When it comes to expressing the world around us and communicating our thoughts to other people, language has a pretty tough task, and sometimes our words can be pretty flawed at getting the job done.
But some languages use different tactics from others to solve communication problems. After learning as many languages as I have, I’ve found some really creative ways that other languages manage to communicate more effectively.
Here are my top 5 picks for features of language that I’d add to English if I could.
1. “We are going to Disneyland!” The exclusive/inclusive ‘we’
Think about what would happen if I ran up to you and shouted “We are going to Disneyland!” If we were strangers, then I’d just seem crazy. But if you were my best friend and I made this announcement, you might get excited, and say, “Great, when are we going!” And then there would be a really awkward silence as I corrected you and said, “Oh… when I said, ‘we’, I didn’t mean ‘you and me’…”
I first came across clusivity when learning Tagalog, and I thought it was the cleverest idea I’d seen to communicate something that genuinely causes confusion otherwise. Do you mean “we” including the person you are speaking to, or excluding them?
This isn’t a matter of a single word missing in English, but the entire umbrella of we/us/our/ourselves that leads to a lot of ambiguity.
So let’s say you came up to me and my girlfriend, saw us eating a delicious pie and asked if you could have a slice. If I then replied with “This pie is for us!” what would you think? Do I mean that it’s just for my girlfriend and me (excluding you), or do I mean it generously (including you)? To make this clear, I’d need to gesture to who I meant, or elaborate, or add in either a friendly or aggressive tone to make it clearer, which is a shortcoming of the language itself.
In Tagalog they solve this problem by having two versions of “we” that make the distinction clear: they say táyo for inclusive we and kamí for exclusive we. This also helped me when I was in Beijing and a native used both forms of we in the same sentence – 咱们 (zánmen) and 我们 (wǒmen) (inclusive and exclusive respectively) – to describe something that would have required a lot of awkward over-explaining in English.
2. “Didn’t you like the movie?” The negating yes
Here’s another head scratcher: what English word should you use to answer a question like “Didn’t you like the movie?” if you actually did like it? A simple yes will never suffice. And “no” is even more confusing.
You have to elaborate with Actually, I did like it. If you simply say “yes”, that could mean anything. Either “yes” you didn’t (confirming the negative statement as true) or “yes” you did (saying something positive to negate the negative statement).
French and German each have a lovely word that solves this: si in French and doch in German. Each of these are common words specifically designed for this situation, to contradict a negative statement, or in other words to say “Yes, I do!”, except these single words are much more concise and help the conversation flow much better when a negative question comes up.
3. “Let’s have a wee dessert.” The diminutive
In English, it’s really hard to imply affection in an otherwise ordinary word. You’d have to add in an affectionate term, like “my sweet hamster,” or “my cute hamster” for example. But what if your hamster isn’t really so sweet, and it’s kind of scraggly-looking, but you still want to express your affection for it, no matter how grumpy or ugly it may be?
In other languages, the diminutive is used to add in this affection. It signifies the feeling of “a cute little thing”, but it really doesn’t emphasize looks or size as much as it does charm.
“My charming hamster” just doesn’t sound right.
This is a big hole in English, that us Irish (and Scottish) fill with our diminutive -ín by adding the word “wee” before the word. Spanish also does this by adding the suffix “ito” (also -cito, -illo, -ico, -ete, -ín, -iño, etc.) So a Spanish girl might fondly call her brother hermanito, even if he’s bigger and older than her.
We can do it in English for some words, like “kitty” and “doggy”. But what if you have a cute wee laptop, or you get a lovely wee desert at the end of your meal? Something is just missing to really emphasise it.
4. “<@;-P ” Emotional context
Languages exist to share ideas and express things, which is why I find it odd that English is missing so much emotional information. Most of our emotions have to be conveyed through the tone of our voice, our body language, or a description of our feelings with a long string of words like, “and I felt sad about that”, for example.
Other languages are much more efficient here, and can express the same information in the same amount of time, while also adding in the emotional context. For example, in Spanish a dog is perro, but a “big, scary” dog is perrazo. The added suffix –azo provides the emotion.
But for me, this quality is best captured in American Sign Language. I remember once when I met a deaf person who signed to me in ASL a story about her driving at night when her headlights were out, so she didn’t see a tree ahead and had to swerve around it.
In English, the basic facts of the situation can be conveyed in the way I’ve just done it, but how did the storyteller feel? We just guess or it’s obvious. In American Sign Language, though, (and other sign languages), how you felt during a story is conveyed in your signs and on your face. I could see how shocked she was (not angry) when the tree appeared out of nowhere, how relieved (not confused) she was when she just missed it, and how far her car was away from the tree – all from the positioning of her signs. We can add this information in English, but it’s cumbersome, and each addition requires an extra sentence.
With other languages like ASL, it’s as if the language is filled with extremely useful and colourful emojis!
5. “The alligator-hangout.” Straightforward new word formation
One of the best parts of learning “agglutinative” languages is that you can not only figure out what a word means based on its component pieces, but you can “create” words yourself very easily and it’s likely to be understood – or may even already be in common use!
If you are learning most languages and see a word like “delay”, without knowing it in advance you may be left confused. There’s nothing about the word or its components (either the “de” or the “lay”) that suggests it has to do with arriving late.
However, languages like Esperanto would require simply that you know the standard word formation. So, if you know the word for “early” (frua), then you already know the word for “late”, which in Esperanto would be “opposite-early” or malfrua. Even better is that you can figure out from this how to say “to make late” or “to delay” through the standard suffix -igi, which means “to make it happen.” So to say “to make late” (delay) in Esperanto, you simply say malfruigi (“opposite-early-make”).
This cool feature means that in Esperanto, you can create entirely new words on a whim, as long as you follow the rules of word formation, and other speakers will totally understand you! You can even do this to a creative extreme, and keep adding wonderful versions of the word, but still keep the conversation flowing smoothly. For instance, you could make up a new word like:
“Foriru!” ŝi bojis ĝeniĝbrove. = “Go away!” she barked with a troubled frown.
- ĝeni = to trouble
- ĝeniĝi = to be bothered/troubled (adding “iĝ” is like “to become <root>”)
- brovo = (eye)brow
- So literally “troubled-brow-ly”
You could expand on this and say ĝeniĝbrovulo (the guy with the troubled frown), or even further with ĝeniĝbrovulejo (the place where people have troubled frowns), and hell, why not ĝeniĝbrovulejegestrino (the female ruler of the really big place where people have troubled frowns). The first time any intermediate or higher Esperanto speaker hears this word, he/she will know what you mean, even if you are the first person in history to have uttered this strange new word. This makes the language extremely rich… and fun!
What features of other languages have you come across that you wish your native language would adopt? Let me know in the comments!