A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Is "I Love You" One Word? - Speed VS Simplicity

            Let’s look at some sentences that all mean the same thing.
            English: “I love you.” Three words. It’s necessary to have all the words to retain the meaning that it is me, the subject, being in the act of loving  you, the object.
            Latin: “Amo te.” Two words. You can make the sentence three words –“Ego amo te” – but it’s unnecessary. Because of conjugations, we already have the meaning. The additional pronoun would only be used for emphasis, as in “I love you – she doesn’t love you!” This is the standard for most languages with verb conjugations – Finnish “(Minä) rakastan sinua”, Spanish “(Yo) te amo”, etc.
            Hungarian: “Szeretlek.” Now, if you’re like me, your first reaction was probably “There’s at least one word missing from that. We need an object.” Actually, nope. Hungarian has a special conjugation for verbs denoting a first-person subject and a second-person object. (As in, “I understand you” – “értelek”.) So, by putting “szeretni” (“to love”) into that conjugation, we get the sentence “I love you” without the need to state a subject or even an object.
            Obviously, “szeretlek” is much quicker to write than “I love you”. But I was more than a little unhappy to learn that there was yet another conjugation I needed to form. (If there’s one word of warning I can give to any future Hungarian students it’s that the verbs. Will. Murder. You.) I would prefer to be able to simply put a first-person ending on “to love” and throw “you” into the accusative.
            So, I realized that linguistic “convenience” does not come from speed, but from simplicity.
            While English pronunciation may be more screwed up that a staircase designed by M.C. Escher, you can say one thing for the language: It’s grammar is overwhelmingly simple. To form our sentence, all you need to do is state the subject, uninflected (I), the verb (love – still in the infinitive form, to boot!), and the subject, uninflected (you). Syntax:  It’s not concise, but it’s simple.
            And simplicity is, I think, what makes a language convenient. So just remember: 1.We’re lucky that English has simple grammar, or we’d be completely screwed, and 2.Sometimes “I love you” can be one word.