An unexpected linguistic change in “English”

by Richard Coates

I prepared for a recent visit to Russia by ordering some currency – what I had always thought of as roubles. On picking the money up from the bank, I found that they had become rubles. Rouble is the spelling we borrowed from French, but ruble was the spelling adopted in the USA. They’re both just transliterations of the Russian word, рубль, where the ль means an “l” pronounced as in leap rather than as in pool. (Try it out!) America being the mega-power it is, it’s the American spelling that has crossed the Atlantic, and also given us the abbreviation which has been standard in the currency markets since 1998, RUB.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that my Russian contacts, when speaking English, pronounced the word as if it were rubble. Apparently without irony. Another feature of a developing European English, maybe. Or a black-humoured economic forecast…

Level 3 timetable 2019/20

by James Murphy and Anna Piasecki

Welcome back finalists! Hope you are all looking forward to a year of hard study (and a bit of fun thrown in…)

If you are still a bit unsure about your modules and thinking about changing classes, then we recommend that you attend all of the modules you are interested in before finalising your choice.

You will have to make your decision by Friday 5pm on the second week of teaching.

Here is the timetable for the third year modules:

Monday 9-12: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (2S603)

Monday 1-4: Critical Discourse Analysis (2S504)

Wednesday 9-12: Language and Cognition (2B054)

Thursday 9-12: Creative Writing and the Self (2S611)

Thursday 2-5: Gender, (Im)politeness and Power in Language (3S512)

Friday 10-12: Language Project (3S705 — workshops in Week 3, 7, 11 in TB1)**

Friday 1-4: Languages in the Mind (3S701)

**If you are thinking of changing on to the project, please get in touch with Minna with a topic idea so that she can allocate you a supervisor

Protester holding a sign saying "Liar Johnson puts the 'ROGUE' in 'PRO-ROGUE' at a protest at Th

Putting the ‘rogue’ in ‘prorogue’

By Jack Fifield

Protester holding a sign saying "Liar Johnson put the 'ROGUE' in 'PRO-ROGUE' #StopTheCoup" at the "Stop the Coup" protest next to The Cenotaph, Bristol City Centre
Protester holding a sign at the “Stop the Coup” protest next to The Cenotaph, Bristol City Centre, 31st August 2019
Photo: Jack Fifield

The word ‘prorogue’ has been enjoying its time in the spotlight this week, and many, not least angry protesters, have expertly deduced that the word ‘prorogue’ looks like the words ‘pro rogue’. This begs the question: are these words actually related?

To start my investigation, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), located at, and I signed in using my UWE Bristol login, just one of the many databases that the University grants access to students from campus or from home.

As an historical dictionary, the OED doesn’t prioritize modern meanings over historical meanings; this can be seen by the fact that the modern UK sense isn’t stated until last in the OED’s entry “b. intransitive. Of a legislative assembly, etc.: to discontinue sittings for a period of time or until the next session.”

As many angry demonstrators holding signs such as “Boris Johnson is a pro rogue” or “Liar Johnson put the ‘ROGUE’ in ‘PRO-ROGUE’” (pictured) over the last few weeks have pointed out, at first glance, the word ‘prorogue’ looks and sounds like a combination of the prefix “pro-” (before something) and the adjective ‘rogue’ (unpredictable, dishonest, etc.).

The “pro” in “prorogue” is not a shortening of “professional”, with the OED confirming that, much more boringly, in this case, it is the prefix discussed above, in the sense of “Forward, onward, in a course or in time”; this leads to the “rogue” part, surely this is just the word “rogue”?!

Going back to Latin via the route of Anglo-Norman and Middle French, we get to rogāre, to ask, according the OED, and we are directed to “see rogation n.”, with multiple senses including the acts of begging and of making a formal request.

Turning to the origin of the word ‘rogue’, the OED tells us that the earliest recorded sense is “An idle vagrant, a vagabond; one of a group or class of such people. Now archaic or historical.”, but admits that the origin is unknown, suggesting that it may be related to “roger n.”, an obsolete word for a beggar pretending to be from Oxford or Cambridge, with the OED telling us that some have suggested that this was actually pronounced like the word “rogue” instead of the name “roger”, but that there is no supporting evidence for any of this, or that the words are even related, and that “an etymological connection with the family of classical Latin rogāre (see rogation n.) is unlikely.”, bringing us full circle.

So, it would seem that, whilst the OED is of the opinion that a connection between ‘prorogue’ and ‘rogue’ is unlikely, there are some similar senses for both words relating to the acts of begging or asking, meaning that there could be some connection along the line. For now, this case remains unsolved.

She’s ’avin’ a lah-tay

By Richard Coates

One of the reasons I prefer an americano to a latte is that it does less violence to the Italian language. The Italian word for ‘milk’ is pronounced with a short stressed vowel and a long medial voiceless consonant. So if we can pronounce pâté (though many would prefer not to mention it at all) as “pat-ay”, why can’t we take our coffee as a “lat-ay”? That would keep the vowel more or less Italian, and ruin the consonant only in the way we already ruin the long consonants in espressocappuccino and macchiato.

Cardinal vowels labelled on an IPA vowel chart with numbers form 1 to 8 next to the corresponding vowel
Cardinal vowels on an IPA chart
Numbers added to Primary cardinal vowels on a vowel chart.svg by Mr KEBAB.[CC BY-SA 4.0])

It looks as though we have America to blame, which is ironic in view of where we started this. Americans generally voice the medial consonant, resulting in some tensing and lengthening of the preceding vowel. This lengthened vowel then gets identified with the British English long low vowel, which is noticeably back (cardinal 5). Hey presto – the worst of all worlds: we don’t voice the consonant, but we’re lumbered with the consequences of someone else doing it.

You can always cop out with a café au lait – it takes a barista to know the difference. But the confusion is enhanced by adverts for café latte – half anglicized French and half americanized Italian. Enjoy your caffè autentico.

Summer internships

As in previous years, the Bristol Centre for Linguistics are advertising for student interns to work with us over the summer.  Information about the role and the application process can be found here: We hope to make two appointments.  Here is a summary from Aleks Mihok, who carried out an internship with us last summer:

BCL Summer internship programme: A review

Last summer I had a great privilege of working as an intern at our own Department of English Language and Linguistics. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity not only to get some hands-on experience in working with languages but also to boost my CV and earn some money at the same time.

I worked part-time, on a job-share basis with another student-intern, which was ideal, as it gave me a lot of flexibility and allowed me more time for other commitments.

I was meeting up with the project leader on the regular basis, however, most of the time, I could work from home on my computer.

Working on an Experimental Language Relativity project and assisting the project leader in preparing materials for psycholinguistic experimental studies helped me gain an insight into linguistic research methods. I was also very lucky, as I was involved in a project that looked at Finnish and Polish, giving me an opportunity to put my linguistic skills into practice. However, very much to my surprise, preparing materials in Polish – my mother tongue, turned out to be one the most challenging part of this tasks!

All in all, an internship is a great opportunity to develop your existing skills and built up new ones, especially critical thinking and problem-solving and creativity, as you need to approach the tasks from various perspectives. Internships are also great for networking and waking up your inner researcher!


Can a language really die?

By Jodie Sutton

A language ‘dies’ usually as the result of cultural assimilation, or the abandonment of one language to instead use a lingua franca, i.e. a common language adopted between speakers of different native tongues. The term ‘extinct language’ describes one that no longer has any speakers (Grenoble & Whaley, 2006:18), and we often use the term ‘dead’ when talking about Ancient Greek or Latin for example, but can a language really die?

Sleeping Languages

David Crystal (2000:19) argues that a language can be declared dead even if the last few native speakers are still alive. “If there are only a few elderly speakers of a language remaining, and they no longer use that language for communication, then the language is effectively dead.

In 2011, a Reddit user was approached to visit to a small town in British Columbia, and document the South Tsimshian (Sgüüx̣s) language with its last remaining speaker. He spent 6 months there, recording around 300 hours’ worth of video and audio with the end goal of making it possible for someone to “wake up” the language when the last speaker passed away.

After the last speaker’s death in 2014, the user stated that “the South Tsimshian language […] is now sleeping.” Sgüüx̣s is now technically extinct, but with its extensive documentation, it can still be heard, studied and even learnt again. This isn’t the case for every language that has ever existed, but with today’s technology, we can potentially preserve ‘sleeping’ languages with the ability to wake them up again in the future.

Recreated Languages

One type of con-lang (constructed language) is one that has been reconstructed or revitalised. Cornish is a good example of a language that has been brought back from the ‘dead’ to become a con-lang. The Cornwall Travel and Tourist Information website recounts how Cornish went from being the common language of Cornwall in 1300, to being extinct by 1900 when the last native speaker died (disputed to be either in 1891 or 1777).

After determination and lots of government investment, around 300 people had managed to recreate Cornish and were speaking it regularly again, (albeit with each individual’s version differing slightly in pronunciation and spelling.) The Telegraph (2015) reports that in 2002, Cornish was officially recognised in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Then in 2015, 12,000 people had signed up to learn Cornish on various courses across the county, putting the Cornish language back on the map.

Language Evolution

Latin is probably the most well-known ‘dead’ language. But McMahon (1994, cited by Eckert, Tanja, et al, 2004) suggested that instead of dying, it has simply undergone “the normal processes of linguistic change,” and evolved.

The older form of a language is completely different and often unintelligible to how we recognise it today. Latin, over a long period of time, morphed and split into modern languages such as Italian, French and Spanish, (as seen on the Proto-Indo-European language tree.) However, Latin is still studied all over the world, and is very much present in science, law and religion. Even without possessing any native speakers, Latin may still be considered alive.

Another example is Old English. It is considered dead, but traces of it still live on today in Modern English. That particular phase of the English language is gone, but over time the grammar, vocabulary and phonology have reshaped into the English we speak today. McMahon (1994, cited by Eckert, Tanja, et al, 2004) describes this process as “not death, but metamorphosis.”

Language is dynamic, always changing and evolving into something new. The language we use today will unlikely be the same in even as little as 10 years’ time.

We now have the ability to study languages that were spoken thousands of years ago, the ability to document languages on the brink of extinction to learn again and the ability to recreate extinct languages altogether. Therefore, can a language ever really be well and truly dead?


Cornwall Travel and Tourist Information. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2018]

Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, T., Johann, A., Kanzig, A., Kung, M., Muller, B., Schwald, C., Walder, L., (2004) Is English a ‘killer language’? The globalisation of a code. [online] Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2018]

Grenoble, L. Whaley, L. (2006) Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harley, N. (2015) Council splashes out to try to stop the Cornish language dying out. Telegraph [online]. 05 November. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2018].

Lynch, J. (Unknown) Proto-Indo-European Language Tree [online] Available from: [Accessed 14 February 2018]

Reddit thread. (2014) Available from: [Accessed 01 February 2018].

The language of tourism

by Pippa Wordie

Tourism terminology is a veritable jumbo-jet of jargon! “Technological inventions have always arisen from necessity…[and gives rise to the] Fallacy: the idea that technology changes society. It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it. Society changes, and that change creates new needs.” (Kurlansky, 2017, pp. xiii-xiv). Although tourism may not be regarded as a ‘technology’, the rapid growth of the industry since the late 1800’s has necessitated the invention of a ‘new’ vocabulary. This is being constantly updated and requires that both “tourism practitioners and tourists [have] to endlessly learn it.” (Chiwanga, 2014). How do they do this?

Fortunately, tourism has created its own solution, travel literature. Bradt, Eyewitness, Frommer, Lonely Planet, Marco Polo and the Rough Guides are the industry’s leading names, wedged onto shelves among a growing plethora of travel guidebooks. Their purpose: to inform the first time visitor or seasoned explorer, both tourists – you and me – on everything of primary importance and more about the chosen destination. They may equally convince you a specific tour has to be experienced and, added value is gained if you hire the services of a local ‘Tourist Guide’; perhaps a tour of travel alliteration would be more apt!

Practical as these guides are, the solution has also created a divergence of communication between provider and user. It is here we return to the ‘jumbo-jet jargon’ and what I reveal next may explain why the air ticket you bought recently was not what you anticipated. But, it was what you asked for! In airline speak no matter where you fly to, you have two alternatives: either a ‘direct’ flight or a ‘non-stop’ flight. The tourism professional will explain a ‘direct’ flight will stop at least once in the journey, other than the main destination. Conversely, the ‘non-stop’ flight is ‘direct’ and goes straight from A to B, with no stops. Simple to comprehend how the confusion has crept in; most of the English-speaking world understand ‘direct’ to mean as defined by the Oxford English dictionary: “extending or moving in a straight line or by the shortest route; not crooked or circuitous.” It is apparent that ‘direct’ is not direct and has another meaning within the tourism industry.

Why would an entire industry change the meaning of just one word and for what purpose? As stated previously, the industry has evolved at a dramatic rate and part of this has been the development of commercial air travel. Larger aircraft have enabled the airlines to cover greater distances offering their customers the opportunity of going further in one go. However, the subsequent fuel cost can only be offset when a high percentage of seats onboard are sold. Not an easy task for any airline but more achievable if the journey is broken to allow a fresh market of consumer to refill the airplane for the onward leg. The air ticket can then be split into two separate portions or bought as one trip, both offering a cheaper alternative because of the stopover. Adapting the use of ‘direct’ was a conscious decision and enabled airline sales departments to make a clear distinction when selling the same long haul destination for varying prices (and experiences).

We have seen how the travel industry has changed the meaning of one word. The consumer may not agree with it and the tourism industry could have better communicated its nuance but “The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means. Meanings of words are shared between people – they are a kind of social contract we all agree to – otherwise communication would not be possible.” (Trudgill,1998, p.19). And I hope that in partnership with modern technology, social media, this article can spread the flying word!


Bauer, L. and Trudgill, P. (1998) Language Myths [Online]. London: Penguin. [Accessed 18 November 2017]

Chiwanga, F.E. (2014) Understanding The Language of Tourism: Tanzanian Perspective. International Journal of Applied Linguistics [online]. Volume (24/2). [Accessed 25 November 2017].

Kurlansky, M. (2017) Paper, Paging Through History. New York: W.W.Norton & Company Inc

Fowler, F.G and H.W. (1924) The Pocket Oxford Dictionary. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992

Language myths: Swearing shows limited vocabulary and low intelligence

by Elena-Andreea Oprea

Despite the fact that curse words have been introduced to the English language as early as 1,000 years ago (Hughes, 1998), swearing is still considered a bad habit, and people who swear are automatically perceived as less intelligent and as possessors of a limited vocabulary. For example, Mulac A. (1976) concluded that speakers who use obscenity were placed lower in socio-intellectual ranks than those who refrain, and James V. O’Connor (2000) has stated that “Swearing corrupts the English language. […] It doesn’t communicate clearly. It’s the sign of a weak vocabulary.” This is belief is named the poverty-of-vocabulary (POV) hypothesis.  The following article will discuss arguments contrary to the POV view.

Language studies do not confirm the POV notion. Assuming that people use taboo words because of  restricted vocabulary entails that foul language is used when people cannot access alternative lexical items. Nevertheless, numerous linguistics explorations (Erard, 2007; Jay, 2003; Levelt, 1989) reveal that when speech participants cannot express themselves, they produce utterances such as “er” or “um”, rephrase, or ponder their discourse, rather than exhibiting taboo language.

A recent study conducted by psychologists at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (Jay et al. 2015) compares general language fluency to swearword fluency, in order to invalidate the concept that swearing indicates inarticulateness. In consideration of this analysis, Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) was employed, which requires volunteers to come up with words beginning with a specific letter, such as F, A and S, in the duration of a minute. The researchers agree with the “fluency is fluency” theory, which implies that there is a positive correlation between taboo fluency and verbal fluency, whereas the POV view anticipates a negative correlation between the two fluencies.

The study results indicate that the individuals who achieved the highest at the general language test also had higher swearing language fluency, whilst the others had poor results in both tests. This research not only proves that expletives are not indicators of impoverished vocabulary, but it certainly demonstrates that swearing is, as Dr. Richard Stephens from Keele University describes (2015, p.69), “one of the many features of language that a skilled and articulate speaker has at their disposal to communicate with maximum effectiveness.”

Using data from a resource named British National Corpus, researchers from Lancaster University analysed how the F-word and its derivatives were used by individuals according to their gender, age and social background (McEnery et al. 2004). For the purpose of this essay, the social background is the only category of interest. Unsurprisingly, the most constant users of the particular curse word are participants from lower classes (DE and C2), whereas people in junior managerial and administrative positions (C1), who are perhaps aspiring towards AB occupations, are more aware of the utterances they produce, hence demonstrating a significantly lower usage. What is particularly interesting, however, is that swearing increases substantially at the very top of the social ladder. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that unlike people from C1 social rank, AB graded participants are in more secure positions, and, hence, less attentive to the language they use; but they might also prefer to proclaim their authority through cursing.

This population has a high verbal and intellectual capacity, which qualifies them for their superior positions; otherwise they would be unable to retain their authoritarian post. Therefore, what the previously mentioned study shows is that since there is an increase of swearing fluency in higher social ranks, taboo words have no correlation to IQ and lexicon size.

Based on the evidence provided by the aforementioned investigations, one can conclude that despite the stigma associated with taboo words, expletives are not indicators of limited vocabulary and low intelligence; on the contrary, people who use profanity demonstrate higher cognitive capacity and a more voluminous lexicon.




Erard, M (2007) Um – Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and what They Mean. New York: Pantheon.

Hughes, G. (1998) Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. 2nd Revised Edition. London: Penguin

Jay, K.L. and Jay, T.B. (2015) Taboo Word Fluency and Knowledge of Slurs and General Pejoratives: Deconstructing the Poverty-of-vocabulary Myth. Language Sciences. [online] 52, pp. 251-259 [Accessed 27 January 2017]

Jay, T.B. (2003) The Psychology of Language. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Levelt, W.J.M. (1998) Speaking: From Intention to Articulation. 1 MIT pbk ed. Cambridge, Mass: Mit Press.

McEnery, A.M and Xiao, R.Z. (2004) Swearing in modern British English: the case of fuck in the BNC. Language and Literature. 13 (3), pp. 235-268.

Mehl, M and Pennebaker, J. (2003) The sounds of social life: a psychometric analysis of students’ daily social environments and natural conversations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84 (4), pp. 857-870.

Mulac, A and , (1976) Effects of obscene language upon three dimensions of listener attitude. Communication Monographs. 43 (4), pp. 300-307.

O’Connor, J. (2000) Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Stephens, R. (2015) Black Sheep: The hidden benefits of being bad. Great Britain: John Murray Learning.

Language myths: Bilingualism rots the brain

by Jack Fifield


If you’ve got children, you’ll probably have been told that raising them bilingual will be a useful advantage, with the potential of facilitating many opportunities throughout life that monolinguals don’t have access to. However, this has not always been the accepted point of view. Throughout history, bilingualism has been historically seen as a handicap by the west, often akin to a mental handicap; many researchers claimed that being bilingual slowed the minds of children and that they would never be able to achieve the same level of intelligence as their monolingual counterparts (Kaplan, 2016). For the purposes of this report, ‘bilingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ will both mean ‘a person who speaks several languages’, rather than the more restrictive ‘a person who speaks two languages’. This report seeks to debunk the myth that bilingualism has negative effects on intelligence levels in speakers.

A paradigm shift

So, why the shift in attitudes? How could bilingualism go from universal ridicule, with warnings of childhood retardation and split personalities, to something regarded as so important that UNESCO has said that bilingualism should be encouraged “at all levels of education” (UNESCO, 02 November 2001). The answer may lie in the definition of intellectualism. What may be considered an example of intelligence in one context, may be considered quite the opposite in a different context; as earlier studies on bilingualism’s effects on intelligence failed to take this in to account, they may have falsely attributed a lack of intelligence to bilingualism that may have been caused due to bias or a failing of the study itself (Hakuta and Suben, 1985).

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that this shift in attitudes towards the intelligence of bilinguals started to take place; a study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert compared French-English bilinguals in Canada with monolinguals with a multitude of tests, and showed that the bilinguals scored higher on IQ tests than their monolingual counterparts (Grosjean, 2012). So, why the change? You’d be hard-pressed to find many reasonable academics or teachers that would claim that bilingualism is anything but an advantage. The change is due to the way the studies were realised, with failings to control for variables such as socioeconomic factors, including class (Kaplan, 2016). These variables were controlled in Peal and Lambert’s study (Kaplan, 2016).

Size of the lexicon

One interpretation of the definition of ‘intelligence’ within bilingual children is the rate of language acquisition; an assumption could be made that a more limited vocabulary is a symptom of low intelligence. A common thought is that bilinguals acquire language at a lower rate than monolinguals (Grosjean, 2012). However, as bilingual children begin the important language-acquisition-events, such as the ‘babbling’ process and first word process, amongst others, at the same time as their monolingual counterparts (Grosjean, 2012), this is clearly a misconception. This would seem in stark contrast to the notion of a lowered intelligence level.

This is not to say, however, that this is considered a universal truth amongst the academic community. Some studies have concluded that bilinguals control a smaller vocabulary in each respective language than monolinguals have in one language (Bialystok, 2009), but, whether it is appropriate to consider a more limited vocabulary as lower intelligence could be considered a matter of opinion. Despite this, most recent academic research would support the claim that bilingualism does not impede intelligence (Kaplan, 2016).

Bilingualism and its positive cognitive effects

It is undeniable that language and intelligence are closely linked. As language-speakers grow older, they may find that their cognitive functions begin to slow, word recollection starts to falter, and faster speech becomes increasingly unintelligible (Grosjean, 2012). However, according to recent studies, elderly bilingual speakers show a later onset of cognitive slowing associated with ageing, with multilingual speakers having the highest cognitive ability measured when compared against a group of monolingual speakers (Kavé et al., 2008). This would provide further evidence to put into doubt the findings of studies of the early twentieth century that stated that stated that bilinguals have lower cognitive ability when compared with their monolingual counterparts.


In conclusion, from combining the failures by academics to implement proper control methods within their studies to control for socioeconomic and other external factors (Kaplan, 2016), with the fact that many American studies were influenced by heavy nationalistic and racial biases within researchers (Hakuta and Suben, 1985), and the fact that modern research shows evidence contrary to earlier studies – that bilinguals actually have a higher cognitive ability than monolinguals (Kavé et al., 2008), I find the notion that bilingualism can impede cognitive development to be largely fallacious, based mostly on failings and biases of researchers at the time.


Bialystok, E. (2009) Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 12 (1), pp.3.

Grosjean, F. (2012) Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Hakuta, K. and Suben, J. (1985) Bilingualism and Cognitive Development. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. 6 (March 1985), pp.35.

Kaplan, A. (2016) Women talk more than men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kavé, G., Eyal, N., Shorek, A. and Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2008) Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging. 23 (1), pp.70.

UNESCO (02 November 2001) UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Available from: [Accessed 04 November 2017].


Language myths: Some languages are more complicated than others

by Joey Barber

It is a commonly held belief that two or more given languages can be compared with one another on some hierarchical scale of virtue: that some languages are simply “better” than others. This statement evidently presents some immediate problems, the most glaring of which is: what is “better”? Clarity? Mellifluousness? Simplicity? Complexity? All of these aspects are comment-worthy in their own right, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the idea that one language’s complexity is quantifiably comparable with another’s.

One seemingly obvious way in which we would guess complexity must be well defined is in the field of grammar. If German, for example, has four grammatical cases (ways in which nouns are modified depending on their role within the sentence), then surely it is more grammatically complicated than English, which, depending on how you measure it, has just the remnants of two cases. This may be true from a certain point of view, however (at least in most situations), grammar exists to add distinction and thus provide further clarity, and this case is no exception: explicit case markers in languages such as German (which would often be referred to as analytic languages), help to make the meaning more salient. Thus, surely English is the more complicated language, as the lack of such explicit case marking means more cognitive work has to be done to arrive at the intended meaning.

A similar problem could be encountered when we consider second-person pronouns. In English, in the first and third person, there is grammatical-number distinction. That is, there is a difference between the singular and the plural (I/we, (s)he/they). With the second person however, this is not the case: “you” can refer indiscriminately to one person or multiple people. But in other European languages, there is this number distinction with the second person, just as there is with the first and third persons. In Dutch, for example, “je” is singular and “jullie” is plural; in Romanian, “tu” is singular and “voi” plural. Does this mean that these languages are more complicated, with their two different words where we have one, or that English is more, as the distinction is not explicitly drawn and we have to examine the context to reach meaning? It may be argued that interpreting the context is not difficult, in which case, why can’t we do that with the first and third persons? Clearly, this inconsistency in English is a thorny issue.


Having established that it is not as easy as we might expect, to arrange grammatical matters into different levels of complexity, we will now analyse the lexicon. Though the number constantly changes, the Oxford English Dictionary currently lists more than 170,000 entries “in current use”[i], and more than 47,000 “obsolete words”. This may seem like a large number, but when we consider that the University of Iceland claims Icelandic contains more than 600,000 words[ii], English’s number appears rather small. The very difficult question of exactly what is a word is beyond the scope of this article, but let us for now take the definition from the online version of the Cambridge Dictionary: “a single unit of language that has meaning and can be spoken or written”[iii]. In this sense, words are similar to morphemes in that they are single units of meaning. Therefore, an Icelandic ‘word’ such as ‘jarnbrautarlest’ (‘train’), comprising the two words ‘jarnbraut’ (‘railway’) and ‘lest’ (‘caravan’/’train’) would not be considered a word here, as it contains two normally separate units of meaning. Thus the following question is posed: is the lexicon more complicated if it contains individual units that can not be added together to create a compound (such as English ‘dustbin’), or more complicated if it allows such compounding, thus rendering the potential size of the lexicon limitless? It depends. Compounded words’ meanings are generally fairly self-explanatory, provided the audience is familiar with the individual elements (i.e. the standalone words) that make up the compound. And thus, speakers and writers may feel at ease with ‘coining’ new compounds at leisure, without necessarily having to worry about their audiences’ capacities to understand them. However, most people if asked, would probably say that the larger a vocabulary, the more complicated the lexicon. And so again, we find these conflicts.

Having looked at two of the most important aspects of language – grammar and lexis – and determined that trying to determine complexity yields only questions and few answers, we may conclude that if it is possible, it is certainly not easy to place languages on a spectrum of complication.