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7 Things English Can’t Do (That Other Languages Can)

English is as capable as any language of communicating complex ideas. But there’s still plenty of stuff that’s impossible for the language to do.
7 Things English Can’t Do (That Other Languages Can)

When you only know English, you’re getting a limited look at what language as a whole can do. There are over 7,000 languages in the world, each of which has its own features and quirks. While any individual language is perfectly capable of enabling communication, there are some things English can’t do that other languages can. Really, one of the most compelling arguments for learning a new language is realizing the limitations of your own.

While you could make a very long list of things English can’t do if you wanted — and to clarify, that’s true of any language, not just English — we wanted to focus on some of the most surprising. This isn’t so much an insult to English as a compliment to the vast, various world of human tongues.

7 Things English Can’t Do That Other Languages Can

1. Play Around With Its Word Order

Sentence this says you what understand can? Or, in the correct order: Can you understand what this sentence says? English, with some exceptions, has a fixed word order. Specifically, it has Subject-Verb-Object order, meaning the subject comes first, followed by the verb and then the object. While English sentences can get far more complex than that, you can find this pattern in every sentence, from “I (subject) love (verb) you (object).” to “The angst-filled gorilla with razor-sharp teeth (subject) angrily threw (verb) an unripened banana (object).”

If you’ve been raised with English your entire life, this order might seem to simply make sense. Of course the subject of a sentence would come first! And yet, other languages deal with word order very differently, whether that be Verb-Subject-Object, Subject-Object-Verb or any other arrangement (starting a sentence with an object is exceedingly rare, but not unheard of in languages like Xavante and Guarijo). Some languages even have a free word order, meaning that they don’t adhere to any single order. Most languages tend to have a dominant word order, but some — like Greek, Tongan, Ute and German — are able to rearrange words without being ungrammatical. These languages just have to indicate the subject and object in a different way, like using conjugation or case markings.

2. Talk About The Future

We know, we know, of course English is capable of talking about the future. Yet, English does technically lack the future tense. We have the past tense (“I walked”) and the present (“I walk”) but there’s no way to talk about the future without using an auxiliary verb (“I will walk”) or mentioning a time (“I walk tomorrow”). English isn’t alone in this — our cousin German has to do the same thing with the auxiliary verb werden — but there are many languages like French and Spanish that have the future tense built into the language. 

3. Represent All Its Vowels In Writing

How many vowels does English have? Well, if you look at the alphabet, it has only five: A, E, I, O and U. Six if you throw in Y. But if you actually listen to English, there are a lot more. Southern British English has 19, and that number can vary depending on a person’s dialect. English tries its best to reflect this in its writing system, but the fact of the matter is that people learning English through reading are going to struggle to figure out what vowels sound like. When you throw in different dialects and clusters like “trough, though, tough,” you can see how tricky a language this really is. This differs a lot from a language like Spanish, which for the most part has only one sound per letter. 

4. Combine Nouns To Make New Words Whenever It Wants

Sure, English has its share of compound words, but there are limits to what’s considered acceptable. Sure you can say “notebook” to describe a book that has notes in it, but if you say “fictionbook” for a book with fiction in it, you’re sure to be told that’s not a word. And yet, some languages are perfectly fine with throwing two or more words together to form new concepts. 

German in particular has earned a reputation for coining terms that perfectly describe a concept, like enjoying the pain someone else is experiencing (Schadenfreude, which combines Schaden “harm” and Freude “joy”). It’s a meme to ask if there’s a German word for something. German certainly isn’t alone in this ability, and it’s not necessarily “better” or “worse” to be able to have the ability to fuse nouns together. Other languages like Vietnamese are “isolating,” which means that words aren’t combined at all, and they too are just as capable of combining ideas and concepts. German continues to charm and delight mostly because people love discovering a single word that captures an emotion, idea or thing that we’ve never been able to name before.

5. Show Formality With A Pronoun

English speakers aren’t particularly accustomed to formality being a feature of language. There are plenty of ways to show respect in English, but what English is missing is the formal “you.” French has vous, German has Sie, Spanish has usted and so on, but English has a single, widely accepted second-person pronoun. This is also why English doesn’t have a standard form for addressing more than one person. Some dialects have them — “y’all” in Southern American English, “yinz” in western Pennsylvania — but these would be considered nonstandard by most English speakers.

One of the strange things, though, is that English used to have both of these. Back in the days of Old English, the word “thou” was the singular you and “ye” was the plural you. By the 13th century, these two had shifted so “thou” was the informal you and “ye” was the formal one. But over the past several centuries, the pronouns shifted again: “ye” became “you” and replaced both of them.

6. Agree On A Standard

English is the most-spoken language in the world. Over a billion people speak some form of it. It’s not surprising, then, that it’s impossible to nail down any single standard. That doesn’t mean there aren’t standards put in place by certain groups, but even that varies by region or country. American English, British English and Australian English are all distinct, so there’s no way to say that any one English is the standard.

You could argue that no language can agree on a standard, and you’d have a good point. Even French, which has a governing body in L’academie française that defines the standard of French language, can’t really claim to have a standard used by every French speaker. Smaller languages might have a better chance of having a standard. Those that are in danger of dying out necessarily have less variety because there are less varied groups speaking them. And if a language has only one language left — which is true of over a dozen right now — then you could say that one person sets the standard. Still, English in particular is perhaps the hardest language to standardize (or is it standardise?).

7. Ever Stop Changing

There’s a trend in language education to treat the present like the end of the road for language evolution. Sure, English was different hundreds of years ago, but surely it must be done changing now. And yet, that’s not the case.

The most obvious place to look for language change is word meanings. “Literally” can now be used to mean “not literally,” “bad” can be “good” and technology is constantly adding new terms to our everyday vocabulary. These changes aren’t always opened with welcome arms — each generation tends to hate the language of the generations after them — but that doesn’t stop them from happening. You can also find changes on a more fundamental grammatical level happening too, however. Pronouns in English for a long time were considered necessarily gendered: there’s only male, female or plural options to choose from. The growing adoption of the singular “they” has shown that English actually can refer to an individual without invoking their gender.

Once again you may ask, “Does any other language really stop changing?” And while it may be cheating a little, there is one kind: dead ones. Languages like Latin, Sumerian and Sanskrit stopped changing once they ran out of native speakers. People might be able to understand and even write the language, but without a population who uses it in everyday life, evolution is at a standstill.

You could say, then, that there’s nothing on this list English “can’t” do. We probably won’t wake up tomorrow and suddenly have a completely different word order, but the Englishes spoken 10, 50 and 100 years from now will all differ from the ones we speak today. Like a shark, English needs to keep moving to stay alive, and it’s exciting to think about where it could go.

Learn a new language today.
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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