Efficiency in language – For some, less is more

Efficiency in language – For some, less is more

February 2020

How much do you really need to say to put together a sentence? Just as a fish (presumably) doesn’t know it’s wet, most people do not realize that the way their language evolved was just one of infinite possibilities.

How much do you really need to say to put together a sentence? Just as a fish (presumably) doesn’t know it’s wet, most people do not realize that the way their language evolved was just one of infinite possibilities.

Languages differ greatly in the amount of detail that a speaker must provide in order to string together a meaningful sense. Take, for example, this simple phrase: „The father said ‘Come here!’“ This statement specifies that there is a father, who has committed the act of speaking in the past and who has indicated that the person who is addressed must approach him at the location ‘here’. What else should a language do?

Well, for a German speaker more in fact. “Der Vater sagte ‘Komm her!’” may seem like a variant of the English sentence, but more is going on here. ‚Der‘, the word for ‘the’ is just one of several options; it is the word used only for male nouns. If the sentence were about a mother, it would require the female ‚die‘, and if it were about a girl, it would prompt the neuter article ‚das‘. The word meaning ‘said’, ’sagte‘, contains a suffix to indicate the third person singular. If it had been ‘you said’, the sentence would have required ’sagtest‘. In English, these forms are identical in the past. Then, there’s the word ‚her‘ to express ‘here’, which actually means ‘to here’. In German, people have to get a bit Shakespearian and say ‘hither’ if that is what is meant. ‘Here’, simply in the sense of ‘here present’, is ‚hier‘ in German.

In general, German pays more attention to the gender of people and things, and to who is the driving force behind the action: I, you, she, he, we or they. German furthermore expects speakers not only to indicate where a person is, but also whether that person is moving nearer or further away. German is on the whole ‘denser’ than English, and yet Germans feel that their way of formulating things is as normal as what English speakers think their approach is.

Other languages are even more extreme in their wordiness or conciseness. One way to say „The father said ‚Come here!'“ in Mandarin would be: „Fùqīn shuō ‘Guò lái zhè li!’“ As in English, there is no marker for the father’s gender and the form of the word ’shuō‘ – meaning ‘said’ – does not indicate whether the speaker is me, you or him. The word ‘here’ can either mean ‘exactly here’ or ‘to here’, just like in English. However, Mandarin pushes this telegraphic style even further. For example, there is no definite article such as ‘the’. The word ‘said’ not only lacks a suffix to mark the person, but also contains no marker for tense; it simply means ‘say’. It is assumed that the context will clarify that this event took place in the past. An important part of learning Mandarin is finding out how much you can omit and still have an acceptable sentence.

If there were an award for the busiest language, it would probably go to a language such as Kabardian, also known as Circassian, which is spoken in the Caucasus. In the simple sentence “The men saw me” the word for ‘saw’ is ’sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś‘ (roughly pronounced ‘suck-a-LAGH-a-HESH’). This may seem like an absolute monstrosity of a word, but despite its high level of supercalifragilisticexpialidociousness, to Kabardian speakers it is as common as ‘saw’ is to English speakers. Kabardian speakers simply need to cram a lot more information in their version. The word ’sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś‘ contains – in addition to the part that means ‘to see’ – an element reiterating that it was me who was seen, even though the sentence elsewhere would contain a separate word for ‘me’. Then there are a few other parts that indicate that the seeing was most significant to ‘me’ rather than the men or someone else, that more than one person did the seeing (even though the sentence would explicitly state that it was ‘men’, plural, who were performing the action), that this did not happen in the present, that it furthermore occurred specifically in the past and not in the future and, finally, that the speaker really means what he or she is saying.

Sumatra’s Riau dialect, on the other hand, would snatch up the prize for the most economical language. In that dialect ‚ayam‘ means ‘chicken’ and ‚makan‘ means ‘eat’, but “Ayam makan” doesn’t just mean “The chicken eats.” Depending on the context, “Ayam makan” might mean that “chickens are eating”, “a chicken is eating”, “the chicken is eating,”, “the chicken will be eating”, “the chicken eats”, “the chicken has eaten”, “someone is eating the chicken”, “someone is eating for the chicken”, “someone is eating with the chicken”, “the chicken that is eating”, “where the chicken is eating” and “when the chicken is eating”. When it comes to chickens and eating, Riau speakers assume that everyone in the conversation knows what’s what.