The Simplicity of English by James Champlin Fernald 1909
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THE trouble with many English grammarians has been that they have known too much. By the time a man has mastered the hundreds of parts of the Latin and the Greek verb, and the Hiphil, Hophal, and Hithpael of the Hebrew; when he knows the five declensions of Latin and the three of Greek nouns and the various declensions of adjectives to suit all of these nouns; when he has labored through the Slough of Despond of German genders, and added a light fringe of French, Spanish, and Italian eccentricities, he is apt to become an incarnate inflection. He feels that language exists in order to be inflected. It is beautiful and rich according as it can be tabulated in paradigms under the laws of permutations. He looks upon all that is self-evident and straightforward with the scorn of an expert in mysteries and occult arts.
When there are no more dead or otherwise foreign languages to conquer, he sweeps his glance over the unfortunate English speech, and sees it destitute and denuded of all his beloved intricacy; only here and there some remnant of old declension or conjugation standing separate and lonely, like surviving stumps after a forest fire. His grammatical soul aches over the “lost inflections,” and he puts on sackcloth and ashes for the “poverty” of his native tongue. He longs to recast the language, and run it into traditional moulds, from which it should come forth with cogs and cams and dovetails to be interlocked with mathematical precision.
For some centuries the manufacturers of language labored hard to import into English exotic complications. But these importations did not thrive in the rigorous English climate where the winds of common sense are so very free and strong; and there is now a prevalent disposition to make the best of a bad bargain, holding that as we are saddled with a language that knows no better than to say outright what it has to say, we must try to get some approximate order into this makeshift speech, giving attractive glimpses here and there of the beautiful inflected languages, ancient and modern, which the pupil may hope to learn in the happier days to come, and the learning of which is the chief use of the formless English. Richard Grant White proposed to cut the Gordian knot by treating English as “The Grammarless Tongue”; but his system did not prevail because it was not a system. The stubborn subconsciousness of the English-speaking world knows that there is a grammatical system in our language, if it can only be exhumed from under the explanations in which it is buried.
The key of this system is Simplicity— always the most elusive thing in any line of research. Scholarship can discover everything except the obvious. The simplicity of English is the triumph and glory of the existing speech.
The simplification of English forms was at first a discovery of happy accident and then wrought out of set purpose through centuries of struggle and conflict. In the fifth century of the Christian era the English began life as a new people. The wild tribes that then descended upon Britain cut history in two with the sword, so that British history ends and English history begins with their invasion. They had nothing to learn from the Britons whom they conquered, nor from once imperial Rome, that now could not send one legion to dispute their dominion. Their chief components, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, had different dialects; but when all were shut up together in the conquered island, they were compelled to learn one another’s' speech. In so doing, they stumbled, all unwittingly, upon a great law of language, that when different languages of kindred stock meet and coalesce in the same territory, the effect is to drop inflections; root-words are retained, but case-endings, niceties of conjugation, and other mere refinements and complications are discarded. Thus, as the invaders became fused into one people in England, their different dialects were blended in a modified language of increased simplicity. Scarcely, however, was their conquest completed and their unity secured ere the fame of their prosperity attracted new swarms of Northmen from Scandinavian and Danish shores—all indiscriminately called Danes—who conquered wide districts, and even for a time put upon the throne of England a line of Danish kings. The language, especially in the north of England, received a distinct impress from these invasions. Then upon the mingled peoples fell the mailed hand of the Norman, crushing them closer together, while for three hundred years the Normans occupied themselves in a vain endeavor to make Englishmen talk French, till at last it occurred to them that it would be easier for themselves to learn English.
But in the long contest the Saxons had absorbed much from the French, still simplifying what they appropriated. They fell upon the French language, so far as they condescended to adopt it, as the Norman invaders had fallen upon their own island. Every French word, in order to be naturalized, had to pass under the English yoke, and no French word that has been through that process is ever recognized by the natives when it goes back home. On the fine inflections of French grammar the Englishman set his stubborn heel. Thus a composite language was evolved, simpler than either of its prototypes.
The fierce, and often apparently aimless, contests of centuries blend in one great unity. From the landing of Hengist to the death of Chaucer—almost exactly a thousand years—the process is one, the fusion of competing languages, always in the direction of simplicity. Simplification of speech came to seem natural to the Englishman. Wherever he found a form still lingering that was complicated and troublesome, he weeded it out. All the tripping terminations that made so much of the music of Chaucer’s poetry went by the board. There should never be two syllables where one would do. The short, simple words are the most effective on the sea, in the market, in the camp, and on the battle-field—come, go, hark, hear, march, charge, halt! Every inflection must show a reason for its existence, or cease to exist.
The reason commonly given for the substitution of the second person plural for the second person singular—“you” instead of “thou"—that it originated as a fad of courtesy—may explain its origin, but its universal adoption is due to a deeper reason, namely, that the second person singular of the verb is a complicated and difficult form, while the second person plural is simple to the last degree. With every principal verb in the language, and with every auxiliary except “must,” the pronoun “thou” requires a special change in the form of the verb, which is often the only break in an otherwise uniform series. Thus in the present tense of every verb, with the single exception of the verb “be,” the pronoun “you” employs the unchanged root-form of the verb, as “you love, have, can, do, shall, will,” etc., while “thou” requires a change of form, as “thou lovest, hast, canst, dost, shalt, wilt,” etc. In every such choice the unchanged root-form has always the right of way. Thus “you” has become everywhere current in the busy activities of life, while “thou” is carefully laid up in the museum of antiquity or the shrine of religion.
How far this process of simplification has reached may be seen by comparing English at certain points with various other languages. As regards the noun, we find that the Greek noun has three declensions. with five cases and three numbers—not merely singular and plural, but singular, dual, and plural. It results that there are at least twelve forms in which any noun may appear, according to the special relation to be expressed. Which twelve any particular noun may take can be known only by learning to which declension it belongs. so that it is necessary to know at least thirty-six forms of the Greek noun in order to use any one noun properly. The Latin noun has five declensions and two numbers, with six cases in each number, making sixty forms among which it is necessary to choose in order to use any one noun properly. The English noun is not troubled with declension. While it has technically three cases, two of them, the nominative and the objective, are precisely alike, and the only changes of form are the adding of s preceded or followed by an apostrophe for the possessive, and of s without an apostrophe for the plural, with a brief list of irregular plurals, a considerable proportion of which are those of foreign words not frequent in ordinary use. The regular English plural, which every child can apply, adds s to the singular, occasionally substituting es under euphonic law so simple that, if the rule should be forgotten, the tongue and lips would instinctively shape the utterance. We say foxes because we cannot say foxs without the e.
But the crowning triumph of English simplicity is the abolition of grammatical gender—that is, gender of words as words, irrespective of sex in the objects they represent. All the other leading languages give masculine or feminine gender to names of objects with which no thought of sex can be rationally associated, as mountains, rivers, trees, clothes, tools, articles of furniture, members of the human or animal body, etc. Some of these languages, as the French, Italian, and Spanish, have no neuter gender, so that every inanimate object must be represented by a masculine or a feminine noun. Hence we often have a quiet smile when the Frenchman or the Italian, in his early experiments with English, speaks of the chair or table as “she.” In languages like the Greek, Latin, and German, which have a neuter gender, that gender is sometimes so capriciously applied that a neuter noun may be used for a living being which must have sex, as the German neuter nouns Madchen—maiden, girl; and Weib—wife. Ingenious theories have been advanced as to the giving of gender to inanimate objects on account of fauna, dryads, and other divinities, more or less divine, which were originally supposed to preside over some of them; but the illusive gender far outruns the theory. Why, for instance, should a man’s head be feminine in Greek, neuter in Latin, feminine in French, masculine in German, and feminine again in Italian? The unpoetical fact seems to be that all this is due to a certain stupidity of generalization. Men of the early day seem to have concluded that because some nouns naturally have gender, therefore gender was an inevitable property of the noun per se, and they inflicted it accordingly without reason or discrimination upon every unfortunate noun that came in their way. Then, as languages were artificially perfected, nouns were made masculine, feminine, or neuter according to classification or termination, without the slightest reference to nature.
Here English has made an entirely new departure, so that gender, as far as it is indicated in our language, exactly and uniformly follows the meaning of the noun to which it is applied.
The distinctiveness of English in this respect is strikingly illustrated by a comparison of dictionaries. Take a Greek, Latin, German, French, or Italian dictionary, and look down its columns; after every noun you will find a little letter, m, f, or n, as the case may be, denoting the noun as masculine, feminine, or neuter. The gender must be expressly noted, because it is arbitrary, and by no means surely indicated by the meaning of the word. New look down the columns of an English dictionary, noticing the nouns, and you will not find one m, f, or n. The gender is utterly unnoted, because the meaning of the word tells it all, and no further specification is required.
That poetic personification which sometimes refers to the sun as masculine or to the moon as feminine, or the sailor’s reference to his ship as “she,” constitutes no real exception to the rule, for in plain prose we say of the sun or the moon “its distance,” “its diameter,” or the like, and we read in the Authorized Version of the Scriptures, “The waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.” It is an inestimable advantage in our language that all the innumerable nouns denoting inanimate objects are regularly of the neuter gender, as by the laws of thought they ought to be.
But the English language takes a long step further, and leaves the great majority of nouns denoting living beings utterly indeterminate in gender. No one can tell by the word itself whether friend, neighbor, companion, animal, quadruped, fish, or bird is masculine or feminine. A monarch, a sovereign, a citizen, or a subject may be a man or a woman; so may a writer, an author, or an editor, an agent or an attorney, an artist, a sculptor, or a musician, a teacher or an instructor, a guest or a visitor, a relative or a stranger, an enemy or a foe; nor does the word we use indicate the sex of parent, babe, baby, child, ancestor, or descendant. We know that these words are not neuter, because they do not denote inanimate objects, and that is all we know about them, as regards gender.
Is not this indefiniteness an oversight and a defect in the language? On the contrary. it is a concession to the natural movement of human thought. If we say, “This error was made by the copyist,” the sex of the copyist is not of the slightest consequence. The very thing we want is a word that will not oblige us to ascertain historically whether the copying was done by a man or a woman, before we can complete our sentence. This non-identification of gender has become the general characteristic of English nouns denoting living beings. So far has this been carried that the number of nouns now in ordinary use that can be classed as distinctively masculine or feminine does not probably exceed one hundred and fifty.
Turning now to the article and the adjective, and treating these for the moment as separate, we find in them a still more conclusive triumph of English simplicity. In the languages that have so emphasized gender in nouns, it seems to have been thought that the article and the adjective must also have gender, in order to move in the same society. In Greek the article and the adjective are both declined, having each three genders, three numbers, and five cases. Before using a Greek article or adjective it is necessary to settle the gcnder, number. and case of the noun, and then to use a special form of article or adjective according to the gender, number, and case of the noun to be employed. The Latin took the short method with the article by abolishing it altogether; but the Latin has three declensions of adjectives in three genders and two numbers, making it necessary to settle the gender, number, and case of the noun, and then to use a special form of the adjective to match the gender, number, and case of the noun employed. One must know some seventy or eighty principal adjective forms in either language in order to be sure of applying the right form of ad— jective to any noun it is desired to use; and when we add comparatives and superlatives, which are also declined. and numerous irregular and variant forms, the number may be increased almost indefinitely. In German the article, definite and indefinite, and the adjective are declined, while the adjective has two forms of declension, the strong and the weak, with three genders, two numbers. and four cases diversifying all. Then the combinations of the adjective forms with those of the article vary from the scheme in an arbitrary way which is to the foreigner highly confusing.
Over against all this complexity we set the English article and adjective absolutely without declension. A, with its euphonic variant an, or the never-changing the, may be used with any noun in any gender, person. number, or case. Against all the varying forms of adjectives in other tongues we set the constant English form that knows no change, whatever may happen to the noun which it modifies. Good, bad, fast, slow, wise, foolish, strong, weak, or whatever the adjective may be, the English-speaking person needs to learn the original form but once, and it is his in perpetuity.
There may be said, indeed, to be a certain loss. In English it is not possible, as in those other tongues, to toss an adjective into a sentence anywhere, and be sure of fitting it to some wandering noun, as you identify your trunk in the baggage-room by the duplicate check. The English adjective must keep in close touch with its noun, and can be known as belonging to it only by the order of words. But this loss is a gain, for the English order of words is also the order of thought. However far the adjective may be from its noun in the inflected languages, the mind must, ultimately bring them together, jumping over the interjected words in order to complete the thought. But the English puts the adjective beside its noun, so that the mind associates the connected ideas at the start, and no intellectual acrobatics are required. The verbal athlete may miss a spectacular performance, but the speaker or the bearer, the writer or the reader, gains incalculably in readiness of apprehension. The mind receives the associated ideas together in the beginning, as it must in any event bring them together in the outcome.
Still, the critic may ask, how is it possible that this should be adequate? How can a single English article or adjective be a substitute for the many variants of either in other languages? The answer is, that the inflected languages have been carrying for ages a vast amount of useless lumber. This could, indeed, be fashioned by cunning hands into artistic shapes, but is in no way necessary to the expression of human thought, and the English language has proved by the sure test of experience that the unmodified article and adjective can say all that article and adjective ever have to say in human speech. It is the better machine that dispenses with needless parts.
When we pass to the English pronoun we find it almost genderlcss. Gender is found only in three personal pronouns of the third person, and only in the singular number in those three, he, she, and it, their common plural they referring indifferently to a masculine, a feminine, or a neuter antecedent. Yet how very seldom do we find any difficulty in making clear the gender of any antecedent to which a pronoun may refer! We are aware of no lack of pronominal gender. Rather we often think that we have still too much; when, for instance, we start into such a sentence as, “If any gentleman or lady has lost his or her purse, he or she will please inquire at the office, when it will be restored to him or her.” Then, in our eagerness to escape, we long for a genderless singular of the pronoun of the third person to match the genderless plural, and those who are not afraid of the schoolmaster promptly retire upon the plural, using they, their, and them in place of the too specific singular—wishing for less gender rather than more. Still. in the pronoun. English simplicity has done very well.
At the threshold of the verb in most languages—with rare exceptions, as of the Hebrew and Russian—the spectre of gender vanishes. But inflection descends upon the verb as its peculiar prey. The Greek verb has 1,138 parts, which the simpler Latin was able to reduce to no less than 444. Here the English language has broken all precedent. The most complicated English verb, the verb be, has but eight different forms, be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been. The verb be is alone in this proud distinction. No other irregular verb has more than five changes of form; as, give, gave, gives, giving, given. A regular verb has but four changes of form; as, love, loved, loves, loving; and out of at least 8,000 verbs in the English language, all except a little list of 200 are regular. The modes and tenses that express the manner and time of actions are for the most part formed by auxiliary verbs - be, do, can, have, may, must, shall, will; and when the forms and combinations of these eight auxiliaries are once learned. they are the same for all our thousands of English verbs. Four or five forms of the principal verb combined with eight auxiliaries constitute the simple scheme that English has to offer in place of all the terminations and augments and internal vowel changes that other languages offer by scores and hundreds.
By reason of this marvellous simplicity our language meets more fully than any other has ever done a fundamental law of the expression of thought in words. Herbert Spencer’s famous paragraph on “Economy of Attention” might be taken as a statement of the underlying principle that has governed the historic evolution of English speech:
"Regarding language as an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of thought, we may say that, as in a mechanical apparatus, the more simple and the better arranged its parts, the greater will be the effect produced. In either case, whatever force is absorbed by the machine is deducted from the result. . . . The more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea, and the less vividly will that idea be conceived."
If the men who framed our language could have consulted Spencer five hundred years in advance, and kept his exposition before them throughout all their struggles, they could scarcely have done more to realize his conception of effective expression. The discovery that conformity of the order of words to the order of thought could be a substitute for the complex machinery of inflection is one of the greatest inventions of the ages as regards the use of language, and is a triumphant success. English simplicity is no survival of spoliation and impoverishment, no residue of linguistic decay, but an attainment, an achievement, of the highest dignity and value. From the complicated constructions of the classic tongues, of the rival languages of modern Europe, and even of its parent Anglo-Saxon, English has resolutely stripped itself free. as David put off the encumbering armor of Saul, to gain freedom as the means of power.
It would seem that this inflectionless language is what the world has been waiting for. Because its simplicity of structure puts so few obstacles in the foreigner’s way, the English language is comparatively easy to learn, men of every race finding it simpler than their own. The surprise of a foreign student of English is often almost comical, as he looks around for difficulties which he cannot find. His chief difficulty, indeed, is to get along without complications. He is like a swimmer accustomed to artificial aids, who fears to trust himself to the water, though the moment he does so he is free. This facility of acquirement, joined with the enterprise and efficiency of the nations that use it, is fast making English a world-language, spoken as their vernacular by one hundred and thirty millions, and dominating the territory, the government, the business, and to a great extent the thought, of five hundred millions of people.
A natural objection might be, that while a language so simple might be a ready medium of communication, yet it must be lacking in range, diversity, and fulness, and so tend to barrenness and monotony. But from this result our language is preserved by its rich variety and abundance of words inherited from its diverse ancestry, and gathered by exploration. travel, commerce and conquest all round the world. Thoughts of highest sublimity and the most ordinary ideas of common life, the profound researches of science, and the light flashes of wit and humor, the fiery splendor of impassioned oratory, and the dry precision of the legal document, find equal facility of utterance in English speech. English poets for five hundred years have proved that the language strong to wield the sword or the sledge has also skill to tune the lyre. It is equally perfect in adaptation in Milton’s sublime epic and in Tennyson’s cradle song. In Shakespeare the diversity of language is as marked as the limitless versatility of portraiture. Kings and peasants, statesmen and clowns, tradesmen and soldiers, ladies and servant maids, in every extreme of frolicsome joy or furious rage or heartbroken lament, all speak English, but a different English, always apt and expressive, always fitting the character and the occasion. In the centuries since that day a vast store of new words has been added to meet the demands of advancing and broadening civilization, though under the controlling influence of its early type all increase of material or improvement in construction has still been in the line of perfected simplicity.
It should be added that the literary development of our language has been along the line of its historical evolution. It has been proved to demonstration that English needs not to seek extrinsic adornments, but merely to develop its own inherent power, and that the simple is also the strong, the beautiful, and the successful style. It would be possible by a survey of all the great writers down to and through the Victorian era to show that those who had most of this quality have taken the highest place, and also that such of their works as possess most of this quality are the most admired, the most cherished. and the best remembered. The palm is ever awarded to the author who has the skill to use and the courage to trust the simple style, if he have but a message that will bear to be so expressed; while one who loads his page with crowded words and strained constructions is suspected of seeking a disguise to cover barrenness of thought, or censured as lacking artistic skill. The ideal of the literature responds to the ideal of the language.