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 Discussion about English grammar

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Otterfan
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:02 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Gnasher: yes. It's a common working assumption amongst linguists that all languages in use today are of equal complexity. Where a language looks simple in one part, it will be very strange in some other aspect. Overall, each language is of equal complexity. That's what undergrad linguistics students get taught, anyway, but I know of some older, more experienced linguists who work "in the field" documenting and annotating non-literate languages who would disagree with such a view.

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Don
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:13 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

That's basically true but only if you look at the "finished product" - speaking a language perfectly. During the process of learning you will however notice that foreign languages can have a vastly different learning curve.

From my own experience I can say that English with it's rather simple grammar is easy for people starting to learn. Within a few weeks you are able to strike a somewhat meaningful conversation and find your way around a foreign town for instance. It is however next to impossible to speak it anywhere perfectly exactly because of its lack of complex rules that are helping you as a beginner. Too many stuff needs to be learned by heart, exceptions, local idioms, inventive new-age grammar etc.

Russian on the other hand is a real bugger to begin with. It took me about two years to get the alphabet and some basic grammar right to ask someone for directions or a cigarette. Once I've reached that stage I found that it got progressively easier because once I had digested the grammar I only had to deal with vocabulary, its very few exceptions make it easier to perfect your language abilities.

It took me a few years to accept that I won't ever be perfect in any of the languages that aren't my mothertongue and that I shouldn't bother. Trying to fake an accent (as it seems to be popular with Germans speaking English) now sounds rather ridiculous to me. But I do expect a German to be able to use their mothertongue with some proficiency. Has to do with respect.

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Last edited by Don on Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:16 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:15 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

So which, in your opinion, is the most 'difficult' modern language to learn? I've always understood that the scandinavian languages are pretty impenetrable, especially Finnish. On the other hand my son is learning Mandarin Chinese and I'm totally lost but that's probably because I learned French and Spanish, for which my basic knowledge of Latin has been invaluable. My brother in law is Hungarian and he claims it's the hardest language in the world but I'm not convinced.

@ Don. That's very interesting. I've always been curious to know what it's like to learn and speak English as a foreign language because I was never taught things like declining verbs, etc because I'd been speaking it from the cradle as it were. At school we were taught the 'fine tuning' if you like, but not the very basic stuff.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:15 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

^^^Actually Don, having read many of your posts I'd say you probably speak better English then most of us natives.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:22 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

English might seem to have "simple grammar" but just try to explain how to pick the right preposition to a student whose native language isn't an Indo-European one.
- I will meet you ____ the train station ___ 8am.
At? In? On? By? Some will fit, some won't fit, and some that fit will give different meanings to the sentence. There's no logic or pattern to it, which makes it a bugger for students to learn properly.

And how about the English verbal system? How do you explain something like:
- I will have been wanting to meet him for three weeks tomorrow.
to a student whose own language's tense/aspect system works differently?

And if anyone can come up with a very neat and easy-to-learn system for when to use the infinitive or the gerund, I'll gladly buy him/her a drink.
- I like swimming.
- I like to swim.
They're fine, they mean the same basic thing.

But what about:
- I want to swim this morning.
- I want swimming this morning.
Nuh-uh. Problem there.

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Don
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:29 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Gnasher wrote:
So which, in your opinion, is the most 'difficult' modern language to learn?


I can only give an opinion about "Western languages", I have no idea about for African or Asian languages. From those I can give an opinion about Hungarian/Finnish (same language family, same difficulty) are pretty much neither pronouncable nor learnable. Laughing Other Scandinavian languages like Danish, Norvegian or Swedish shouldn't pose extraordinary problems.

In any case does learning one foreign language help you with all other languages you might decide to learn. It is also true that the older you get the more difficult learning a foreign language will become. My kid (7) grows up bi-lingual and I'm terribly envious at the ease at which he picks up other languages, kids are fantastic at that.

@Rodus: taaa! Laughing

EDIT: @Otter: But that's exactly what I mean. As someone starting to learn a language you won't likely come across constructions like "I will have been wanting to meet him for three weeks tomorrow. ", simply because they are hardly used in spoken English. In Russian however you won't be able to invent an intelligible conversation without such knowledge because people simply won't understand what you mean if you use the wrong verb form. In English I suppose you could just say "Tomorrow it's 3 weeks that I'm waiting for that bloke." Wink

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Gnasher
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:31 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Hmmmmmm I love this stuff because I've never seen it explained from the 'other side' as it were. I've already given this nightmare example upthread so forgive the repetition:

Those present voted to present the present presently

I also heard a very funny quote once about a lecturer who was talking about a contentious topic and who finished by saying "you cannot argue with the fact that two positives cannot make a negative" to which a voice in the audience said "yeah right" Laughing

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:48 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Otterfan wrote:

- I want to swim this morning.
- I want swimming this morning.


If I didn't know 'better', I would not parse "to swim" as an atom. In fact "to" feels closer to "want" than to "swim".

<I> <want> <noun-thingy>
<I> <want to> <verb>
Of which one case would be: <I> <want to> <go <gerund>>
and another would be: <I> <want to> <be (<adjective>|<noun>|<gerund>)>

I feel sure that anyone not trained in grammar would agree.

Edit*4: Of course, that just switches the burden to "want" and "like", but that at least keeps it localised.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:57 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

thud419: Yes, I'm familiar with the analysis of the "to" in "want to" or "have to" as being a particle of the "want/have", but there are problems with that, too, since you then have an uninflected, base-form of a verb (whatever follows the "to") hanging around. It never agrees with its subject, it never inflects for tense/aspect... what is it, in other words? How do you then parse it if you assign the "to" to the "want/have"?

I spent several months analyzing this problem with Hong Kong learners of English, and there were days when I and the people I was working with felt like we were just going round and round in circles, coming up with a solution which brought its own set of problems which needed solutions which had their own problems... and so on.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 1:27 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Can't you just call it the infinitive? If that term is too specific, then invent another. I seem to remember in primary school we never had a problem using run/ran/running as the verb forms. Everything appeared to make sense.

I'm not saying there isn't a problem, just that I don't see it. I haven't done parsing formally since I was eleven. Where does the problem arise?

In the end, of course, the only language that actually has rules is Esperanto. English especially, has none. That it appears to is just down to our sheer laziness in not inventing more special cases.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 1:32 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Another interesting question: Any Esperanto speakers here? How's it working for you? *crickets*

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 2:02 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

thud419: The problems arise, mainly, when you're trying to describe what is happening in a really detailed and technically consistent way that stands up to the standards of linguistics-as-a-science.

With the "want to XX/have to XX" situation, the problem with viewing "to" as part of "want/have" is that it abandons the XX verb, leaving it stranded. Verbs can come in two flavours: finite and non-finite. Finite verbs change their form depending on what the speaker is talking about (in English, this is commonly seen in tense: I see = present, I saw = past). This is under voluntary control of the speaker. If he wants to talk about the present, he changes the verb form to present; if he wants to talk about the past, he changes it to a past form. It can also be obligatory, too. In English, this is very scarce, but it still exists in 3rd person present: I see, you see, he sees. Whenever you have a 3rd-person present singular subject, you must make the verb agree (add -s normally).
Your stranded verb in the "want/have" case doesn't behave like this at all. You change the time reference (change the tense) and the stranded verbs stays as it is. You can change the subject, from "I" to "he", for example, and still no change. This is very strange for a finite verb.

The other type of verb is the non-finite, and in English they don't change/inflect to show changes in time or subject. However, they can only appear in certain contexts: sub-ordinate clauses or following auxiliary/modal verbs, for example. If you go this route and say that your stranded verb is a non-finite verb, then you have a few more strange things to account for. First, "to" has joined the ranks of being an auxiliary---this is okay, I guess, as there are many linguistic theories, especially those of the Generative/Chomskyan variety, that view the "to" of an infinitive as a modal auxiliary, but they are analyzed as "to XX" as one unit/constituent. Here, though, we're deliberately splitting them apart.
Second, there are patterns of behaviour that auxiliaries/modals show that you can't do with the proposed new auxiliary "want/have to". The process of negating a sentence in English is heavily dependent on fiddling about with the auxiliaries in the sentence. It's probably too technical to get into here, but I'll just say that negating a "want/have to" sentence disregards those patterns if we treat "want/have to" as auxiliary.
Third... auxiliaries/modals are a fairly closed class of words. With this new "to" analysis, we're now claiming to have found a whole new batch of auxiliaries, and some of the candidates are looking a bit dodgy: Do we now include "like to", "expect to", and so on?

They're just a few of the problems, and I've written a monster of a reply already.

Of course, none of this really matters. I mean, really. Every fluent speaker of English knows how to use these things. It only really matters to linguists.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 2:26 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Quote:
So which, in your opinion, is the most 'difficult' modern language to learn?


According to the DoD, languages such Chinese/Mandarin would be a category 4, Czech, Russian, etc are cat 3, German is 2, and romance languages such as Spanish are 1.

Personally, I think much of learning a new language is dependent on the student and how much he or she really wants to learn.

I used to speak and read Czech quite well, but a second language is a perishable skill and deteriorates without use. The grammar rules made sense to me (it is a 'case' dependent language- accusative, dative, genitive, etc) and I really enjoyed learning the language and about the culture. Using conditional always kicked my ass, though.

Then the cold war ended.

Uncle Sam sent me off to learn Arabic, which I absolutely hated. It is all based on three letter roots and the grammar didn't make any sense to me at all. Additionally, we were taught Modern Standard Arabic, which is the official language of the media, but everyday Arabic is spoken all in dialect, which differs from country to country.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 2:28 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

^^

TS, can you read/understand/translate this?:

اثممخو خففثقبشىز اخص شقث غخع فخيشغظ صخىيثقبعمو هة سخ حمثشسثيز ةعسف يشساز فشممغ اخز

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 3:06 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Nope. Laughing

I can say, "La etakellum luga Arabia", but I'll be damned if I could read or write it, anymore.

One of the few things I remember is 'Dogree! Dogree!', which is Syrian dialect for "Keep driving, you fool! The secret police are at our hotel!" Well, not really. It really means 'continue straight', but I've always liked my version.

Also, the Christmas carol words 'Fa la la la la' translate to 'consequently no, no, no, no.'

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 4:20 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Thanks for that explanation. I agree that "run" or "to run", however it is parsed, is an infinitive in a sub-ordinate clause, as evidenced by the fact that it is want/have that changes/inflects. -- I want to run; he wants to run; she wanted to run. I can see that this causes "to" to mess up linguistic theory.

I wanna carry on, but I'd havta reinvent linguistics, which'd be a trifle arrogant Wink

Returning to the original question...

I can like fast cars, but I have to want a fast car.

Is not the problem, that "swimming" is an abstract noun? While you can like an abstract noun, you cannot want one.

I like swimming this morning, but I hated it yesterday.
I want to swim this morning, but I didn't want to yesterday.

I enjoyed swimming yesterday...

...damn and blast.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 4:59 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

The "abstract noun" is a good idea, but then... all gerunds are, almost by default, abstract. They're verbs (an action, not something you can touch) treated as nouns. By the very fact you've taken a literally intangible concept and made it into a noun by adding "-ing", there's a sense of abstractness built in to the gerund right from the start.

I've been looking through my old directories and memory cards, and did manage to find one of the early questionnaires that we designed to get a sense of the problem. This was an early one whose purpose was simply to see if there was some difficulty in choosing between when to use "to XXX" or "XXXing". (It's always good to find out if there's something to look for before you start actually looking for it!) We gave this to 20 native speakers (to get a base-line measurement) and 20 HK learners of English:
<http://docs.department23.co.uk/Test1.pdf>

I can't remember the exact results, but even among the native English speakers I remember that there was a definite agreement about when the "to XXX" and "XXXing" were swappable, and when they weren't. Later questionnaires got deeper into isolating the different contexts, but I can't find those ones, unfortunately.
Anyway, even if you just glance over the questionnaire, you'll start to get a sense of the problem here.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 7:44 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

kleindoofy wrote:
Semi-colons are half-ass. Cool

jane austen wrote:
@kleindoofy
What's wrong with semi-colons?


It would seem that you didn't get the joke. Think about it. Wink

Gnasher wrote:
... if you can't spel proper ...


My wake up call was when I was 16.

I was attending some classes outside of High School and had to write a term paper in one of them. The spelling was so bad that the professor refused to grade it until I corrected the spelling and punctuation. At High School they obviously didn't care about it, so I had never bothered or taken it seriously. The professor told me to get a dictionary and to use it. I have ever since. The truth is that I really don't spell very well, so I use that dictionary.

Don wrote:
... Russian on the other hand is a real bugger to begin with. ...


Latin and Ancient Greek weren't *difficult*, it was just a magno cum pain in the asso to learn all the parts of grammar, especially the verb conjugations.

Arabic, on the other hand, was a bitch. The grammar itself isn't really hard, especially if you've learned Biblical Hebrew (*not* Ivrit), but the vocabulary is almost impossible. In the writing, all you ever get are the consonants and you have to really work hard to work out the rest of it. Modern day newspaper articles turn out to be easy compared to Classical Arabic which is absolutely mind boggling. I never bothered trying to speak it;* reading it was hard enough. I've ended up forgetting most of it, except for perhaps the alphabet.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 9:37 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Our European and American friends are still surprised that many of our kids have the opportunity to learn Japanese and Chinese at school. It sounds a bit pretentious ("oh yes, Tarquin loves his Mandarin lessons") but it makes perfect sense when you realise that in this region they are probably the most widely spoken non-English languages, not only in commerce but tourism too. I am seriously thinking about taking some Japanese classes because my (very rusty) French and Spanish are of very little use whatsoever Down Under.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 11:46 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Fascinating. There certainly are several contexts there. Sometimes the gerund (...-ing) can be replaced by a noun, and sometimes it can't. For example #43: He wanted a taxi at 6:30. In the same example. "to wake" implies he is doing it, whereas "waking" implies someone else is doing it. So I would say that the fact that both forms are gramatical is specious -- they are not the same sentence. Similarly, there is a definite sense that "to" is attached to the prefix phrase in #33 and #27.

I get the sense that there are rules here but not any clear indication that, if they were found and enumerated, they would be exhaustive.

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2007 9:17 am Reply with quoteBack to top

kleindoofy wrote:
My wake up call was when I was 16.


Yeah, I've started to realize how bad my spelling/grammar is, my English teacher keeps saying "you'd get 95% plus if your spelling and grammar was up to standard". Instead I get in the 80's. '

In most cases we use laptops (private school Rolling Eyes ) so we have spell check, I really hate that dam paper clip though. My handwriting has also turned fairly atrocious. Laughing


Oh crap, I hope velocity isn't secretly watching Shocked

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Fo'andles
Punk Pony


Joined: 06 Jul 2007
Posts: 1608
Location: busy doing nothing, somewhere


PostPosted: Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:50 am Reply with quoteBack to top

I for one have learn't a lot more about english from this post, than i ever did at school, thanks folks.

I learn't to spell by doing crosswords.

At my last job, when making out handwritten reports, we had to think how the person reading the report, would view it and can they understand it, if they could not it was sent back for correction and you had redo it, not much fun.

Example of decorum,

part of a letter of complaint from a young lady,
I approached a train crew at Putney Bridge station to ask for travel directions, I can not repeated the actual words they used, but I was told to go away and copulate.

exit stage right.
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thud419
Baiting Guru


Joined: 04 Jan 2006
Posts: 3193


PostPosted: Fri Aug 03, 2007 9:03 am Reply with quoteBack to top

^^^ Did you hear the one about the doctor's girlfriend? The doctor went away to a three week conference and the girl started going out with a pharmacist. It was all perfectly innocent; she needed someone to read the postcards.

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Wright B Hindyou
Elite Baiter


Joined: 11 May 2004
Posts: 1795
Location: Bangkok


PostPosted: Fri Aug 03, 2007 10:54 am Reply with quoteBack to top

Quote:
Chinese/Mandarin would be a category 4

I used to think I was a good linguist till I went to Vietnam and started to learn their language. It has some unique features:

1) Nobody wants you to learn it - they'd much rather use their English on you.

2) Most Vietnamese speak their own language very badly. The instructions in the text books bear no relation to what is actually said.

3) No two VNs use the same idioms, so when you try a phrase you learnt off one person it will always be corrected by the next person. Repeat ad infinitum.

4) If you get the pronunciation (or especially any of the six tones) wrong by more than 2%, your interlocutor will screw up their face in a look of total incomprehension and revert to 1).

5) The alphabet was designed by a Portuguese priest and has only a passing acquaintance with the way the words actually sound.

6) No consonant or vowel in Vietnamese has a direct equivalent in English. There are two different 't' sounds, three 'a', three 'o', two 'u', and even 'b' and 'd' are different (you speak them while drawing in air, not pushing it out)

7) The letters 'v', 'r', and 'gi' are all pronounced as 'y' (unless you travel north where they're all pronounced as 'z')

8 ) Everyone knows about tones: Vietnamese has six, some places five, and occasionally four. Suffice it to say that by a minor alteration in the way you say the word 'ma', you can be talking about a ghost, a horse, a mother, a rice seedling, a cheek, or saying the word 'but' (which doubles as 'and'). The difference between 'nha chua' (the Buddhist temple) and 'nha chua' (the brothel) is a mere flick of the epiglottis.

9) The grammar is the reverse of English. (In the cab: Q: "Way which Sir want go?" A: "Way which also can.")

On the other hand, there are no verb tenses (A: "I go market now, Joe. You give me money." B: "I give you money before.". A: "Now you give me money again.") or noun declensions or plurals, adjectival agreements, or adverbs.

The worst thing of all, the one thing I still hate, is the fact there are no words for 'I', 'you', 'he' - no pronouns, in fact. Everything is done through kinship terms, that is, everybody you meet must be classified, and classify you, according to whether you are 'uncle', 'elder sister', 'young brother' and an infinite variety of shades of meaning. A nightmare.

It took me four years to become competent and not one in a thousand Westerners living there can utter a single word in a way that would be generally understood.

I think I'll try learning Georgian as a relaxing exercise..... Very Happy

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