Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Linguistic Balance

I've been thinking lately about the tradeoffs that different languages must endure. For any linguistic phenomenon, there is a balance. This is not to imply that the natural languages were created by some guy sitting in an office, or, worse yet, created by committee. But, over time each natural language displays certain linguistic traits.

Let's take a look at inflection. English is normally considered a not highly-inflected language (especially when compared with Greek or German, for example). But, some amount of inflection does exist.

The word "book" is a singular noun. How do we make it plural? By inflecting the word- in this case adding an "s".

Now compare this with Chinese (note- in this blog we'll take Chinese to mean Mandarin unless otherwise noted). Words in the Chinese language do not inflect. At all.

So how do we make a "book" into "books"? Chinese is able to avoid inflection through the use of small, modifier words. A contrived example might be translated as "many book".

Now, which method is better? To the Chinese, English's appended 's' is redundant. Look at this sentence.

There are three books on the table.

Given the word "three", do we really need that 's' to indicate that there is more than one book?

There are three books on the table.

What does that 's' give us that "three" doesn't?

On the other hand, in Chinese one is forced to use multiple words. In real life, we don't always respond to questions with complete sentences. Look at the dialogue below:

Person A: Did you want a book or books?
Person B: Books.

In this case, the inflected plural is more efficient. Here's the same, corny example translated from a hypothetical conversation in Chinese:

Person A: Did you want a book or books?
Person B: Many book.

A Chinese speaker is forced to use multiple words to reply to the same question.

So which is better? Neither. Like any linguistic "choice" each has its advantages and disadvantages. It's just fun to think about what those differences are.

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