I love you!

Dec 24, 2011 by

As linguists, we often tell our students — without giving it a second thought — that all languages are equally grammatically complex. As Guy Deutcher puts it in his Through the Language Glass, “equal complexity is often among the very first articles of faith that students read in their introductory course book” (p. 103). But, to continue with Deutcher’s quote:

“As it happens, the dogma of equal complexity is based on no evidence whatsoever. No one has ever measured the overall complexity of even one single language, not to mention all of them. No one even has an idea how to measure the overall complexity of a language. … The equal complexity slogan is just a myth, an urban legend that linguists repeat because they have heard other linguists repeat it before them, having in turn heard others repeat it earlier.” (p. 105)

And the reason that languages need not be — and in fact, are not — equally grammatically complex is because such complexity is

“merely excess baggage that languages accumulate over the centuries. So when some of it goes missing for whatever reason… there is no particular need to compensate by increasing complexity elsewhere in the language. Contrariwise, there is no pressing need to compensate for a rise in complexity in one area by reducing it in another, because the brain of a child learning a language can cope with a mind-boggling amount of linguistic complexity.” (p. 107)

An excellent example of a language “with a mind-boggling amount of linguistic complexity” that children nonetheless manage to acquire seemingly as effortlessly is Ket with its polypersonal agreement, high degree of allomorphy etc.  For example, diksivεs in Ket means ‘I come’ and bɔɣatn means ‘I go’ — go figure which parts of these words means ‘I’! (See McWhorter’s What Language Is pp. 55-59 for more discussion.)

But even languages more familiar than Ket may present different degrees of grammatical complexity. Below, I illustrate it with the phrase in the title of this post, ‘I love you’.

Once an English speaker decides to impart such information about his or her feelings to the object of his or her affection, the grammatical choices are minimal. There is no choice in the form of the pronoun: it is ‘I’ regardless of who the speaker is. Assuming that the feelings reported are contemporaneous with the report, the present tense is called for (and there is only one present tense in English); in the present tense, only two forms are available — love and loves — and only one of them is appropriate with ‘I’. As for the second person pronoun in the object position, only one form exists in modern English (the older form thee is no longer productively used); in fact, the second person pronoun does not even distinguish the subject and the object forms, as evidenced from You love me vs. I love you.

But speakers of other languages, even those closely related to English have many more forms at their disposal. For example, speakers of many languages, including French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German and many others, have to decide whether the object of their affection is one person or several persons. Moreover, speakers of many languages also have to decide on the appropriate level of closeness and/or formality between oneself and the addressee (and perhaps surprisingly to us, one may love someone who one is not on intimate terms with, or who is to be addressed by a formal pronoun). Thus, a Frenchman (or Frenchwoman) must decide between Je t’aime and Je vous aime, thus expressing both grammatical number and formality level by this choice. A Russian speaker (of either gender) would have to choose between Ja ljublju tebja (singular, informal), Ja ljublju vas (plural or singular/formal), and (at least in writing also) Ja ljublju Vas (singular/formal). (According to one joke, if you say Yellow blue bus, it sounds rather similar to this Russian phrase. Still, don’t be too surprised if you get a stare of incomprehension from your Russian object of affection if you try it.)

A Spanish speaker (depending on the dialect) may have as many as five choices for ‘you’ (at least in the nominative position, as in ‘You love me’):  (singular, informal), usted (singular, formal), ustedes (plural, formal), vosotros (plural, masculine, informal) and vosotras (plural, feminine, informal). Note that the choice between the latter two forms is also determined based on the gender of the addressee.

Gender is also relevant for the choice of the pronoun forms in Hebrew, whereas formality is not expressed in that language. Unlike in Spanish where gender is relevant only in the plural informal pronouns, Hebrew pronouns distinguish masculine and feminine genders in both singular and the plural (and not only in the second person, but also in the third person). As far as ‘I love you’ is concerned, there are four choices for ‘you’: otxa (masculine singular), otax (feminine singular), otxem (masculine plural) and otxen (feminine plural). But in contrast to the languages we’ve considered so far, gender is relevant in Hebrew also as far as the choice of the verb form goes: since present tense verbs are participial in Hebrew, they agree with the subject in gender and number (the latter distinction is not relevant if the subject is ‘I’, singular). Thus, a male speaker of Hebrew would say Ani ohev {otxa, otax, otxem, otxen}, whereas a female Hebrew speaker would say Ani ohevet {otxa, otax, otxem, otxen}. Thus, there are eight different ways to say ‘I love you’ in Hebrew, versus just one in English.

Another aspect of grammatical complexity concerns the expression of grammatical notions of person, gender, formality, etc. via bound morphemes — that is, bits that attach to the verb — or via separate words. In English, only the tense is expressed by bound morphemes on the verb (and not even the future tense, which is expressed by an auxiliary will instead). The person-gender identification of the subject and the object cannot be expressed on the verb in English, so independent pronouns must be used instead. Hence, three words in ‘I love you’.

In many other European languages, such as French, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian etc., bound morphology on the verb indicates agreement with the subject, in person and number. For example, in the French example above, aime expresses first person singular agreement (vs. aimons, first person plural, or aimez, second person plural). Similarly, in the Russian example above ljublju indicates first person singular agreement as well (vs. ljubim, first person plural, or ljubite, second person plural). As we have already mentioned above, the Hebrew forms ohev/ohevet express singular number and masculine/feminine gender. These languages differ as to whether you can drop the subject (especially, if its features can be recovered from the morphology on the verb). It seems to be easiest to get away with no independent subject pronoun in Russian, as witnessed from the famous poetic line Ljublju grozu v nachale maja ‘I love a thunderstorm in early May’ (from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev), where the subject pronoun ja is omitted.

Other languages may express the pronominal (i.e. person and number) features of the subject and even of the object via bound morphemes on the verb, in which case pronouns are redundant and rarely used. One such language is Swahili, where ‘I love you’ is rendered as one word, a verb ninakupenda. Here, the prefix ni- expresses first person singular subject (‘I’), the prefix na- expresses present tense, the prefix ku- expresses second person singular object — all attached to the verbal root -penda ‘love’. Since we know who loves whom from these prefixes, pronouns meaning ‘I’ and ‘you’ are not normally used, and are reserved only for emphasis.

So whichever language you say it in, and however many choices you have to make to get it just right — do say it when you feel it. Especially during this holiday season: nothing warms the heart quite like these three (or two, or one) magical words!

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