67

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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  • 7
    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
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    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
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    How about Chinese? – jlawler Aug 16 '12 at 2:58
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    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
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    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

12 Answers 12

37

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).

  • 10
    "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
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    @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
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    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
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    They arrived late, as I thought they would. In Portuguese, eles chegaram tarde, como ache que fariam. Seems to me the same kind of construction. This problem was to have been looked into, but obviously nobody did. In Portuguese, "o problema deveria ter sido investigado, mas obviamente ninguém o fez*. Again, I am not sure that this is different from the English example. And I fear that what can be done in Portuguese can be done in Castillian, Catalan and Italian, and perhaps even French. – Luís Henrique Jul 3 '17 at 11:02
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    @LuísHenrique Isn't it the case though that fariam or fez in your examples correspond to the verbal do, not the auxiliary one? If so (as I strongly suspect seeing that fariam bears a supplementary modality), of course French and I suspect all Romance language allow similar construction with the verbal root do. The specificity of English is the use of an auxiliary construction and among the rather small set of languages with similar constructions, it is the only one that I know which allows such flexibility in the link between the antecedent and the auxiliary. – Olivier Jul 3 '17 at 11:57
18

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.

  • 3
    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
  • @Mechanicalsnail molar-R sounds similar enough to true retroflexes that I expect a number of "retroflex" Rs through the world to accept a bunched realization. Source: my native Rural Brazilian Portuguese (caipira) is usually described as having a retroflex postvocalic /r/, but I as a child acquired it as bunched/molar. (It confused the heck out of me when I first tried to learn IPA by introspection.) – melissa_boiko Jul 2 '17 at 19:35
18

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

Ex:

"Holy mother-mother-fucking-fuck!"

  • 10
    In Cantonese, it is actually not uncommon. I've heard people put three distinct words for the male sexual organ inside two-syllable verbs. – WavesWashSands Dec 9 '16 at 16:32
  • This answer is absol-fucking-shit-damned-lutely awesome. – Robert Columbia Jul 5 '17 at 21:40
12

While it is not clear to me what should be considered as "unique" to a language, since all the languages are different, so also unique in many ways, but they also share many basic features and principles. One can rather look for some typological rarities in English. A typological rarity is a feature that goes against some commonly recognised linguistic universal. The Universals Archive is a fascinating online database of such universals. It contains a special section with a small collection of rarities. If you search for results that are attested in English the databases finds 9 features (including one from "Old English", one from an "English-based creole", and one from "Germanic languages other than English"). These are exactly what you can consider true rarities specific of English (either mostly or exclusively).

The entries specific to modern English include the following. It is extremely rare for a language to have:

  1. verb inflection with non-zero exponent for 3rd person (subject or object agreement/cross-reference), but zero for all other persons
  2. independent personal pronouns for 1st and 3rd (animate) person inflecting for both number and case, but that for 2nd person inflecting for neither category (defectiveness of 2nd person pronouns in number alone being more common)
  3. endoclitics occurring not only inside morphologically complex words, but even within monomorphemic words, with the positioning of the clitic (a) regulated by one general phonological rule, (b) not regulated by a general phonological rule, although when endoclitic to simple verbs, the clitic always comes before the last segment of the verb stem (subject person-number markers are cliticized to constituents in focus, being always enclitic with arguments in focus, but en- or endo-clitic with verbs in focus) (e.g., "un-fucking-believable")
  4. (finite) verb-second word order in main declarative clauses only if the first constituent is an adverbial with strong negative force (such as never before, hardly ever)
  5. relative pronoun as the only target for agreement in animacy (human: who; non-human: which)
  6. a definite article formally distinct from (one form or another of) any kind of pronoun – demonstrative, personal (free, clitic, or bound), possessive, relative, interrogative
  • @jknappen thanks for your suggestion, I have edited the answer consequently – Artemij Keidan Jan 31 '17 at 19:11
  • I added the rest of the items unique to Modern English from that list. – Mark Beadles Jan 31 '17 at 20:39
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    I wonder if "un-fucking-believable" type endocliticization is really unique, or if it's just more well known in English since it is such a well-known language in general. I don't see any theoretical reason why the phenomenon couldn't occur in another language. Even in English, it's rare enough and "word play"-y enough that I don't think I've ever used this method of word formation, and my main exposure to it is reading about linguistics. It seems odd also to characterize the relative pronoun as the only target for animacy agreement: I think about the same criteria apply for "it" and "which". – sumelic Jan 31 '17 at 21:41
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    The "un-fucking-believable" type of constructions is too much at the periphery of grammar to be a good example of something unique. It's not something that the speaker would normally use in a standard sentence. – Artemij Keidan Feb 1 '17 at 0:12
  • In the variety of English that I speak, the 2nd person pronoun does inflect for number: singular is "you" and plural is "you guys". "You" can absolutely not be plural. – Brennan Vincent May 18 at 18:18
10

John McWhorter recently explained some. I'll add to that here. English has a number of features that, while not absolutely unique to English, just rare in the world, are unique to English as a collection:

  • th- (interdental fricative) is rare among world languages. Icelandic, Arabic, and some Northwest Indian languages have it. Everybody has problems saying that when learning English.

  • spelling/orthography - English is special in having a particularly idiosyncratic spelling to pronunciation map, primarily produced by major sound changes (the Great Vowel Shift) after some solidification of spelling norms had happened, but then fluid spelling norms throughout time, and lots of foreign word influences. This is of course not necessarily about English (spelling is not language), but is strongly associated with English speaking culture.

  • do-support - that's a fancy way of saying that 'do' gets spliced in for negatives and questions. "I know who that is" -> "Do you know who that is?", "I do not know who that is.". The only other languages in the world that does that is Welsh (and supposedly there was some influence one way or the other).

  • prepositions isolated at the end (like in phrasal verbs "Let's call the meeting off" "You should think it over". These prepositions don't really introduce a prepositional phrase or indicate direction or anything we normally associate with prepositions except for some vague metaphorical direction (likely to be misdirected). They are 'idiomatic', they mean something much more with the verb than by themselves. Other Germanic languages have this but nowhere else.

  • genderlessness (in IE) - You know how French and Spanish have gender, a (grammatical) sex marker for each noun: 'la porte' (the door) but 'le mur' (the wall)? Most Indo-European languages have some sort of gender assignment. This is cheating a bit because in the whole world, having gender is only roughly half and half.

  • multiple layers of vocabulary - The British Isles are somewhat isolated, as islands tend to be, but somehow attracted multiple invasions over the centuries. Celts, Saxons, Norse, French, and scholars and engineers with a penchant for Latin and Greek. Most European languages share the latter (modern technical vocabulary) with English, but not all of the previous ones. Oh yeah, lots of words borrowed from indigenous colonialized people. English isn't special in having loan words: Swahili has lots of Arabic, and Mandarin lots of Manchu and Mongolian and so on. But English has multiple different sources.

But given all this, there is one thing that English is not particularly unique in, and that is in being unique. What I mean to say is that though English is certainly special in having all the above rare particular idiosyncrasies all in one place, most languages have a number of similarly idiosyncratic facts about them that distinguish them from all other languages, just not the same ones listed above that are special to English. French has the rare nasal vowels (like Polish) and some adjectives that go before nouns and some after (like Spanish). So English is not unique in being unique.

  • 1
    I don't agree that the th-sound is particularly difficult to pronounce. It's absent in my native Polish, but I learnt to pronounce it quite early; it was just a matter of learning where the tip of the tongue should be placed. Learning to distinguish and correctly produce all the English vowels was much, much harder and took many more years. – michau Feb 2 '17 at 14:23
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    @michau Maybe I exaggerate that everybody has problems. Sure there's lots of room for those with language facility. But I agree, getting vowels just right in another language is just extra hard. – Mitch Feb 2 '17 at 14:55
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    @michau I agree with both you and Mitch. The sound was quite easy for me to learn… after its existence was pointed to me (and, like michau, I was explicitly instructed on where to place the tongue tip). But I've spent several years using English without realizing the existence of the sound as a distinct phoneme; and, if there was no explicit instruction, I suspect I might have never acquired it. As far as I know, that's pretty common among adult immigrants living in English-speaking countries. See Schmidt's Noticing Hypothesis. – melissa_boiko Jul 2 '17 at 19:39
  • 1
    Russian has possibly more borrowing layers than English. Just take it: Proto-Germanic, Greek (ancient and Byzantine, which have different rules of borrowing), Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Turkic, Persian/Iranic, Mongolian, German, French, Polish, Italian, English... And these are only the main sources. – Anixx Jul 5 '17 at 22:07
  • "prepositions at end" - I think they are in fact, adverbs. – Anixx Dec 18 '18 at 2:33
9

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.

  • 1
    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
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    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
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    And yet there is another language where /dog/ means 'dog'. – Mechanical snail Sep 21 '12 at 0:57
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    @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
  • Urdu/Hindustani uses the majestic plural. – ARi Sep 26 '16 at 15:05
8

English is unique for its "hieroglyphic reading" feature. All other languages either use ideograms (hieroglyphs) 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.

  • 2
    This is not unique. Russian молоко ("a milk") phonetically has three different vowels: [məɫɐˈko]. – bytebuster Jan 7 '13 at 2:32
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    @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
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    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
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    English is like Tibetan in this regard, and in both cases the reason is the same: written language preserves the language as it was about 1000 years ago, even though spoken language has evolved a lot - and, in both cases, phonetical evolution has not been regular, hence no single rule to derive modern pronunciation from patterns in writing as do exist for French or German (which also preserve ancient pronunciations in their spelling). – Joe Pineda Jan 11 '14 at 6:26
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    And let's not forget these most sorrowful words which can have 2 pronunciations depending on context: tears (water flowing from your eye) vs tears (somebody ripping off clothes or a pint), wind (flow of air) vs wind ("we'll wind up here anyway"), increase (verb) vs increase (noun), etc. – Joe Pineda Jan 12 '14 at 3:50
5

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.

  • 4
    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
5

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).

  • 1
    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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terms_of_venery while countables (or, to say it better, measure words) denote a part of a group, an item, a piece, etc. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Measure_word – 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
4

It may not be a grammatical characteristic of English, but Spelling-bees are unique to English speaking countries. A testament to the crazy spelling of English words. Also according to the article entitled English is not normal, "There is exactly one language [English] on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s "

  • Spelling competitions also exist in France, but we also have a weird orthography ! – Frédéric Grosshans Feb 2 '17 at 14:58
2

Freeze's excellent 1992 article "Existentials and other locatives" (Language 68, 553-595) points out that "the English existential is unique even among the truly exceptional existentials of its sister languages" (p. 575).

  • 6
    I didn't downvote, but this answer seems incomplete without a description of how the existential is unique. – sumelic Feb 1 '17 at 23:58
1

I wonder if English is the only language where a trailing letter modifies the pronounciation of previous vowels (excluding stress-only changes).

For example, these pairs of words only differ in the trailing E, but previous vowels pronounce differently, even if they spell the same (without the E):

  • mad / made
  • cut / cute
  • bath / bathe
  • slid / slide
  • breath / breathe

Sometimes even more vowels are affected:

  • sever / severe
  • (maybe more?)
  • 3
    The special spelling conventions of English aren't part of the language itself. But it is not realy unusual: French has similar features, compare, e.g., French un ./. une "one, a" – jknappen Dec 19 '18 at 17:49
  • @jknappen un*/*une seems to be the only pair of words where vowels change. In other cases only the trailing consonant is affected (silent or not). – iBug Dec 20 '18 at 1:12
  • 1
    No, the vowel changes quality, from nasal to non-nasal. There are more examples of this kind brun/brune "brown" comes immediately to my mind. – jknappen Dec 20 '18 at 10:36

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