If only English was as easy to read as other languages
18:59 08 February 2017
The English might claim their language is clear and straightforward, and mock the complexities of others. But when it comes to opacity, it is English which leads the way
A German word recently made it into our news. The word was Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung. It was deemed to be newsworthy because of its extreme length, fifty-one letters.
But it only looks so amazingly long to English speakers because we have adopted the practice – which is not followed by many other European languages – of separating out the different components of compound words when we write them. In German, all the different elements of compounds are joined together to form a single written word.
This particular German example, which relates to the recent election of the Austrian president, can easily be rendered into English as “federal presidential election rerun postponement”, a phrase which is not difficult to analyse or understand. The only difference between the Austrian word and the English-language version is that we leave gaps between the component parts so that it appears as five words instead of one.
We don’t always agree in English about where and how to do this separating: I have just written “English-language”, but I could just as well have omitted the hyphen. In German, on the other hand, the equivalent word would have to be englischsprachig. Similarly, in Swedish it would be engelskspråklig; and in Polish angielskojęzyczny.
But there is another more serious point to be made here about compound words in German and other languages. I was once briefly ill with a condition called hyponatraemia. English friends enquired anxiously about what this rather scary-sounding term meant. Greek friends, on the other hand, understood immediately that it simply meant there was not enough sodium in my blood stream. In Greek, aema means ‘blood’, natrio is ‘sodium’, and hypo means ‘under’, so for them the meaning was totally transparent.
The same would have been be true for speakers of Icelandic, where the condition is called blóðnatríumlækkun, literally ‘blood-sodium-lowness’. The meaning of the English word is opaque, while the Greek and Icelandic words are completely transparent.
Ironically, the German word for opacity, Undurchsichtigkeit, is completely transparent to German speakers. The different elements of un-durch-sicht-ig-keit correspond to English ‘un-through-sight-y-hood’, so German speakers can immediately tell that it means ‘unseethroughableness’. Our word opacity, on the other hand, really is opaque: English-speaking children hearing word for the first time can’t work out from its structure what it means, while a German child can do so easily with their version.
This aspect of English has been called “the lexical bar”. Anglophone children are at a disadvantage because of the way English has expanded its vocabulary over the last few centuries by borrowing elements from Greek and Latin, rather than through creating words from our own resources so they are easy to understand and learn.
We can see how English compares with other languages in this respect by looking at a few examples. The English word omnivorous corresponds to Norwegian altetende, ‘all-eating’. Compare the opaque English term ambidextrous with the transparent German beidhändig, ‘both-handed’. And we have the word incoherent while Dutch version is onsamenhangend, ‘un-together-hanging’.
This problem of opacity and the lexical bar could have been avoided if we had followed the example of our European neighbours. Unlike their continental counterparts, the English-speaking men who carried out the important work of expanding our vocabulary in the 1600s and 1700s, introducing new scientific, philosophical and cultural terms to the language, looked to Latin and Greek for help because they thought their own vernacular language was inadequate and inferior. They were wrong about that, which is a real pity.
It has been argued that this strategy of borrowing words from the prestigious languages of antiquity has kept important areas of English vocabulary out of the reach of large sectors of our population, and has led to the notion – very well known in the English-speaking world – of the difficult and feared elitist category of “long words”. But, as the fifty-one-letter Austrian word shows, it isn’t the length of the words which is the problem; it’s their unseethroughableness.
Peter Trudgill is honorary professor of sociolinguistics at the University of East Anglia