Why English is So Confusing - Overload of Synonyms?
Learning a Language: The Barrier of Synonyms
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
- 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.
- 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.
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.