13 Apr 2019

English: One of the Weirdest Languages


Adam Schembri, a professor at the University of Birmingham, makes the case for the weirdness of English.

English probably sounds a little “weird” to many speakers of other languages. According to the WALS, the average number of distinctive speech sounds in the world’s languages is about 25-30 – known as “phonemes”. …

English has more phonemes than many languages, with around 44, depending on which variety of English you speak. It has an unusually large set of vowel sounds – there are around 11.

According to WALS, most spoken languages only have between five to six vowel sounds. This is part of the reason that English spelling is fiendishly complicated, because it has inherited five letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and speakers have to make them work for more than twice that number of sounds.

English has some comparatively unusual consonant sounds as well. Two sounds, those represented by the “th” in “bath” and “bathe” respectively, are found in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS. In fact, these two sounds are generally among the last sounds acquired by children, with some adult varieties of English not using them at all.

English grammar is also “weird”. English uses varying word orders to distinguish between questions and statements – meaning that the subject of the sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take the phrase “life is a box of chocolates” for example. Here, the order is subject (“life”) followed by the verb (“is”). In the question, “is life a box of chocolates?”, the order of these elements is reversed.

In a WALS survey of 955 languages, fewer than 2% of languages in the sample used English-like differences in sentence structure for questions.


One Feedback on "English: One of the Weirdest Languages"


English is “weird”? Then there are tonal languages like traditional Chinese with an “arbitrary” catalog of written glyphs and only a handful of phonemes. Or Arabic that speaks by implication.

English at least makes an effort to inform the user what others are talking about.

“Hey! That is interesting, let’s mis-spell it, mis-pronounce it, and let’s make it mean something just a bit different”. And do it all with a straight face.


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