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English seems to have rules that are much more simple than its cousin German and its influencer French, as well as most of the languages that those are related to. What caused this? I suspect it's because there is so much influence on the language from two separate sources, but I could be wrong.

EDIT: By this I mean when it comes to conjugation and compound words and number of phonemes, etc., etc., English has simplified very much.

Alternative question that basically means the same thing: why has English simplified more than its cousins. PIE was much more complex, and I'm sure Proto-Germanic was much more complex as well; it's obvious that Latin is more complex than French, and I assume Proto-Germanic was much more complex than German. Why has English simplified one step further than these other two languages, in terms of grammatical complexity.

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    I think your question is very subjective. I personally find English grammar exceptionally difficult in comparison to Dutch (my native language, and related to English) as English has strict rules on tenses. Besides that the pronunciation of English is a total mess in my opinion. Consider the following words: knight, fortnight, dynamite, fourth. Enough, dough, though, tough. etc etc. – user1234 Aug 7 '12 at 14:42
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    The examples that I gave are merely to support my statement that your question is very subjective. I think most of us nowadays are used to hearing, speaking, reading a lot of English and are becoming more skilled at it, which consequently makes it appear "easier"/"simpler". But in the end I would argue that whichever language is simpler remains vastly subjective, unless it was created to be simpler, for example Esperanto. – user1234 Aug 7 '12 at 15:41
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    Some would call English phonology chaotic :) youtu.be/L0hjhu1rUKM (expand to see the text). – bytebuster Aug 7 '12 at 16:09
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    "number of phonemes" Any support for that statement? I would say English has at least as many phonemes as German and French. And for other simplifications, are you mostly talking about morphology? English has simple morphology, but a complicated syntax. – dainichi Aug 8 '12 at 0:16
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    So in your question you actually wanted to ask why/how English has reduced its morphological complexity compared to PIE and many of its relatives, is that right? Maybe you should reword the question then; as it stands it seems to be making the unjustified claim that English has a simpler grammar and smaller segmental inventory than other languages. – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 8 '12 at 5:27
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From a linguistical point of view, it is proven that English is neither a simple nor a complex language, it depends on the influences of your L1. For example, if you are Korean or Chinese, you may find the pronunciation hard, but if your mother tongue is Spanish, it is quite easy to learn the language. Don't forget that English comes from the Germanic branch of languages in the Indo-European family. However, there aren't many inflections as in German. Besides, there is no gender. So, the complexity of a language should be stated in terms of comparison with your mother tongue, and taking into account all the aspects of it. English would be easy in terms of syntax, since you cannot change the words as you do in those that come from romance languages, and it would be easy in comparison to those language where you seem to use symbols more that written phonemes, but it is still complex in some cases: primarily when you are in an upper-advanced level and you deal with literary English, and I'd say it depends on the epoch it is spoken. Why is Shakespeare rather complex for us, contemporary speakers?

  • What do you mean by "contemporaneous speakers"? – Alex B. Aug 9 '12 at 22:01
  • Sorry, I have just read your answer. By contemporaneous, I refer to the period of history which comes after the french revolution to the present days, I mean, from 1800 a.C. aproximately, to 2012. – Anonimous Aug 10 '12 at 20:25
  • English IS definitely much easier to learn for speakers of other common European languages than other such languages. I spent 10 years of school learning German and never get close to the fluency I got in English, which I started to learn several years later. – Vladimir F Sep 26 '20 at 9:18
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Compared to GErman and French, English has almost no inflections: No case and gender for nouns, and almost no verb conjugation. The cause are sound changes that deleted the suffixes that originally (i.e. in Old English) marked those categories.

The present conjugation of the Old English verb 'hǣlan' (to heal):

ic hǣle (I) þū hǣlst (you-singular) hē/hit/hēo hǣlþ (he/it/she) wē/gē/hīe hǣlaþ (we/you-plural/they)

Many final sounds have been weakened and dropped, so only 'heals' remains distinct from 'heal'.

On a 1st stage, only some sounds were dropped because of phonetical reasons. Later, the others were deleted for grammatical reasons (ie. the system had been weakened, so it just "fell apart").

  • Welcome to Linguistics SE! The question seems to be more concerned about the reasons why English is so "simple". Would you be able to expand your answer a bit, give a bit more detail about these "phonological reasons"? – acattle May 12 '13 at 7:30
  • I had heard it was due to having influence from both its relatives Norse and Frisian, which has quite similar endings which were not used in exactly the same ways. This made the endings confusable and as a result they weakened. – hippietrail May 12 '13 at 10:36
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As a native Dutch person and a teacher of English and a former teacher of German, I am grateful that at least English grammar is far easier to learn than German grammar - none of my German students managed to speak the language AND use the correct case endings or verb forms, whereas all my English students can compose grammatically correct English sentences. Also, it is really hard to explain why a German or Dutch finite verb should move in front of the subject in one situation and to the end of the sentence in another - much easier for everybody to remember that English sentences always have Subject, Verb, Object - in that order. Always? No, there are some situations where English has retained the Germanic tendency to move the verb around, but luckily in MOST cases, modern English keeps to the 'simple' S-V-O structure - as, by the way, do the French. And this is no coincidence: from 1066 onwards, Norman French was the official language in Britain for hundreds of years. That influence did not disappear when they started speaking 'English' again. While we were taught that English is a Germanic language, two thirds of its vocabulary today originated from French or Latin, and the sentence structure is also far more like French than German, down to the distinct forms for adjectives and adverbs, which de Roman languages French, Spanish and Italian all have, while German and Dutch do not. In this area, the general tendency towards simplicity can also be noted: many Americans tend to say 'come quick' rather than 'come quickly', and if they keep doing so, sooner or later that may be regarded as okay.

An example of how the Roman influence 'simplified' English grammar can be found in the verb forms: while many of the most frequently used 'Germanic' verbs in English have irregular forms for past tense and past participle (begin, began, begun/ know, knew, known), ALL the verbs based on French or Latin origin are regular: To comprehend, comprehended, comprehended, respond, responded, responded, demand, demanded, demanded. Why? well, no one would have known which of the many different forms of the irregular verbs one should have applied to any of these newcomers, and besides: why make it more complex than necessary?

This might raise the question why so many Germanic verbs are 'irregular' in the first place - I don't know the answer, but I guess it is because they originated at a time when language was not written but only spoken: the vowel changes provide much more audible distinctions between the tenses than just an added 'ed'.

While the contacts between the various languages seem to have led to the adoption of whichever grammatical form was simpler, the influx of words from French and later from Latin gave English a very rich and complex vocabulary, with an abundance of synonyms in 'high' and 'low' registers and highly specific terminology that is perfect for academic distinctions. A maximum of content conveyed with a minimum of rules - quite perfect for teaching, really! which for me is at least one of the explanations why English was and is so tremendously and unprecedentedly successful as an international language in all areas of life.

As far as I am aware, pronunciation is not part of grammar - but apart from that, it is not English pronunciation that is 'a mess' but the relationship between spelling and pronunciation. This 'mess' results at least in part from the fact that English pronunciation changed (the great vowel shift, see Wikipedia) while spelling did not. Besides, lots of British words owe their spelling to French, and French spelling is notorious for its abundance of vowels and consonants that are not pronounced at all. No wonder some of the superfluous vowels were omitted when the American spelling was standardized by Noah Webster in 1783. But by that time, the Americans were already convinced that the 'natural' way to spell the sound [i:] is 'ee', even though that conviction would be contradicted by the spelling of 'grief', 'thief' or 'belief'. Anyway, most spelling issues are easily solved with a spell checker. Although in this very text, the spell checker wants me to change 'their spelling' to 'they're' or 'there'...

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English has complicated tenses, spelling, phonology. It also uses more word roots because absence of inflexions require you to use different roots to convey nuances rather than just modifying the same root.

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    English has not complicated tenses (3 tenses) and verb conjugation flexes very little inside each tense — compare with latin languages ... I can speak fluently Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, English ... I know what I am talking about. – sergiol Oct 3 '14 at 0:09
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A reason that English might be "simpler" in some terms (whatever that means, the notion is not easy to define; English is certainly quite simple morphologically, phonologically it's quite difficult, I'd say) might be its widespread usage: There is some evidence that language with a high proportion of non-native speakers tend to reduce complexity. See also my answer on a more general question.

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English started out as a pidgin. It is a composite of a few languages. It grew to a creole and then developed into a language. Most pidgins do not deal with the complex parts of the languages (rarely masculine, feminine, neuter, simpler conjugation, etc.) and just deal with the rules necessary to make your thoughts understood. Languages that grow from a pidgin will add their own rules or include the rules from the languages they developed from, but for the most part those rules are a lot simpler than the rules from the original languages.

English is a relatively young language and is still growing. It is far past its pidgin roots and has gotten more complex, but has not incorporated as many rules as some of the others.

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    That's the Middle English creole hypothesis, one that has very few supporters; for one thing, there's no evidence of a pidgin origin for English. And creoles are complete languages. – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 11 '12 at 15:35
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    @GastonÜmlaut: Wikipedia link.. It's also possible that language contact contributed to grammatical simplification, without it being a full-blown creole. – Mechanical snail Dec 23 '12 at 23:06

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