The Atlantic

The World’s Most Efficient Languages

How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Source: Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.

But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?

Well, for a German speaker, more. In “, although it just seems like a variation on the English sentence, more is happening. the word for “the,” is a choice among other possibilities: It’s the one used for masculine nouns only. If the sentence, or if about a girl, the neuter (for reasons unnecessary to broach here!). The word for “said,” , is marked with a suffix for the third-person singular; if it were “ said,” then it would be —in English, those forms don’t vary in the past tense. Then, for “here” means “to here”: In German one must become what feels to an English speaker rather Shakespearean and say “hither” when that’s what is meant. “Here” in the sense of just sitting “here” is a different word, .

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
AOC’s Critics Are Pretending Not to Know How Language Works
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in the linguistic hot seat yet again. This time, she is taking heat for accusing Donald Trump’s administration of operating “concentration camps” on the southern border. Some people, it appears, would prefer that she refer
The Atlantic4 min read
Narlugas Are Real
In the late 1980s, an Inuit subsistence hunter named Jens Larsen killed a trio of very strange whales off the western coast of Greenland. He and his fellow subsistence hunters would regularly catch two species: narwhals, whose males famously have lon
The Atlantic3 min read
Them That Follow Is a Lazy Portrait of Religious Fanaticism
The Appalachia-set drama wastes an excellent cast on a superficial story about a snake-obsessed church.