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After wondering about this today at work, I turned to the Internet.

A short piece that focuses on pronunciation points toward "none". I've scoured ELU and Google (perhaps not as thoroughly or effectively as some others might), but cannot find an answer specific to this question.

I realize this may be considered a broad question, though, so let me clarify what I mean by "unique". I am not referring to words that only occur in English or one-off exceptions to grammatical rules, i.e. trivial language-specific features (that are innumerable and don't belong here anyway). I'd like to see something more along the lines of what is presented in this paper on unique features of Lithuanian.

The author gives nine unique traits to Lithuanian (I list some with my comments in parentheses):

  1. frequentative past tense
  2. 13 participles in active use (more than other languages?)
  3. four functional locative cases (more than others?)
  4. no irregular, or suppletive forms in the comparative and superlative forms in adjective and adverbial systems
  5. uniform stressed syllable intonation
  6. preserved several words or forms exactly as they are reconstructed for the distant proto-language (PIE)
  7. all the basic possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns are expressed by genitive form

I'm not sure if #2 and #3 are unique in the sense that English could also claim X participles where only the number is significant, not the existence of certain participles unique to the language.

I am not looking for a thesis, but perhaps a short list along the same lines as the paper above. In short, what does English do that no other language does?

Edit 1: For anyone voting to close, perhaps you can help me rephrase my question or so that it's in line with the kind of succinct answer I'm hoping for (e.g. some "unique features of Lithuanian"). Comments/critiques are welcome.

Edit 2: John Lawler mentioned WALS, and it is the kind of features cataloged that I'm after. For instance, double-headed relative clauses or optional triple negation are only found in a few languages. Again, it may be the case that English is too "mixed" with cross-linguistic features for it to have any unique quality.

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migrated from Aug 15 '12 at 20:29

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

Chinese has far more polysemy than English, and the size of the English vocabulary (an artificial measure because nobody knows all of them) merely points out the English lack of morphology. We need separate words like rat and mouse, chair and couch, because we don't have the resources of, e.g, Spanish ratón/ratito/ratoncito or silla/sillón. Like I said, moving this to Linguistics will probably generate more facts and less mythology. – jlawler Aug 15 '12 at 19:25
Given that we lack descriptions for most of the world's languages I don't see how this question can be answered. Perhaps it would be better to look for features of English that are rare, rather than unique. Eg the volumes here – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 15 '12 at 22:57
How about Chinese? – jlawler Aug 16 '12 at 2:58
The "rule that a double negative equals a positive" (a) is not a rule of English, but a special version of negative concord that comes from logic; and (b) occurs in many other languages. – jlawler Aug 16 '12 at 18:59
Did you know that the "did" at the beginning of this sentence has no meaning? That's a feature caused English being filtered through Celtic language speakers. Their feature came out as a "do" as in "Do you have a car?" which would be rendered as "Vous avez une voiture?" in French, literally "You have a car?" Learned that from "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue," which I read this past week. – Nick Anderegg Aug 16 '12 at 20:48

English commonly resorts to post-auxiliary ellipsis as in

(1) They arrived late, as I thought they would.

This is already pretty rare among the world languages. But, as far as I know, English is unique in the variety of constructions where ellipsis is tolerated. For instance, it tolerates voice mismatch as in

(2) This problem was to have been looked into, but obviously nobody did.

or even non-verbal antecedent as in:

(3) Mubarak’s survival is impossible to predict and, even if he does [survive], his plan to make his son his heir apparent is now in serious jeopardy.

I have never heard of another language tolerating constructions like (2) and (3).

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"Tolerates" is the right word...I certainly wouldn't be happy about having to understand someone who insisted on talking like that in English. – Nick Stauner Jan 6 '14 at 4:36
@NickStauner Yes, of course, constructions (2) and (3) are quite rare, but these actual examples are attested and a corpus (or more mundanely google) search returns many more. In the small set of languages which have comparable constructions, none (that I know) behaves similarly. That said, I agree with you more than this comment suggests: as a non-native speaker, I have about zero intuition as whether these would be produced or not. – Olivier Jan 6 '14 at 7:38
I don't mind (2) and (3) at all but, in fact, rather like them, and even if they were more convoluted, that fact about me wouldn't change at all, for why would it, indeed, given the situation just described? – Claudiu Dec 27 '15 at 21:03

R-coloured vowels seem to be a pretty unique trait of English phonology. I don't know of any other language that has the vowel [ɝ] as in General American pronunciation of "work". The only major language, other than English, that has this type of vowels is Mandarin, but it doesn't have this particular one.

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To elaborate, the molar-R articulation used by many American speakers is unusual. Many languages have retroflexes, but I haven't heard of this articulation in other languages. – Mechanical snail Oct 21 '12 at 5:39
I don't know of a variety of English has r-colored vowels such as [ɑ˞] and [i˞]. The dialects of English that I've heard have diphthongs like [aə˞] and [iə˞]. – James Grossmann Mar 31 '13 at 2:14
It's pretty standard to speak of American English as having two r-coloured vowels, [ɝ], and [ɚ]. These symbols are not used in British or Australian English but I don't know whether dialects such as Scottish or Irish English might have these or other r-coloured vowels. – hippietrail May 29 '13 at 0:34
I think it exists in German at least – Anixx Aug 6 '15 at 11:35
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I am not a linguist in any sense, but the answer appears to be that English has no unique traits (excluding trivial "features")*. From both a spoken and written perspective, English was formed as a mix of other languages. There is nothing that I'm aware of—grammatically, phonetically, or conceptually—that can be expressed solely in English.

Here are some possibilities that stand out in English (from comments):

  • English stands out as one of about a dozen languages to use "we" as "I" (the Royal "we" / Majestic plural), though it's not unique. – Zairja
  • Not unique as per comment: I remember that in one of his books (probably « la structure des langues »), Hagège mentioned that constructions à la “Do you know what I'm thinking about?“ with this separation between the preposition and the conjunction were very original. I will try to find what he says exactly and post it as an answer. – JPP
  • "Did" at the beginning of this sentence has no meaning. That's a feature caused English being filtered through Celtic language speakers. Their feature came out as a "do" as in "Do you have a car?" which would be rendered as "Vous avez une voiture?" in French, literally "You have a car?" – Nick Anderegg, (Do-support - though there seems to be some controversy between grammarians and linguists)

Additional traits might be gleaned from these published works, but I could only preview some of them (no university access at the moment).

*A trivial feature would be, for example, no language spells "horse" like English.

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Re point 1, many languages can passivise on either object. Points 3 and 5 are the same. – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 25 '12 at 0:16
Second current bullet point, this is "preposition stranding" and it's not unique to English. You can find it in many other Germanic languages and some Niger-Congo languages [PDF]. – Mark Beadles Aug 26 '12 at 20:44
And yet there is another language where /dog/ means 'dog'. – Mechanical snail Sep 21 '12 at 0:57
@Mechanicalsnail That's the Australian language Mbabaram. There's a discussion of the dog/dog coincidence here, which outlines the derivation of the Mbabaram /dog/ and shows it to be mere coincidence. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 19 '12 at 23:07

If expletive infixation isn't unique to English, what about recursive expletive infixation, however impractical it may be.


"Holy mother-mother-fucking-fuck!"

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English is unique for its "hieroglyphic reading" feature. All other languages either use ideograms (hyerogliphs) for writing or use alphabetic/syllabary spelling that can be read following certain rules.

English is unique in that while it uses usual letters, it has no general reading rules that could lead a reader to unambiguous pronunciation. A reader of English reads not single letters or syllables, but the whole words at once: to learn reading in English one has to remember the reading and spelling of the whole words. In this quality English is close to hyerogliphic languages where the reader or writer has to remember pictures for the whole words. Although words in English are formally composed of letters, they do not play a similar role as in other languages, rather they are used as parts of a word's picture which should be remembered as a whole.

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This is not unique. Russian молоко ("a milk") phonetically has three different vowels: [məɫɐˈko]. – bytebuster Jan 7 '13 at 2:32
@bytebuster Russian has rules of reading as all the other languages do. In English the words are remembered as pictures, similar to hyerogliphic languages. – Anixx Jan 7 '13 at 2:37
@bytebuster and of course, IPA is unusable for Russian. In the Russian phonetic transcription it is [малако], two kinds of vowels. – Anixx Jan 7 '13 at 2:39
@bytebuster what's so difficult with this word for you? It is read following all the rules, [п'ир'иc'эс'т'] – Anixx Jan 7 '13 at 2:48
Anyway, the real issue is that you cannot infer from the pronunciation how to spell an English word, and vice versa. Russian spelling is fairly predictable going from pronuciation to spelling, and once you know where the stress goes, pronouncing an unfamiliar word from its spelling is (in my very limited experience) straightforward. – tripleee Jan 13 '13 at 17:28

Terms of venery, collective nouns used for denotating a group of animals, while countables (or, to say it better, measure words) denote a part of a group, an item, a piece, etc.

This, as opposed to the countable words in languages like Chinese/Japanese, might be a unique feature (not mentioning the English spelling).

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Could you give some examples to clarify what you mean? – Mechanical snail Feb 2 '13 at 0:31
Terms of venery are collective nouns denotating a group of animals: while countables (or, to say it better, measure words) denote a part of a group, an item, a piece, etc. – Manjusri Feb 2 '13 at 6:55
@Mechanicalsnail: I think he's talking about words like head in "head of cattle". – hippietrail Jun 7 '13 at 1:04
Most languages I'm familiar with have special words to denote a group of animals vs. a group of animals, and much more so groups of special/important animals. But then English IS special in taking this to the extreme: a pride of lions, a crime of ravens, a troupe of macaques... in Spanish we'd simply say "una manada de..." and then the name of the animal. In English, hundreds of species have their own, special term for a group of their kind, they follow seemingly no logic (at least I learn them by heart) and are sometimes very colorful :) – Joe Pineda Jan 11 '14 at 6:22
sorry, meant "a group of humans vs. a group of animals" – Joe Pineda Jan 11 '14 at 6:28

From an English Syntax course I took several years ago, I understand that this feature is rare among languages, but not unique:

Phrasal Verbs: "I will pick him up at the airport." (in which 'pick up' makes this sentence have a fundamentally different meaning than "I will pick him at the airport" does) I have met some fluent ESL-speakers who simply can't use phrasal verbs correctly.

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I've always felt that English phrasal verbs are really just an evolution of German's partitive verbs... – Joe Pineda Jan 12 '14 at 3:46

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