that’s so last millennium, english!

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

there are many things about the english language that truly need to be upgraded for it to be efficient and streamlined, easy to learn and functional without a huge delay for non-native speakers. most of these upgrades would make it far easier for children to learn to use the language effectively and upgrade the quality of communication in daily life in english-speaking areas, too. but there is a huge amount of resistance to those changes because people are both too stupid and too traditional to embrace them.

that being said, most of them will eventually come simply as part of the linguistic-evolution process. for example, english gradually shed its cases (inherited from german) and gender (inherited from both its french and german roots) and now functions as a caseless, genderless language — thankfully. these are excellent changes that, i have no doubt, were resisted at the time just as much as the changes i propose are resisted now. they will mostly come, though, in the decades and centuries that follow. if, that is, english survives at all. i suspect it will but there is always the chance it will be overtaken in a hundred years by a more-modernized and better-adapted language that’s already spoken by a huge number of people — the one that immediately comes to mind, of course, is likely the one you’re thinking of — mandarin chinese.

to improve the situation for english at the moment, though, is actually far simpler than my opponents would have you believe. and it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing wholesale change to the language. many of the upgrades i suggest could be done independently of each other. yes, an integrated overhaul would be easier but at what point has the easier path ever been selected by any western society in language or otherwise? if the sensible approach was taken, we wouldn’t have had world wars and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 would have lasted two months. but a century of warfare and years of viral idiocy have resulted from people’s pigheaded refusal to take the peaceful, obvious solution because they didn’t feel like it and western society is all about giving people a choice, especially if they are incapable of handling it.

looking at the history of the world is actually exactly the right place to start, though, as distant as it may appear from the idea of linguistic modernization. the largest fundamental problem with english is its tense structure. english has three primary tenses — past, present and future. you would, if you are a native speaker of any western, european-derived language, be quickly forgiven if you think “no, that’s not a linguistic thing but the way the world works — things happen in the past, present and future, don’t they?” — the simple answer is no. there is no sharp dividing line between these three times. yes, whether something happened yesterday or will happen this afternoon is extremely important. but in many cases that’s no more important than the difference between yesterday and last week or today, tomorrow and next year. why is the hard-and-fast division so entrenched in language that people make a clear delineation between only three of these blocks of time but ignore the just-as-important difference between other timescales and periods? it is a result of our language.

there are languages that don’t work this way. a few examples come to mind rather quickly. japanese has no future tense. things are either in the past or the present. japanese and korean both treat tense as a marker rather than a continuous state. so, instead of a sentence being in the past and using the past for all its verbs, the verb discussing the whole action is put in the past but the rest remain in the standard form (which is often called “present” but should be thought of more in terms of “default” because it’s used for all time periods when combined with a single verb whose tense has been shifted). chinese drops tense completely and uses keyword markers and maya (and various other mesoamerican languages but the specifics vary and maya is probably the best example) uses aspect instead of tense.

what’s the difference between aspect and tense? in an aspect-based language, you have “before”, “during” and “after” for each action and they are set up as containers to put other actions in. each action has all three and everything else is dropped in place relatively. in a tense-based language like english, “past” doesn’t mean before or after another action in the sentence. it’s given only in relation to the present. there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems but it’s important to remember that language shapes the way we encounter the world. a native speaker of english, french, german or russian, all fundamentally-tense-based languages, approaches the world with a sharp division between past, present and future and talks and thinks about things in those terms. a maya native speaker, however, thinks of and discusses things in terms of when they happen relative to other actions and the worldview that results is strikingly different — and difficult to translate without changing the reference points quite significantly.

what is important to note about these differences is that they’re not just linguistic but cultural. the whole culture in maya civilizations was structured based on a system of relative times. chinese culture is timeless as a result of its language dealing with time in a tenseless manner. it is a simple matter of taking something that happened in the past and talking about it in the future — the action itself doesn’t change at all. japanese society sees this moment and the future as being a continuum with no break and this has had obvious results in tradition and the way the future itself is understood. it is a culture where procrastination is generally not experienced, for example — why do things tomorrow? tomorrow is just an extension of today. so is next year. and next century. the future is actually part of this moment and that means there is no escaping what has to be done by shifting it to another box. i’m sure you can see the changes that can occur when you get away from divisions between times and these range from very subtle things — thinking of events in your life as “before” and “after” certain other events rather than “all in the past” — to extremely concrete, daily-life-changing things — it is very hard, for example, to forget that history is cyclic and a warning for the future when the past is not separate and the future is now so learning lessons from wars and politics of the past becomes a much more tangible reality, where when taught in english it is easy to be detached from both what happened and what it teaches us will happen. if you want a practical way this has impacted modern society, take a look at the response difference between the united states and china to the novel coronavirus. in america, lessons from the spanish flu pandemic are relegated to ancient history and concerns about the future are ideas for another day — “just keep swimming”, as disney’s maxim says. what this president does is short-term and a mess can easily be left for another leader, another generation or just another day. the chinese response learned its lesson from the past and took immediate action, resulting in dramatically fewer lives being lost, people becoming sick and the economy being systemically changed because of shifting general behavior patterns. it’s difficult in many cases to say whether a modernized version of a language and its results for society are “better” or “worse” than its precedent. in this case, it is very clear the chinese way, both linguistically and practically, is better.

so there are two questions that need to be answered now that we’ve talked about why modernization of the tense structure in english needs to be upgraded — what does that upgrade look like and how can it be achieved?

upgrading english to turn it into a tenseless language requires a complete rethinking of one specific aspect of english grammar — its verbs. it doesn’t, however, necessitate shifting any other component. english has a very complex verb structure with some verb forms being single words, others being multiple words, either with helper-verbs or prepositions functioning either as prepositions or adverbs — “i walk to the store”, “i have walked to the store”, “i walked out on my family”. cleaning this up is a fundamental change in the way english works in two ways — first, the elimination of complex tense simplifies the structure considerably and is a fairly simple thing to achieve. second, the elimination of the joined-prepositional forms of english verbs requires a replacement of those verbs with single-word versions. this is actually not that difficult to do but it definitely looks strange if you are used to seeing these as complex, multiword composites as they are generally seen in english – in german and russian, for example, these are already treated, in many cases, as joined single-word entities and this process sees an even-more-extreme treatment in finnish where conjoined prepositional words are non-segmented.

the practical side of this isn’t that difficult but it will take some serious getting-used-to for experienced english speakers. it looks like this. take the primary verb in the sentence or phrase and put it in the dictionary form (in english, the dictionary form is often the same as the first-person present but that’s not always the case — for example, “i be” doesn’t exist but “i am” is used while “i walk”, “i run”, “i go”, “i talk” and “i see” are perfectly standard). the elimination of tense has an interesting side-effect that corrects english’ other most problematic issue, actually, which i haven’t yet talked about here — agreement between subject and verb. this is where there is a difference between “i am”, “you are” and “it is” (none of which, by the way, you have already noticed uses the dictionary form “be” or even anything recognizably-close to it). yes, it would be possible to simply shift to using the agreement-focused present form of the verb instead of the dictionary form but if the language is going to modernize in one way and people have to get used to the shift they might as well only have to do that shift once, as the result of splitting it in two steps doesn’t change the result in the slightest, replacing all verbs (eventually) with their dictionary-forms.

the other piece i’ve already mentioned is what needs to be done with what linguists often refer to as “phrasal verbs”, which is misleading but frequent enough to have gained a recognizability in the english-learning community as a thing — these are actually two completely different groups of verbs that work in unrelated ways, one that forces verbs to function with prepositions as prepositions and another that uses prepositions functioning as adverbs to answer questions like “where”, “when”, “why” or “how” as default placeholders for missing information. more on that in another article, i suspect, though no point in beating that horse beyond its styx-crossing life at the moment as it’s irrelevant. the point is that many of these would have to become single verbs but that’s far less a problem than it may appear. for example, there is a huge distinction between “i pick” and “i pick up”. “i pick a book” means “i select something to read” but “i pick up a book” means “i take a book from the floor and carry it in my hand” — these are, of course, not the only specific meanings of these two phrases but i’m certain you can see the difference from these examples.

the answer to how to deal with these meaning differences is very simple and it should have already occurred to you. if, however, you are an english-native-speaker, i suspect it hasn’t because the simple way of dealing with word-separation in english is never the solution that’s been selected as the first choice in language history. “end of week” became “week’s end” then “week-end” then, eventually, what it should have been in the first place, “weekend”. why the roundabout approach to word-combining? an english idiosyncrasy that must be assumed to exist through its complete history and there are literally thousands of examples of this having happened and being in the process of happening even today.

shifting from “i pick up the book” to “i pickup the book” is a fundamentally simple shift and should pose no problem of comprehension to any english native-speaker or learner and this is the obvious solution to what to do with these segregated, conjoined verbs in a system of single-word dictionary-form verbs. it eliminates the issue of difference between “i pick up the book” and “i pick the book up”, which is a dialectic issue and far beyond the scope of today’s discussion but it’s another serious problem with english that should be corrected if it is truly the universal language of communication it pretends to be.

a continuation of this progression is actually a simple and realistic way to improve the way the language works. english doesn’t need word spacing at all but removing it is a whole other difficulty. the space between the dictionary-form verb and any accompanying preposition, however, is easily dismissed as irrelevant and in some cases has already happened — “i set up my computer” has now become “i setup my computer”, for example, much like in the noun form this is far more common with “i look up the answer” becoming “i do a lookup on the internet” in its noun-based form. so this changes “i walk to the store” to “i walkto the store”, which doesn’t appear to be confusing to any english speaker. it may look unusual at first glance but it doesn’t reduce comprehension and it solidifies the placement of the preposition as part of the verb rather than floating freely in the sentence, a problem that confuses almost all english learners at some point, whether children or adults.

these problems out of the way, however, the main issue still remains — what to do about tense. actually, this is extremely simple and the fact that it hasn’t been done is a staggering mystery to me because it doesn’t just make the language easier to deal with but requires so little change in the structure itself it’s seemingly insignificant except for the replacement of the verb with a verb that already exists and doesn’t need to be created or adapted in any way. this is perhaps not the simplest upgrade to english (that would be the elimination of articles — “i walk to the store” becoming “i walk to store” and “i read a book” becoming “i read book”, articles having absolutely no meaning and being irrelevant to linguistic comprehension so their elimination being a matter of them simply disappearing. it is, however, relatively easy to achieve.

the obvious question is that, unlike with the elimination of articles given as an example, actual information is lost in the conversion of “i walk to the store”, “i walked to the store” and “i will walk to the store” to “i walkto the store” in all three cases. and this is certainly true. but the answer is just as obvious as the problem and chinese (only one of the languages that does this but certainly the most widely-spoken example) has already solved it. adding a relative time marker doesn’t just remove the problem of information loss but gives the potential and expectation for the sentence to include far more information. the english sentence “i walked to the store” has the obvious question attached to it “when?” but no answer other than “in the past”. the implication in a chinese sentence is that the answer to that question should be there. so not just “i walked to the store in the past” but “i walked to the store this morning” being the standard quantity of information being provided in every sentence. if the ambiguity of the english sentence norm is desired, though, while i have no idea why this needs to continue as it is both aggravating and silly, this can be replicated through the use of a general marker. “i walked to the store” would become “i walkto the store before” and “i will walk to the store” would become “i walkto the store after”. but these could just as easily be “i walkto the store yesterday” and “i walkto the store tomorrow”. the higher level of content specificity is great but optional. markers are functionally temporal adverbs and they can be selected and used interchangeably at different levels of detail without any change in the structure.

what we are seeing here is a simplification without significant difference in the overarching structure of the language, what might be thought of as the holy-grail of linguistic evolution. it means a huge step can be taken to make english easier to learn and more useful without actually making people learn a new way to form their sentences.

the result is a bit more wide-ranging than that. in eliminating the past and future as separate times, the impact on english-speaking culture and its recipient cultures in europe and much of the rest of the world, it is possible that people will become more aware of their history and engaged with their future lives. is that necessary as a result of this linguistic shift? i believe it is, at least gradually. whether it happens, however, remains to be seen and is difficult to predict for many reasons. that being said, making this upgrade to the english language, even without its cultural ramifications, will have such an incredible impact on the level of difficult of learning english that children in english-language areas and language-learners all over the world struggling with english will experience a rapid improvement in their skills eliminating many of what are currently seen as “learning difficulties” or “educational disabilities” in western society by streamlining communication and language-learning while improving comprehensibility in non-native-speaking situations, literal billions happening every day all over the world.

is this upgrade likely to happen in the next five years? absolutely not. will it happen without being enforced? difficult to tell. there will eventually be a shift away from tense in english, i suspect, though whether it will be fifty years from now or five-hundred is difficult to determine. english has evolved as a series of huge leaps and vast troughs of sedentary historic idiocy and conservatism — much like biological evolution, it is nearly impossible to determine when the next major advantage will suddenly outweigh the resistance to its adoption into the general population but, when it occurs, it occurs almost overnight. resistance to language-modernization is as infectious and pernicious as the virus now attacking the world and the result, sadly, is much the same thing — the virus is making cultural and information exchange extremely difficult and social and economic mobility nearly impossible while the english language continues to subjugate minority populations and keeping it more difficult than necessary to master and learn is self-serving for a conservative white-dominated western-exceptionalism-focused population. perhaps it’s time we put our actions where our mouths are in a literal sense and shifted our spoken language so it is streamlined, efficient and as easy as possible to learn, master and use. or perhaps we really are, as western societies, too stupid, racist, conservative, biased and hate-motivated to want to. i’m not sure. thanks for taking the time to explore this issue with me. i know it’s controversial — if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be much point in talking about it, practically-speaking. your thoughts have honored me.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.