A common view about language held today is that all languages have the same expressibility. That is to say, if you can express something in one language, then you can express it equally in another. I think the acceptance of this viewpoint has to do with the rise of pluralism, as people no longer wish to make “my language is better than yours” claims for fear of being seen as an imperialist, who wishes to impose their will upon others. Further, there is an intuitive notion that we are all saying the same things, just using different words to do so. And yet, differences in expressibility between languages seem easy to produce. I will present a few such cases in German, Chinese, and English and show how they not only reveal differences in expressibility, but how out of this expressibility the possibility for beauty arises, where it otherwise could not have.
German is, in most aspects, more complex than English (with one large exception, which we will come to later). One such complexity is in German’s grammar. As one example, where English just has the so-called definite article “the”, German has man different options, depending on:
- Whether or not the noun is singular or plural
- The grammatical case of the noun
- The grammatical gender of the noun
This complexity can be summed up in the following table.
There are similar (and even more complicated!) rules for indefinite articles (e.g. “a”), adjectives, etc.
So what is the point here? Why does this complexity exist? Well, in any language you need some way to be able to communicate what it is that you are trying to say. That is, after all, the point of language. To take a very simple example of what I mean, let us say that you want to express the idea that your friend is feeding his dog. That is the underlying, language-independent proposition that you are trying to communicate, and you would like to do it in English. You might build the following sentence to communicate this idea:
My friend is feeding the dog.
In German, you could similarly form the sentence:
Mein Freund füttert den Hund.
In German, due to its complexity, you have yet another option:
Den Hund füttert mein Freund.
Here, we moved “the dog” (den Hund) to the beginning of the sentence, but in German there is absolutely no confusion as to who is being fed, like there would be if we put the English:
The dog is feeding my friend.
German communicates who is doing what through the inflection, or alteration, of the various words in the sentence. The “den” in “den Hund” shows that the dog is the receiver of the feeding, so it does not really matter where we put it in the sentence – we already got the signal of which role it plays in the sentence. English does this mainly through a somewhat fixed word order. This allows German to be extremely flexible with its word order in a way that English cannot be. In fact, every single aspect of a sentence with the exception of the main verb can come at the beginning of a German sentence, so the sentence:
I have already gone with her to the movies this month.
can be written in German as:
I have already gone with her to the movies this month.
Already I have gone with her to the movies this month.
Gone I have with her to the movies this month.
With her I have gone to the movies this month.
To the movies I have gone with her this month.
This month I have gone with her to the movies.
You really get a choice as to which aspect of the sentence you want to stress. Poets often use such structures in English when they want express something in a different way. Germans can do this by just carrying out a normal conversation. Without this complexity of grammar, such sentences could not exist.
Chinese, on the other hand, has an extremely simple grammar. You don’t conjugate or inflect any aspect of the language. If you want to say:
Yesterday she gave me a book.
you say something like:
Yesterday (he or she, unspecified) to give I book.
You do not need to put “give” in the past tense, since the presence of “yesterday” tells you it already took place. You do not need to know if it is a he or a she unless you want to specify, and you do not need to change “I” to “me” to show that you are receiving the action. Further, you do not need to say whether or not if it is “a book”, “the book” or even specify whether or not it is one book or many.
However, Chinese has two complexities which English and German do not really have: tonality of language and a complex character system.
At the end of an English sentence, if you are are excited or surprised, you might express it not fully through words, but also with the tonality of your speech. Say “REALLY???” out loud. The pitch of your voice probably went up, from low to high. We use tones like this in a limited set of situations to change the expressive content of our words. In Chinese, each word has one of four such tones, which allows the language to be very rich in a way it otherwise could not have been. It also gives the language a very musical aspect and it has even been shown that tonal language speakers might learn instruments more easily than their non-tonal counterparts.
Chinese also has a complex writing system with tens of thousands of distinct characters. This makes writing and reading extremely difficult, but as we have seen in other cases, this complexity allows for increased expressibility. In a Chinese course I took, we often had to draw a set of characters to gain practice writing and recognizing characters. Often the teacher collected my paper, looked puzzled for a second, and then suggested I make a couple of changes. In her head, certain characters that I had drawn were unbalanced. In my head, my character looked just like the example I had copied from, but to her something was not quite right. She had access to a level of beauty and composition that I simply do not have. If the content or meaning of the character were just a word translation, which in that moment I knew, we would have had the same idea in our heads. But is it not clear that my teacher and I perceived two very different things?
One richness of English that I never appreciated until speaking with many non native speakers is its phonetic complexity. English is composed from many different languages and it has, as a result, many different pronunciation systems within it. Words of French origin are pronounced in a French-like way, words of Germanic in a Germanic-like way, and so on. This is a very difficult aspect of English to master. Here is a part of a humorous poem designed to illustrate this complexity:
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Notice that “heart”, “hear”, and “heard” all have different vowel sounds, despite being orthographically very similar. Notice how “word” rhymes with “heard”, even though the vowels are totally different.
As you probably expect by now, I want to say that this complexity provides for the possibility of certain types of beauty. As an example of this beauty, many authors and poets have written literature that just uses one English vowel. In his anthology, Eunoia, for example, Christian Bök uses just one vowel in each chapter. Despite this restriction, the language has a tonal flow that could not have been possible if it were not for the fact that one vowel can take on many different sounds. A translation of this work into other languages is literally impossible, since part of the content of the propositions are in their form.
Of course, not all beauty arises out of complexity. Sometimes it is simplicity that appears to us to be beautiful, such as the symmetry of faces. But, as we have seen, it is also the case that certain types of beauty arise only out of complexity. If one language contains such beauty and another does not, how can we claim they are both expressing the exact same content? I hope to have convinced you that, at least for some cases, we cannot.