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Why English is So Confusing - Overload of Synonyms?

Updated on April 30, 2018
RachaelLefler profile image

Rachael likes to share what she has learned through her blogging experience with new bloggers.

Learning a Language: The Barrier of Synonyms

Multiple uses of synonymous expressions can add to the emotional impact of writing. Somehow yes, this twinkie dog or 'doge' meme exemplifies this concept.
Multiple uses of synonymous expressions can add to the emotional impact of writing. Somehow yes, this twinkie dog or 'doge' meme exemplifies this concept.

I'm studying Japanese and have been for some time. One thing that constantly trips me up is the problem of the difference between "wakaru" and "shiru", which are both verbs that can mean "to know", but "wakaru" implies deep understanding and comprehension. "Shiru" is more about knowing a simple fact. But in some cases, they can almost seem interchangeable. The example sentences I found on one website confused me more than they helped me wakaru.

This got me thinking about English. It seems like not only is English rife with synonyms, but with words that sound like they should mean one thing but mean another (like how inflammable means flammable), and words that are close in meaning, but not quite the same. And even native English speakers keep making the same mistakes, and I see that as evidence of a default in the language itself. If the language were less complex, it would be less confusing. And all of our synonyms lead invariably to redundancy. For example, to say something is an "added bonus" or a "tired cliche" is redundant because the meaning of the noun implies the adjective that describes it already. A cliche is by definition tired. A bonus is by definition additional. This is called a tautology. I think these are particularly common in English because the language has so many words. It may not have the biggest vocabulary of any world language, but it is a rich language with a lot of complexity derived from a large lexicon and multiple cultures of origin (Angle, Saxon, Norse, French, German, Latin, Greek, etc.).

English is also better off with its abundant vocabulary. It makes for possibilities of expression that don't exist in other languages. Sometimes, redundancies can be used for poetic emphasis, like when we say a "burning fire", a "watery swamp" or an "empty void". Some archaic or poetic terms can be fitting in literary writing, even if they sound silly or overly dramatic in ordinary conversation.

They can also be used in poetry and song lyrics when it's necessary to fit words together in a certain way.

For example, when writing a haiku, you could use 'effulgent', 'resplendent' or 'luminous' if you need three syllables, 'shining' or 'lit up' if you need two, and 'bright' if you need one. That creates room for creativity and flexibility.

But if you don't have a problem, you don't have an article. So let's also consider how this can sometimes create problems.

Why English Has So Many Synonyms

English has an origin story so twisted they could make a Marvel movie about it. We don't know what prehistoric language was like because 'prehistoric' means before written language. What we know of the earliest origins of English is tied to what we know of the history of the British isles by archeology and Romans writing about the "barbarians" who lived up there. To simplify matters a lot, there were numerous tribes of Germanic and Norse origin who made their home all over the British Isles, each speaking their own language. Eventually these small tribes settled and integrated into larger kingdoms. From this period we get languages that represent the earliest influences on English; the early languages of the Welsh, Saxons, Angles, Bretons, etc. Some languages, like that of the Picts, were lost to history. Parts of Britain were conquered by the Romans, so Latin became the Cool Noble Language and the language of writing. Even after the Roman Empire left England and fell into chaos in the 3rd-5th centuries AD, Latin was still considered the language of the church, legal documents, and educated nobles.

However, the influence of Latin slowly declined, and in 1066 with the Norman (French people of Viking origin, basically) invasion of England, the language of the nobility became Norman French. From that, we get the idea that speaking "fancy English" is using a lot of French-derived words, and a lot of synonyms. For example, "verdant" and "green" - the former comes from French, the latter from English's earlier Germanic roots. So as early as the 11th century AD, English was already a hotbed of synonyms, a veritable orgy of origins.

And it gets weirder! England wasn't content to stay on its cozy little island in isolation the way that Tokugawa-era Japan was. Oh, no. When Christopher Columbus discovered that there was a continent in between Europe and Asia that would later be called 'America', Europeans flocked to seize up all the unclaimed land and resources of that continent, taking advantage of the fact that the natives either had no concept of property laws, or were vulnerable to conquest due to their technological inferiority. The Spanish, French, and Dutch did a lot of global colonizing, and since there was good money as well as prestige tied to it, England wanted in too.

So England was not the only major European power ruling over the era of European colonialism and imperialism that lasted from about 1500 to the late 1800s, but during this period English was changed by influence of contact with multiple other cultures on every continent. For example, the word 'pajamas' comes from India.

American English, as America became a "melting pot", integrating diverse immigrant groups, was also influenced by other cultures. Some of the differences between American and British English have to do with these differing linguistic influences. For example, New York had a lot of Dutch settlement in colonial times. As a result, Dutch words like "boss" and "cookie" found their way into American, but not British, English.

So the language started as regionally diverse in origin, then spread out across the entire world, becoming globally diverse. It has been influenced by contact with almost every other culture in existence. Almost every headache and nightmare associated with learning English comes from that diversity. Also, interestingly enough, a lot of English pedantry we associate with 'grammar Nazis' is caused by various scholarly attempts to tame the beast that is the English language and make it conform to rules similar to the rules of Latin. Ever hear that you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition, for example? Not true! That's just because of one such attempt by a grammarian to make English make sense and follow systematic, organized rules the way Latin does.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Ability to explore shades of meaning.
  • Numerous words for numerous circumstances or communicative needs.
  • You can create beautiful and poetic descriptions using rarer synonyms.
  • Weird "SAT words" can be used when you want to sound smarter and as teen lit titles! Actually please stop doing this.

Cons

  • Obviously, clarity suffers from the language being so big.
  • It makes the language more difficult to learn.
  • Even native speakers will more easily get confused or make mistakes, making the language less effective at its job, which is communication.

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? Well maybe because English is so damned complicated.

Conclusion

Some people might see English as too complicated because it contains so many words with the same meaning and words with similar meanings. For example, I could imagine a foreigner struggling with the words 'silent' and 'quiet'. On the surface and in the dictionary, they may appear the same. But 'silent' implies an absolute, sincere, and reverent or respectful state of lacking sound, 'quiet' just implies any lack of sound. You should be silent during Mass in a Catholic church until prompted to sing or pray. Your phone should be silent during a movie. Kids should be quiet at the dinner table. This doesn't imply that they should not be allowed to make any noise, but rather that they should try to minimize the noise they do make. Silent implies much more seriousness than quiet.

This difference makes total sense to a native English speaker but I reckon it would confuse someone learning English as a second language, especially because the implied meaning is a matter of cultural context. It is a cultural separation of two words that have similar or the same dictionary meanings.

The good thing about this is that it means our language has a poetic richness and there are more ways of expressing oneself available. The bad news is it can make the language burdensome and difficult to learn.

What do you think? Should English snip itself down to a bare skeleton of its former self, doing away with redundant synonyms? Just because they do it in 1984, doesn't make it a terrible idea. It would make the language better at communication and communication is the purpose of language. Or at least, its primary purpose. But it would make the language less capable of expressing a range of subjective personal experiences, which is why Orwell's novel acts as an argument against such a proposition.

Comments

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    • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Lefler 

      6 months ago from Illinois

      We used a lot of Native American as we call them names for our names of places. Chicago, Illinois, Peoria, those are all Native names. Sad, when you remember many of the natives the first French traders encountered here were eventually either forced to move to reservations far west of here, or killed. But I think it's good that our place names are a reminder that these people were here before us.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      6 months ago from Canada

      Hi Rachael, I enjoyed reading your article, and the comments. I speak and write 'Canadian' which is another branch of English language loaded with local colour left over from our melting pot history, the bi-lingual English/French heritage, and the adoption (appropriation?) of First Nations' words and place names. I thank you for allowing me to end a sentence with a preposition here.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      6 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      H Jones.

      Apology accepted... although an apology wasn't really required.

      I'm a bit of a miserable old pedant, anyway, and I like to nit pick, if that is an analogy you are familiar with.

      Please note, I ended a sentence with a preposition, so I'm not perfect anyway.

      Cheers

      Ian

    • profile image

      H Jones 

      6 months ago

      Twighlight,

      Sorry.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      6 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      H Jones, try not to be so patronising when you disagree with others. This is a direct quote from a reliable source ( and also Wikipedia):

      "Latin and Greek were the official languages of the Roman Empire, but other languages were important regionally. ... With the dissolution of the Empire in the West, Greek became the dominant language of the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire."

      So, perhaps Rome would, or could, have been added to your list.

      ian

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This was such an interesting article to read. I particularly liked your visual graph showing the origin of English words. People who try to master the English language have a challenge ahead of them. It is understandable after reading your article. Thanks for teaching me a new word...tautology.

    • profile image

      H Jones 

      6 months ago

      Ian,

      which part of the Roman Empire were the populous more likely to speak Greek in day to day conversation?

      Not France, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Romania, surely? Latin derivatives are they all. The vernacular of the masses must have been Latin before evolving in to these national tongues.

    • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Lefler 

      6 months ago from Illinois

      Twilight Lawns,

      Thanks for the compliments. I didn't know most Romans spoke the Greek language, even in England. I thought that was only in what would later become the Eastern Roman Empire.

      H Jones,

      Yeah it does seem that way. They added so many words to the language just for the sake of sounding educated. Also to make their words more obscure to the lower classes. Language was used as a tool to separate the classes. That's why dialect separating class is such a big deal in 'My Fair Lady'. I guess some languages have done this too, but in English history there were so many times when the law, the church, and the nobles spoke a completely alien language to the common folk. It's interesting to see how language can be used as a tool of perpetuating oppression.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      6 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Hi, Rachel.

      I really enjoyed reading your article.

      It was refreshing to read something which is intelligent and well thought out, rather than the muddled and badly created Hubs that made me, almost, stop reading anything on HP, for some time.

      Are you an Anglophile? You almost seem to be, but perhaps it is that you have based your writing on a British perspective.

      I should have realised that you were from “over the pond” when I read your work; the average English person I come in contact with (almost ending a sentence with a preposition) has little idea of the form and structure of his or her mother tongue. Maybe I should have said, “…the average English person I encounter has little idea of the form and structure of his or her mother tongue.”

      Punctuation seems to be an unknown quality or required tool to many.

      May I just make a tiny correction? The Romans tended to use Latin only as a language for oratory, legal documents, etc., whereas the populous, as a whole, spoke Greek.

      With admiration for you and this Hub

      Ian

    • profile image

      H Jones 

      6 months ago

      Rachael,

      You don't need too much in the way of specialist books to find Old English origins. A good Chambers or etymological (word origin or beginning) dictionary (word book) will do.

      Here are a few examples:

      Science (Latin) means knowledge.

      Converse (Latin) talk.

      Biology (Greek) lifecraft.

      Comprehend (Latin) understand.

      Dubious (Latin) in two minds.

      And so on. It's not difficult. There are still plenty Old English words about we could insist on.

      As a kid I can remember thinking every time a new word came up in English comprehension, 'what is the point of all this?'

      And I'll tell you the point. We hear it said that the Normans brought in loads of new words into English. They might have started the rot but the vast majority of foreign words came into English by another means and that means is still ongoing.

      The means? Snobbery, showing off and letting other folk know how clever you are.

      The courts of Kings, Dukes and Earls would have been full of wits, writers and chroniclers drafted in as educators and entertaining companions to enthrall the gentry and teach their children in day to day affairs and court life.

      In such court circles it was a oneupmanship race to see who could bring the latest new word into conversation. It is in this way that such unnecessary synonyms as comprehend or visual were brought into use making vocabulary such a messy business.

      Later, this phenomenon emerged into literary circles and intellectual groups. You can imagine Oscar Wilde and his friends competing with one another to be the smartest wit using the most up to date urbane language.

      If you go into a British working class pub you'll hear a lot more Old English than you'll hear in a posher establishment although that is changing in this multi-media world.

    • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Lefler 

      6 months ago from Illinois

      H Jones,

      Yeah it would be cool to recreate an ancient tongue. I don't even know what it would look like, I saw a bit of chemistry text rewritten without any Greek or Latin roots. For example, they used 'air kind' for oxygen, 'water kind' for hydrogen, and so on. Can't seem to find it online now, but it was interesting. The problem is getting to the pre-Roman roots of the language of the British Isles. Those people didn't leave many surviving writings.

    • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Lefler 

      6 months ago from Illinois

      Thanks!

      I wrote this today instead of what I had planned to write. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I obsess about grammar so much! Haha. I feel for people studying ESL. Even most college and high school students struggle with the finer points of English. It's because of the diversity of our linguistic roots. Both a blessing and a curse. Thanks for reading! :)

    • profile image

      H Jones 

      6 months ago

      As language change is normally elite led so maybe we could have a government influenced body to oversee a normalisation programme. A British Academy charged with the job of steering businesses, advertisers and official bodies to use Old English words or even Celtic words in place of foreign borrowings. Take the word foreman. When I was a kid it was everywhere in places of work. Now we have nasty Frenchy Latinisms; manager, operative, supervisor and so on. And I'm fed up hearing weather 'forecasters' using the word predict to 'predict' tomorrow's forecast. In a lot of cases there is no longer an Anglo Saxon synonym left; usage, air, common and so on.

      And just look at the number of foreign borrowings I have had to 'use' to explain myself, I brook you not.

      Maybe we could introduce replacements from defunct Old English usage, slowly but surely, reversing the damage done to our tongue by those dastardly sadists we call Normans.

      Roll on the revolution, or should I say bring on the uprising?

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Quite interesting. Great history. My ESL wife is trying desperately to keep up with my 8 year old son.

      We get rid of ums, and ands and nondescript nouns here. Mom still uses "thing" that is outlawed for my son. For us synonyms are required.

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