Spanish is normal, English is weird

“Spanish is normal, English is weird” is a frequent theme in my classroom. Students coming from a monolingual English background are quick to assume the contrary: that where Spanish and English differ, Spanish is the oddball. I consider it part of my responsibility to shake up their world view a little, playing Copernicus to their Aristotle.

Below I detail six examples of this principle: three from pronunciation, one from spelling, and two from grammar. Readers are invited to contribute others.

Pronunciation

  • English versus Spanish /r/. As described earlier on this blog, Spanish has two types of /r/: the rolling trill of carro and the short flap of caro. According to a cross-linguistic survey by Berkeley professor Ian Maddieson, both of these are are more common in the languages of the world than the gliding /r/ of English.
  • English versus Spanish vowels. Spanish has five vowel sounds, corresponding to the five vowel letters aeiou. In contrast, English has 12 distinct vowel sounds – those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the unstressed first syllable of baton. As described in an earlier post, a five or six-vowel system is the most common type worldwide. The most vowel sounds found in any language is 14, making English quite the outlier.
  • English versus Spanish syllable structure. English has an impressive ability to combine individual consonant sounds into groups. The single syllable of strengths, my favorite example, begins with three consonants (/s/, /t/, and /r/) and ends with four (/ŋ/, /k/, /θ/, and /s/). Spanish is more restrictive. It allows at most two consonants before or after a vowel, and these are strictly limited (thereby hangs a future post…). Here again English is an outlier: most languages allow only limited consonant combinations, as in Spanish.

Writing: capitalization. English capitalizes more words than Spanish: not just proper nouns, but also the pronoun I, days of the week, months of the year, and various other categories. Here English is truly an oddball: it is the world’s second most exuberant user of capital letters, behind only German.

Grammar

  • Singular and plural “you”. My oh my, how Spanish students struggle with singular  and usted versus plural vosotros and ustedes. I routinely encounter students who have been studying Spanish for three or four years and are still convinced that ustedes (“you all”) means “they”. This is partly because the verb forms for ustedes are identical to those for ellos/ellas (“they”), but mostly, and more profoundly, because English lacks a plural “you” (leaving aside the dialectal form y’all). In this regard Spanish is, again, normal. David Ingram’s classic (1978) survey “Typology and Universals of Personal Pronouns” found that 67 of 71 languages reviewed had both singular and plural “you”.
  • Noun-adjective order. Spanish speakers say casa blanca instead of white house, and so on for most pairings of a noun and its modifying adjective. The Spanish word order is found in over half the languages of the world. It has always struck me as the logical order in terms of sentence processing: that way, one starts with the basic concept (“house”), and then “decorates” it with details of color and the like.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Spanish is normal, English is weird

  1. Jorge Allen

    Great examples! I also used that line with my students. However, I love how you have found some references to back up that statement. Gracias.

    Reply
  2. Diana Caballero

    As a native Spanish-speaker I struggle with the pronunciation of many words in English and with the correct construction of the sentences. I always end up ask my American husband “why? why? why many things don’t make sense in English?” I end up taking an English pronunciation class that explained me about all the vowel sounds in English and the “schwa.” It is interesting reading all these points you explained that clarified some of my questions.

    Reply
  3. amilne

    No language is weird. They’re just different because of their different antecedents.
    English just happens to have more eclectic roots than a lot of others and to have lost many of its original grammatical inflections over the centuries as it became a lingua franca and people realized they could make themselves understood without all the grammatical bells and whistles. It also does not have a national language academy policing it like the “Real Academia Española” (see point 2 below) in Spain or the Académie Française in France, so as a language it is shaped “bottom up” by the users rather than “top down” by the authorities.

    1) How about the Slavic languages which have multiple instances of consonant accumulation?
    2) And how about the changed adjective-noun word order in Spanish as soon as one begins to talk figurative ideas rather physical description? (e.g. example above and “su larga experiencia” rather than “su experiencia larga”). This is not rare. All the Latin languages do that to a certain extent.
    3) Singular/plural “you”. Why not try telling your students that English used to have the 2nd person singular “thou/thee” and the 2nd person plural “ye/you. All they have to do is read the old King James version of the Bible to see that. English speakers became more formal as time went by, not less so. Conversely, using the 3rd person when talking to one’s social superiors or people one does not know died out of English long, long ago. Why not also tell them that “usted” is simply a contraction of “vuestra merced”.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      Amilne,

      You’re actually preaching to the choir. As a linguist in both senses of the word I’m well aware that all languages are equally valid, and that English has an unusual history. When I tell my students that “Spanish is normal, English is weird” I’m mostly trying to shake them up a little and make them think. It’s intended as a light and humorous remark — but one that happens to be true for the six cases described in the post.

      Here’s my take on your specific three points:
      1. If you follow the link in the post you will see that while languages like Spanish, with “moderately complex” syllable structure, are the largest group worldwide according to the WALS data, there are plenty of languages that, like English, allow more complex syllables. I don’t know Slavic languages but am happy to take your word for it that they fall into this healthy minority.
      2. I’m aware that there are some Spanish adjective-first uses, but I was describing the default pattern, which is noun-first.
      3. I do tell my students the history of “usted” though I don’t usually go into the earlier English pronouns. My point is simply that the Spanish pattern is most common. I hope you’ve seen my earlier post, “Why Spanish invented usted”.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Reply

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