David Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In 1995, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language. His latest book is The Story of English in 100 Words.
From the author's Q & A with Randy Dotinga at the Christian Science Monitor:
Q: Among languages, what makes English stand apart? What can it do that most other languages can't or don't?The Stories of English by David Crystal is one of Michael Quinion's five best books on language.
A: Every language expresses a unique vision of the world, and I find them all equally interesting. Having said that, English does have a larger vocabulary than other languages, because of its history as the primary language of science and its global reach.
Q: Now to the reverse question: What can most other languages do that English cannot? In what ways is English distinctively limited?
A: There are innumerable differences. One notable feature is that English doesn't have much of a system for expressing relative social status.
Many Oriental languages, for example, have a complex system of honorifics, identifying the relative status of the participants in an interaction. English is much more egalitarian in this respect.
Another example is the use of a single second-person pronoun form, "you." Most languages make a distinction between a singular and a plural (and sometimes other) forms.
Q: Is English more likely than other languages to accept words from other countries?
A: Yes. It is simply a matter of language contact, and English - because of its political history -- has been in contact with more languages than any other, notably in its period of colonial expansion. Several hundred languages have "loaned" their words into English. And there is a general tolerance of loans which not all languages share.
Q: Despite all the anti-immigrant fervor that America has had back into the 19th century, we haven't gotten to the point where anyone gets upset about foreign words sneaking into the language.
How did we (Americans and more widely, people who speak English) end up not having as much of a purity streak as, say, the French?
A: Difficult to say. Certainly there was never...[read on]