Linguistic Analogies for the English Speaker

Friday, 7th February 2020 ◆ Lofty monarch loses initial lisp speaking (7) Linguistics

There are several features of other languages which seem completely alien to me, a native English speaker. When I come across one of these features, I enjoy trying to come up with an example in English which approximates the feature. Here I share a few of the analogies I've come up with.


In English, we use he or she to refer to people (and sometimes animals), and it to refer to things. Barring personification (and antiquitated practices like using 'she' to refer to ships), all 'things' are treated the same.

In a gendered language, things are put into different categories. In the case of most Romance languages, for example, these categories coincide with the categories used for humans (that is "male" and "female").

Speakers of gendered languages don't need to put in special effort to remember which genders things are (any more than we need to remember what the word for something is), and it feels very natural to refer to objects by their appropriate gender.

So, what would it feel like to instinctively refer to objects as male or female? The analogy I draw is with plurality.

  • "Have you seen my book?"   "I saw it in the kitchen."
  • "Have you seen my glasses?"   "I saw them in the living room."

Both glasses and book refer to one item, however we see no oddity in glasses being plural. It feels very natural, and without thinking we will use the appropriate pronouns.

Changing reading direction

Several languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic, are read right-to-left.

The Arabic numeral system, as used English and in Hebrew, however, is written left-to-right. This means that if there is a number embedded in a sentence, a reader will have to change the reading direction throughout the sentence.

This might seem counter-intuitive, why are Arabic numerals left-to-right when Arabic is right-to-left? The answer is that historically in Arabic, numbers were also read from right-to-left: such that 123 would be read as the equivalent of "three and twenty and one hundred". This happens in German with some numbers, for example 23 is read "drei-und-zwanzig", or "three and twenty". Many languages, such as English, have adopted the Arabic numeral system, but the order in which numbers are written was not changed. Furthermore, in Hebrew and modern spoken Arabic, however, the numbers are now read left-to-right, as in English.

As an example, here is a sentence lifted from a discussion on WordReference:

נולדתי בשנת 1976 בכפר קטן    
    <=== ===> <====

The arrows represent the reading direction. I want to know what it would feel like to naturally change the reading direction part way through a sentence. The analogy I draw is with currency.

Read the following sentence out loud:

  • I think £1 is a fair price.

That is, when reading, we naturally say "£1", or "one pound". It definitely does not feel awkward to read these symbols in a different order, but I would say we are certainly doing it!

Formal "you"

In many other languages, such as French, German, Spanish, there exist different ways of saying "you" depending on formality. It's called the T-V distinction due to the words for you in Latin.

T (informal) V (formal)
Latin Tu Vos
English You You
French Tu Vous
Spanish Tu Usted
Old English Thee You

For example, in French, you would use "tu" to talk to your friends, but "vous" to talk to your university professor. As an English speaker, I find learning when to use which pronoun difficult. However, in English we still modify the way we talk to each other. For a John Smith, we would certainly pick between "Johnny", "Jonathan" or "Mr. Smith" depending on the situation.

An interesting aside: English used to have a distinction between formal and informal you just like French. The words were "thou" (informal) and "you" (formal). I was surprised that the formal version was the one which stuck, whereas in modern French and Castilian Spanish, it is the formal yous whose uses are declining (particularly online).

I look forward to discovering more quirks of language, and trying to find their corresponding analogies!


There are no comments yet.