What characteristics are unique to English (or at least rare among language as a whole)?

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17

After wondering about this today at work, I turned to the Internet.

A short piece that focuses on pronunciation points toward "none". I've scoured ELU and Google (perhaps not as thoroughly or effectively as some others might), but cannot find an answer specific to this question.

I realize this may be considered a broad question, though, so let me clarify what I mean by "unique". I am not referring to words that only occur in English or one-off exceptions to grammatical rules, i.e. trivial language-specific features (that are innumerable and don't belong here anyway). I'd like to see something more along the lines of what is presented in this paper on unique features of Lithuanian.

The author gives nine unique traits to Lithuanian (I list some with my comments in parentheses):

  1. frequentative past tense
  2. 13 participles in active use (more than other languages?)
  3. four functional locative cases (more than others?)
  4. no irregular, or suppletive forms in the comparative and superlative forms in adjective and adverbial systems
  5. uniform stressed syllable intonation
  6. preserved several words or forms exactly as they are reconstructed for the distant proto-language (PIE)
  7. all the basic possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns are expressed by genitive form

I'm not sure if #2 and #3 are unique in the sense that English could also claim X participles where only the number is significant, not the existence of certain participles unique to the language.

I am not looking for a thesis, but perhaps a short list along the same lines as the paper above. In short, what does English do that no other language does?

Edit 1: For anyone voting to close, perhaps you can help me rephrase my question or so that it's in line with the kind of succinct answer I'm hoping for (e.g. some "unique features of Lithuanian"). Comments/critiques are welcome.

Edit 2: John Lawler mentioned WALS, and it is the kind of features cataloged that I'm after. For instance, double-headed relative clauses or optional triple negation are only found in a few languages. Again, it may be the case that English is too "mixed" with cross-linguistic features for it to have any unique quality.

Zairja

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 592

1@hippietrail, forgetting about spelling for one moment, maybe one could make a case that English phonology is very complicated. Or maybe that should be morphophonology. Stress changing within morphemes, causing vowels and sometimes even consonants to change (think execute-executive). This is one complication for spelling reform, since a phonemic spelling wouldn't be very morphemic (i.e. one morpheme, one spelling). How much of the blame all of this has for the complexity of current English spelling is not an easy question, but you could probably argue that it is has at least some.dainichi 2013-06-25T02:27:42.293

@KitFox You may be right. I also wouldn't be surprised if the answer is English simply isn't unique in any meaningful way due to its late development in history (linguistically speaking) and its evolution that borrows heavily from other languages. I know what English has in common with other languages, but not much on what sets it apart, specifically apart from all other languages.Zairja 2012-08-15T18:48:41.547

2I don't know enough other languages, but the ones I do know cannot copy the passive form with a direct object "Zara was given the silver medal by her mother" as opposed to "The silver medal was given to Zara by her mother".Henry 2012-08-15T18:52:46.363

Adding to other excellent comments, I guess that English retains the richest vocabulary of any language! No other language can distinguish, for example, between 'house' and 'home', 'sensual' and 'sensuous', 'informant' and 'informer'! For almost every word English has a multiplicity of synonyms! That being said, English is unique because has a strong tendency to load a single word with a whoole galaxy of meanings (polysemy)! – None – 2012-08-15T18:59:42.990

@JohnLawler Thanks for the resource! I don't mind doing more research into the question myself but didn't really know where to start other than the standard Wiki/Google since I don't have access to a decent library in my area.Zairja 2012-08-15T19:02:18.197

2@Xavier: 'chez moi', 'ma maison'?Peter Shor 2012-08-15T19:02:26.090

@Peter Shor ... pheraps, but It seems reasonable to claim that other competent linguists are likely to accept that hypothesis! However different linguistic theories place different weight on the seven items provided by Zairja and the most detailed account of the unique relationship between English language and polisemy! – None – 2012-08-15T19:20:29.513

5Chinese has far more polysemy than English, and the size of the English vocabulary (an artificial measure because nobody knows all of them) merely points out the English lack of morphology. We need separate words like rat and mouse, chair and couch, because we don't have the resources of, e.g, Spanish ratón/ratito/ratoncito or silla/sillón. Like I said, moving this to Linguistics will probably generate more facts and less mythology.jlawler 2012-08-15T19:25:12.333

@PeterShor: “Heim” vs “Haus” seems even more convincing. (Are you the Shor of Shor's algorithm fame, BTW?)JPP 2012-08-15T21:00:01.087

1I remember that in one of his books (probably « la structure des langues »), Hagège mentioned that constructions à la “Do you know what I'm thinking about?“ with this separation between the preposition and the conjunction were very original. I will try to find what he says exactly and post it as an answer.JPP 2012-08-15T21:27:02.187

5

Given that we lack descriptions for most of the world's languages I don't see how this question can be answered. Perhaps it would be better to look for features of English that are rare, rather than unique. Eg the volumes here

Gaston Ümlaut 2012-08-15T22:57:31.140

1One (mis)feature of English: I am not aware of any other language where spelling and pronunciation are so weakly related.prash 2012-08-16T00:35:27.690

3How about Chinese?jlawler 2012-08-16T02:58:11.037

The rule that a double negative equals a positive doesn't exist in other languages I know. If we extend the question beyond linguistics into orthographies, English is known the have by far the most irregular. What about having multiple prestige varieties? Also it is totally unregulated despite being the biggest language in the word by some ways of measuring.hippietrail 2012-08-16T08:45:06.790

3

The "rule that a double negative equals a positive" (a) is not a rule of English, but a special version of negative concord that comes from logic; and (b) occurs in many other languages.

jlawler 2012-08-16T18:59:11.547

4Did you know that the "did" at the beginning of this sentence has no meaning? That's a feature caused English being filtered through Celtic language speakers. Their feature came out as a "do" as in "Do you have a car?" which would be rendered as "Vous avez une voiture?" in French, literally "You have a car?" Learned that from "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue," which I read this past week.Nick Anderegg 2012-08-16T20:48:19.113

@jlawler: I don't know Mandarin or Cantonese, but doesn't the correspondence depend on the alphabet used? In any case, if spelling in Chinese languages is as messy as in English, it would still be something "rare among language as a whole".prash 2012-08-16T22:08:51.090

2It's much messier than English. And it isn't an alphabet. And it's not rare at all.jlawler 2012-08-16T22:46:18.140

Everyone, if you need to discuss this further please consider using our [Meta] or [Chat]. Comments are not made for discussion. :)Alenanno 2012-08-16T23:08:30.233

2

@jlawler: I would say English spelling is much messier than Chinese no matter what terms you want to use to classify the various kinds of writing systems. Got some examples of other languages having this "not rare at all" irregular spellings? French looks chaotic to English speakers but is actually systematic if complicated in an opaque way to non speakers. I've heard that Tibetan is the next worst after English but recall Peter T Daniels of The World's Writing Systems saying it doesn't even come close to the situation in English.

hippietrail 2012-08-19T13:08:39.357

@Alenanno: Is there a chat room for this?Mechanical snail 2012-08-22T23:24:09.400

@Mechanicalsnail You can use the main one if you wish. :) Alternatively you could create a new one, if the main one was too crowded and you wanted a quieter place, but the main one is not that busy right now.Alenanno 2012-08-23T08:02:11.180

I would argue that while maybe English itself has no particularly rare traits, Indo-European as a family has some. I remember that relative pronouns, for example, are not quite so common otherwise.Fryie 2012-10-26T00:14:37.617

Answers

7

I am not a linguist in any sense, but the answer appears to be that English has no unique traits (excluding trivial "features")*. From both a spoken and written perspective, English was formed as a mix of other languages. There is nothing that I'm aware of—grammatically, phonetically, or conceptually—that can be expressed solely in English.

Here are some possibilities that stand out in English (from comments):

  • English stands out as one of about a dozen languages to use "we" as "I" (the Royal "we" / Majestic plural), though it's not unique. – Zairja
  • Not unique as per comment: I remember that in one of his books (probably « la structure des langues »), Hagège mentioned that constructions à la “Do you know what I'm thinking about?“ with this separation between the preposition and the conjunction were very original. I will try to find what he says exactly and post it as an answer. – JPP
  • "Did" at the beginning of this sentence has no meaning. That's a feature caused English being filtered through Celtic language speakers. Their feature came out as a "do" as in "Do you have a car?" which would be rendered as "Vous avez une voiture?" in French, literally "You have a car?" – Nick Anderegg, (Do-support - though there seems to be some controversy between grammarians and linguists)

Additional traits might be gleaned from these published works, but I could only preview some of them (no university access at the moment).

*A trivial feature would be, for example, no language spells "horse" like English.

Zairja

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 592

Urdu/Hindustani uses the majestic plural.ARi 2016-09-26T15:05:23.713

Virtually all languages in the world use "we" to mean "I".fdb 2017-01-18T01:01:01.910

Many German dialects have various forms of do-support, see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/tun#Usage_notes.

A. M. Bittlingmayer 2017-01-30T06:58:27.847

1Re point 1, many languages can passivise on either object. Points 3 and 5 are the same.Gaston Ümlaut 2012-08-25T00:16:24.473

4

Second current bullet point, this is "preposition stranding" and it's not unique to English. You can find it in many other Germanic languages and some Niger-Congo languages [PDF].

Mark Beadles 2012-08-26T20:44:45.493

2And yet there is another language where /dog/ means 'dog'.Mechanical snail 2012-09-21T00:57:09.103

3

@Mechanicalsnail That's the Australian language Mbabaram. There's a discussion of the dog/dog coincidence here, which outlines the derivation of the Mbabaram /dog/ and shows it to be mere coincidence.

Gaston Ümlaut 2012-10-19T23:07:14.863

33

English commonly resorts to post-auxiliary ellipsis as in

(1) They arrived late, as I thought they would.

This is already pretty rare among the world languages. But, as far as I know, English is unique in the variety of constructions where ellipsis is tolerated. For instance, it tolerates voice mismatch as in

(2) This problem was to have been looked into, but obviously nobody did.

or even non-verbal antecedent as in:

(3) Mubarak’s survival is impossible to predict and, even if he does [survive], his plan to make his son his heir apparent is now in serious jeopardy.

I have never heard of another language tolerating constructions like (2) and (3).

Olivier

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 1 619

6"Tolerates" is the right word...I certainly wouldn't be happy about having to understand someone who insisted on talking like that in English.Nick Stauner 2014-01-06T04:36:59.873

1@NickStauner Yes, of course, constructions (2) and (3) are quite rare, but these actual examples are attested and a corpus (or more mundanely google) search returns many more. In the small set of languages which have comparable constructions, none (that I know) behaves similarly. That said, I agree with you more than this comment suggests: as a non-native speaker, I have about zero intuition as whether these would be produced or not.Olivier 2014-01-06T07:38:41.533

I don't mind (2) and (3) at all but, in fact, rather like them, and even if they were more convoluted, that fact about me wouldn't change at all, for why would it, indeed, given the situation just described?Claudiu 2015-12-27T21:03:34.837

what is "non-verbal antecedent"?qdinar 2017-01-29T07:30:46.477

@qdinar The antecedent of "if he does" in (3) is apparently survival, so is not a verbal construction.Olivier 2017-02-01T10:00:42.027

They arrived late, as I thought they would. In Portuguese, eles chegaram tarde, como ache que fariam. Seems to me the same kind of construction.

This problem was to have been looked into, but obviously nobody did. In Portuguese, "o problema deveria ter sido investigado, mas obviamente ninguém o fez*. Again, I am not sure that this is different from the English example.

And I fear that what can be done in Portuguese can be done in Castillian, Catalan and Italian, and perhaps even French. – Luís Henrique 2017-07-03T11:02:22.320

@LuísHenrique Isn't it the case though that fariam or fez in your examples correspond to the verbal do, not the auxiliary one? If so (as I strongly suspect seeing that fariam bears a supplementary modality), of course French and I suspect all Romance language allow similar construction with the verbal root do. The specificity of English is the use of an auxiliary construction and among the rather small set of languages with similar constructions, it is the only one that I know which allows such flexibility in the link between the antecedent and the auxiliary.Olivier 2017-07-03T11:57:02.207

I don't understand what's the problem with (2) that makes it rare. It's perfectly natural to say in Russian: "Эта задача должна была быть рассмотрена, но никто этого не сделал."Michael 2017-08-23T19:49:43.027

@Michael I don't speak Russia and you didn't provide a gloss, but chances are that my previous comment applies equally here: I bet сделал in the second clause is a lexical verb, not an auxiliary.Olivier 2017-08-24T11:41:37.050

14

If expletive infixation isn't unique to English, what about recursive expletive infixation, however impractical it may be.

Ex:

"Holy mother-mother-fucking-fuck!"

Drew Ogryzek

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 265

8In Cantonese, it is actually not uncommon. I've heard people put three distinct words for the male sexual organ inside two-syllable verbs.WavesWashSands 2016-12-09T16:32:59.137

This answer is absol-fucking-shit-damned-lutely awesome.Robert Columbia 2017-07-05T21:40:54.390

9

R-coloured vowels seem to be a pretty unique trait of English phonology. I don't know of any other language that has the vowel [ɝ] as in General American pronunciation of "work". The only major language, other than English, that has this type of vowels is Mandarin, but it doesn't have this particular one.

michau

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 1 226

It's pretty standard to speak of American English as having two r-coloured vowels, [ɝ], and [ɚ]. These symbols are not used in British or Australian English but I don't know whether dialects such as Scottish or Irish English might have these or other r-coloured vowels.hippietrail 2013-05-29T00:34:33.443

I think it exists in German at leastAnixx 2015-08-06T11:35:06.813

@Mechanicalsnail molar-R sounds similar enough to true retroflexes that I expect a number of "retroflex" Rs through the world to accept a bunched realization. Source: my native Rural Brazilian Portuguese (caipira) is usually described as having a retroflex postvocalic /r/, but I as a child acquired it as bunched/molar. (It confused the heck out of me when I first tried to learn IPA by introspection.)boiko 2017-07-02T19:35:16.200

2To elaborate, the molar-R articulation used by many American speakers is unusual. Many languages have retroflexes, but I haven't heard of this articulation in other languages.Mechanical snail 2012-10-21T05:39:41.330

I don't know of a variety of English has r-colored vowels such as [ɑ˞] and [i˞]. The dialects of English that I've heard have diphthongs like [aə˞] and [iə˞].James Grossmann 2013-03-31T02:14:23.833

7

While it is not clear to me what should be considered as "unique" to a language, since all the languages are different, so also unique in many ways, but they also share many basic features and principles. One can rather look for some typological rarities in English. A typological rarity is a feature that goes against some commonly recognised linguistic universal. The Universals Archive is a fascinating online database of such universals. It contains a special section with a small collection of rarities. If you search for results that are attested in English the databases finds 9 features (including one from "Old English", one from an "English-based creole", and one from "Germanic languages other than English"). These are exactly what you can consider true rarities specific of English (either mostly or exclusively).

The entries specific to modern English include the following. It is extremely rare for a language to have:

  1. verb inflection with non-zero exponent for 3rd person (subject or object agreement/cross-reference), but zero for all other persons
  2. independent personal pronouns for 1st and 3rd (animate) person inflecting for both number and case, but that for 2nd person inflecting for neither category (defectiveness of 2nd person pronouns in number alone being more common)
  3. endoclitics occurring not only inside morphologically complex words, but even within monomorphemic words, with the positioning of the clitic (a) regulated by one general phonological rule, (b) not regulated by a general phonological rule, although when endoclitic to simple verbs, the clitic always comes before the last segment of the verb stem (subject person-number markers are cliticized to constituents in focus, being always enclitic with arguments in focus, but en- or endo-clitic with verbs in focus) (e.g., "un-fucking-believable")
  4. (finite) verb-second word order in main declarative clauses only if the first constituent is an adverbial with strong negative force (such as never before, hardly ever)
  5. relative pronoun as the only target for agreement in animacy (human: who; non-human: which)
  6. a definite article formally distinct from (one form or another of) any kind of pronoun – demonstrative, personal (free, clitic, or bound), possessive, relative, interrogative

Artemij Keidan

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 1 680

@jknappen thanks for your suggestion, I have edited the answer consequentlyArtemij Keidan 2017-01-31T19:11:31.263

I added the rest of the items unique to Modern English from that list.Mark Beadles 2017-01-31T20:39:15.750

2I wonder if "un-fucking-believable" type endocliticization is really unique, or if it's just more well known in English since it is such a well-known language in general. I don't see any theoretical reason why the phenomenon couldn't occur in another language. Even in English, it's rare enough and "word play"-y enough that I don't think I've ever used this method of word formation, and my main exposure to it is reading about linguistics. It seems odd also to characterize the relative pronoun as the only target for animacy agreement: I think about the same criteria apply for "it" and "which".sumelic 2017-01-31T21:41:42.340

1The "un-fucking-believable" type of constructions is too much at the periphery of grammar to be a good example of something unique. It's not something that the speaker would normally use in a standard sentence.Artemij Keidan 2017-02-01T00:12:05.510

6

John McWhorter recently explained some. I'll add to that that here. English has a number of features that, while not absolutely unique to English, just rare in the world, the collection of them is unique to English:

  • th- (interdental fricative) is rare among world languages. Icelandic, Arabic, and some Northwest Indian languages have it. Everybody has problems saying that when learning English.

  • spelling/orthography - English is special in having an idiosyncratic spelling to pronunciation map, primarily produced by major sound changes (the Great Vowel Shift) after some solidification of spelling norms had happened, but then fluid spelling norms throughout time, and lots of foreign word influences.

  • do-support - that's a fancy way of saying that 'do' gets spliced in for negatives and questions. "I know who that is" -> "Do you know who that is?", "I do not know who that is.". The only other languages in the world that does that is Welsh (and supposedly there was some influence one way or the other).

  • prepositions at end OK (like in phrasal verbs "Let's call the meeting off" "You should think it over". These prepositions don't really introduce a prepositional phrase or indicate direction or anything we normally associate with prepositions. They are 'idiomatic', they mean something much more with the verb than by themselves. Other Germanic languages have this but nowhere else.

  • genderless (in IE) - You know how French and Spanish have gender, a (grammatical) sex marker for each noun 'le table' but 'la chaise'? Most Indo-European languages have some sort of gender assignment. This is cheating a bit because pin the world it's roughly half and half

  • multiple layers of vocabulary - The British Isles are somewhat isolated, as islands tend to be, but somehow attracted multiple invasions over the centuries. Celts, Saxons, Norse, French, and scholars and engineers with a penchant for Latin and Greek. Most European languages share the latter with English, but not all of the previous ones. Oh yeah, lots of words borrowed from indigenous conquered people. English isn't special in having loan words: Swahili has lots of Arabic, and Mandarin lots of Manchu and Mongolian. But English has multiple different sources.

But given all this, there is one thing that English is not particularly unique in and that is in being unique. Wait, that doesn't sound right. What I mean to say is that though English is certainly special in having all the above rare idiosyncracies all in one place, most languages have a number of similarly idiosyncratic facts about them that distinguish them from all other languages, just not the same ones listed above that are special to English. French has the rare nasal vowels and some adjectives that go before nouns and some after. So English is not unique in being unique.

Mitch

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 2 769

1I don't agree that the th-sound is particularly difficult to pronounce. It's absent in my native Polish, but I learnt to pronounce it quite early; it was just a matter of learning where the tip of the tongue should be placed. Learning to distinguish and correctly produce all the English vowels was much, much harder and took many more years.michau 2017-02-02T14:23:00.450

@michau Maybe I exaggerate that everybody has problems. Sure there's lots of room for those with language facility. But I agree, getting vowels just right in another language is just extra hard.Mitch 2017-02-02T14:55:01.700

3@michau I agree with both you and Mitch. The sound was quite easy for me to learn… after its existence was pointed to me (and, like michau, I was explicitly instructed on where to place the tongue tip). But I've spent several years using English without realizing the existence of the sound as a distinct phoneme; and, if there was no explicit instruction, I suspect I might have never acquired it. As far as I know, that's pretty common among adult immigrants living in English-speaking countries. See Schmidt's Noticing Hypothesis.boiko 2017-07-02T19:39:42.183

Russian has possibly more borrowing layers than English. Just take it: Proto-Germanic, Greek (ancient and Byzantine, which have different rules of borrowing), Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Turkic, Persian/Iranic, Mongolian, German, French, Polish, Italian, English... And these are only the main sources.Anixx 2017-07-05T22:07:38.563

4

English is unique for its "hieroglyphic reading" feature. All other languages either use ideograms (hyerogliphs) for writing or use alphabetic/syllabary spelling that can be read following certain rules.

English is unique in that while it uses usual letters, it has no general reading rules that could lead a reader to unambiguous pronunciation. A reader of English reads not single letters or syllables, but the whole words at once: to learn reading in English one has to remember the reading and spelling of the whole words. In this quality English is close to hyerogliphic languages where the reader or writer has to remember pictures for the whole words. Although words in English are formally composed of letters, they do not play a similar role as in other languages, rather they are used as parts of a word's picture which should be remembered as a whole.

Anixx

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 3 628

1English is like Tibetan in this regard, and in both cases the reason is the same: written language preserves the language as it was about 1000 years ago, even though spoken language has evolved a lot - and, in both cases, phonetical evolution has not been regular, hence no single rule to derive modern pronunciation from patterns in writing as do exist for French or German (which also preserve ancient pronunciations in their spelling).Joe Pineda 2014-01-11T06:26:28.367

2And let's not forget these most sorrowful words which can have 2 pronunciations depending on context: tears (water flowing from your eye) vs tears (somebody ripping off clothes or a pint), wind (flow of air) vs wind ("we'll wind up here anyway"), increase (verb) vs increase (noun), etc.Joe Pineda 2014-01-12T03:50:00.340

1People don't just remember words as a whole. Studies have shown that people break words into letters when they read, and words with phonemically "regular" spellings are read more quickly than words with irregular spellings. Currently, the best-supported model seems to be that people recognize multiple letters in a word concurrently, and analyze this data using both stored lexical and phonological information to identify the word.sumelic 2016-05-10T15:38:56.160

1

See for example "The Science of Word Recognition" and "Modeling Reading: the Dual-Route Approach".

sumelic 2016-05-10T15:38:59.397

1English has an etymological spelling system, where words are spelled like they were pronounced hundreds of years ago. That is, spelling is never updated even after the pronunciation changes. This is not unique. French is also like this.William 2016-09-25T21:03:18.637

1This is not unique. Russian молоко ("a milk") phonetically has three different vowels: [məɫɐˈko].bytebuster 2013-01-07T02:32:32.957

@bytebuster Russian has rules of reading as all the other languages do. In English the words are remembered as pictures, similar to hyerogliphic languages.Anixx 2013-01-07T02:37:27.637

2@bytebuster and of course, IPA is unusable for Russian. In the Russian phonetic transcription it is [малако], two kinds of vowels.Anixx 2013-01-07T02:39:16.480

There are, indeed, rules as per reading (un-)stressed vowels in live/dead syllables. Also, there are differences reading vowels belonging to stem or prefixes/suffixes. First two vowels in молоко both unstressed, both belong to stem and both stand in open syllables. Can you point me to the rule governing them to read differently?bytebuster 2013-01-07T02:40:28.307

When you are done with the first example, you can try explaining three different vowels in пересесть ("change one's seat"). :-)bytebuster 2013-01-07T02:44:31.717

1@bytebuster what's so difficult with this word for you? It is read following all the rules, [п'ир'иc'эс'т']Anixx 2013-01-07T02:48:44.547

4Anyway, the real issue is that you cannot infer from the pronunciation how to spell an English word, and vice versa. Russian spelling is fairly predictable going from pronuciation to spelling, and once you know where the stress goes, pronouncing an unfamiliar word from its spelling is (in my very limited experience) straightforward.tripleee 2013-01-13T17:28:25.093

3

Terms of venery, collective nouns used for denotating a group of animals, while countables (or, to say it better, measure words) denote a part of a group, an item, a piece, etc.

This, as opposed to the countable words in languages like Chinese/Japanese, might be a unique feature (not mentioning the English spelling).

Manjusri

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 1 829

@Mechanicalsnail: I think he's talking about words like head in "head of cattle".hippietrail 2013-06-07T01:04:07.203

Most languages I'm familiar with have special words to denote a group of animals vs. a group of animals, and much more so groups of special/important animals. But then English IS special in taking this to the extreme: a pride of lions, a crime of ravens, a troupe of macaques... in Spanish we'd simply say "una manada de..." and then the name of the animal. In English, hundreds of species have their own, special term for a group of their kind, they follow seemingly no logic (at least I learn them by heart) and are sometimes very colorful :)Joe Pineda 2014-01-11T06:22:06.773

sorry, meant "a group of humans vs. a group of animals"Joe Pineda 2014-01-11T06:28:37.190

@JoePineda - but are such words really in use, or are their archaic or fancy? Do people usually say "a murder of crows" or "a flock of crows"?Luís Henrique 2017-07-03T16:32:34.533

@Joe Pineda but cannot one use "a group" in all these cases?Anixx 2017-07-05T21:55:59.247

@LuísHenrique if you want to speak very correct, formal English then yes - you're supposed to say "that lion's pride" or "I saw a crime of ravens". In colloquial language then yes, you can say "a flock of" but this would be frowned upon in a literate environment. Also, the name of animal's babies: a kangaroo's baby is a "joey" and there's no way to systematize them (to the best of my knowledge)Joe Pineda 2017-07-10T14:56:40.850

Could you give some examples to clarify what you mean?Mechanical snail 2013-02-02T00:31:19.370

Terms of venery are collective nouns denotating a group of animals: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terms_of_venery while countables (or, to say it better, measure words) denote a part of a group, an item, a piece, etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Measure_word

Manjusri 2013-02-02T06:55:45.147

1

From an English Syntax course I took several years ago, I understand that this feature is rare among languages, but not unique:

Phrasal Verbs: "I will pick him up at the airport." (in which 'pick up' makes this sentence have a fundamentally different meaning than "I will pick him at the airport" does) I have met some fluent ESL-speakers who simply can't use phrasal verbs correctly.

Paul Schrum

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 19

2I've always felt that English phrasal verbs are really just an evolution of German's partitive verbs...Joe Pineda 2014-01-12T03:46:58.000

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It may not be a grammatical characteristic of English, but Spelling-bees are unique to English speaking countries. A testament to the crazy spelling of English words. Also according to the article entitled English is not normal, "There is exactly one language [English] on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s "

jeff

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 11

Spelling competitions also exist in France, but we also have a weird orthography !Frédéric Grosshans 2017-02-02T14:58:28.313

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Freeze's excellent 1992 article "Existentials and other locatives" (Language 68, 553-595) points out that "the English existential is unique even among the truly exceptional existentials of its sister languages" (p. 575).

Koldito

Posted 2012-08-15T18:30:24.147

Reputation: 904

1I didn't downvote, but this answer seems incomplete without a description of how the existential is unique.sumelic 2017-02-01T23:58:33.237