Modified: 2012-05-12
the following is going around saying that English is not so much of any efficient language..

if the above is true, how did it make it to the #1 language in the world?
Question by:25112
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Assisted Solution

by:Rich Weissler
Rich Weissler earned 1400 total points
ID: 36543008
My quick answer is that it's as crazy as it is because it has been begging, borrowing and stealing words and syntax from dozens of other languages over the years.  Most of the craziest bits of English are thanks to the French (Norman) conquest of England, and Vikings raiding then deciding to settle down.

What made it the #1 language in the world?  Its kinda for the same reason TCP/IP became the standard Internet Protocol suite.  It's adapted and changed to meet the needs, and has just kinda been there when it was needed.  It's kinda become the defacto standard.  The British Empire of previous centuries and US policies after WWII helped as well... but they put the language where it needed to be, when it was needed for international communication.  

It continues as the... well.. wait, actually it's just the most widespread language.  Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers.  :-)

Author Comment

ID: 36543544
>>begging, borrowing and stealing words and syntax from dozens of other languages

can you relate the above to one of the 20 phrases in the link above? for example.. The bandage was wound around the wound.

>>It's adapted and changed to meet the needs, and has just kinda been there when it was needed.

bristish empire ruled much only from 18th century, right? was the popularity of english as a language only since then? If Turkey had ruled the world in 18th century, we would have all been writing in turkish now- is that the logic?
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Accepted Solution

Rich Weissler earned 1400 total points
ID: 36544421
> The bandage was wound around the wound.
Sure.  Wound (past tense for wind ('twist around', not 'moving air') is our current form... which derives from Old Saxon.  When Old English needed a word for a type of laceration, it knocked Old German over the head and ran off with wound.

> The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
Related to the previous one -- the second wind, is the same as our first wound above.  The moving air = wind was a completely different Old English word (waind) which was subject to an unfortunate vowel shift.  (Don't get me started with English and it's shifting vowels!  That's probably another problem I should have mentioned in the first post...)

> We must polish the Polish furniture.  
The French brought us the action of smoothing surfaces repeatedly to make glossy - polish.
But I'm certain the folks from Eastern Europe didn't consult the Normans before naming their region of the world.

> The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
Both forms come from a common Latin root (invalidus)...

>bristish empire ruled much only from 18th century, right? was the popularity of english
>as a language only since then? If Turkey had ruled the world in 18th century, we would
>have all been writing in turkish now- is that the logic?

Maybe.  I think the examples I'd use would be: If the Roman Empire had conquered the world (or Europe in this case), I'd expect world to speak Latin.  (And if communication remained strong across the empire, I'd expect the language not to drift into multiple different romance languages.)
I believe Turkey (well, the Ottoman Empire) did conquer a huge territory... but I don't think they strongly forced their language/culture on their subjects.  Well, lets say less than they could have.  Arabic is fifth largest language today.
The Spanish also had a sizable empire a few hundred years ago... and if you look at the regions of the world where Spanish is spoken you can see the original influences of the Spanish holdings.  (And the effects of emigration/immigration pressures in the centuries afterwards.)  And Spanish is actually either more spoken than English, or tied with English... but I believe there have been more corporate/industrial interests spreading the English language around the world over the last hundred years or so than there has been with Spanish.

English had the slight advantage that it was the language of the (arguably maybe) strongest empire during the Industrial Revolution when rapid world-wide communication was becoming possible.  It became the primary language of one of the former colonies which then lead the free world in the next century, and currently has the third largest population in the world.  In addition, another of it's former colonies has become the second most populous country in the would, where it is still the language of record, partly because that country otherwise doesn't have a single common language  (otherwise Hindi/Urdu would probably have a larger base than English.)

And of course, languages go through cycles.  It's only technology and rapid communication which seems to be holding the current languages where they are -- and something could cause a shift again.  *shrug*
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Assisted Solution

Tiras25 earned 300 total points
ID: 36546492

British Empire + religion that says, go forth and convert.

Then, colonists coming to America, where English became the dominant language, and then the inhabitants of that country also wanted to spread their influence around the world.

Cf to Asian or Middle Eastern empires, which were also vast and populous, but did not expand around the world.

Give it a few more hundred years. Spanish and Chinese might become the dominant world languages.

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Assisted Solution

by:Thibault St john Cholmondeley-ffeatherstonehaugh the 2nd
Thibault St john Cholmondeley-ffeatherstonehaugh the 2nd earned 300 total points
ID: 36547700
English isn't the only language to have similar words with different meanings, it does have the advantage of many alternative ways to say the same thing so if you think there could be confusion it it easy to alter the phrase or just change the words.
'Mean to be mean' could be 'Intend to be miserly', and if that isn't what you meant then use other words instead.

In some languages it's not just the spelling, but the intonation that can change the meaning.
Look up 'bite the wax tadpole'.
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Expert Comment

by:Rich Weissler
ID: 36549058
I assume it happens in any 'non-dead' language.  Words change meanings and pick up new meanings all the time.... and I just encountered a new one a few minutes ago.
"For the nonce" is a common expression meaning "for the time being."  (Perhaps it only still 'common' in my household... I don't know.)  I just found out that in some parts of the English speaking world, 'nonce' has become another word for a sex offender, especially a paedophile.  Looking a little further, 'nonce' has also been adopted by the cryptography community for a single use number used to sign a message... but at least in that case, the new meaning follows logically from the older.

But I have to agree with RobinD and assume these sorts of changes happen with all languages.  I believe it's the natural shifts all living languages experience over time.

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