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Do languages have a logic?
Thread poster: Ruxi

German to Romanian
+ ...
Jan 13, 2007

I am a person who likes learning and using foreign languages. I have learned a few and right now I am trying to improve the ones I already now and learn Italian (which I like and need to).
Now I usually learn things using much the logic, as I believe everything in this world has a logical reason and some roots/origins.
Most of the time I succeed, but there are things, which in every language do not seem to have any reason or logic.
This makes the things difficult to those who learn like me and are not able to just register it like a parot (by heart).
I once asked a (good actually) French teacher: "but why is that so, it does not make any sense?" and she answered me: in French there are things which simply are like that, nobody knows why. Just register it.
I have noticed that it happens in many languages.
The two big problems for me:
1. In German (at least) - the gender of the nouns. No clear rule to find out and remember easy the gender.
2. The concordance of the tenses of the actions in sentences. There is a name for it in English which I don't remember right now.
I have this problems in French and Italian and only rarely in English. Latin languages have also more tenses for the verbs.
It seems that you can never chose the real time/mode of the verb, because there is a certain rule and this rule does not make any sense for me. I mean if the action in the text is clearly at a moment in time, why should one change it for the sake of the rule?
I got so angry these days, working at some Italian grammar tests, where one kind of exercises was about using the proper tense of the verbs (my problem is to find out the tense and not the form of the verb at a certain tense and mode).
How can I understand it easier?

[Bearbeitet am 2007-01-13 14:34]

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Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:43
German to English
Join the Ido movement Jan 13, 2007

Hi Ruxi -
You're right - most languages have a lot of illogical features. You learn the rules and then you have to learn all the exceptions. And the rules for some languages are so complex that it takes forever to learn them. Why not investigate Ido or Esperanto?

"Ido ... is a constructed language that was created to become a universal second language for speakers of different linguistic backgrounds, easier to learn than any ethnic language. This intended usage parallels the current use of English as a lingua franca, and of French, Latin, and Greek in earlier eras. Unlike English, which is a natural and frequently irregular language, Ido is specifically designed for grammatical, orthographic, and lexicographical regularity, and to favor no one who might otherwise be advantaged due to native fluency. In this sense, Ido is classified as an International Auxiliary Language. Of the most widely used IALs, the first one is certainly Esperanto, Ido's predecessor; it is disputable whether the second place in usage goes to Ido or Interlingua.
Ido inherits many features of the grammar of Esperanto, and in many cases, the vocabulary is similar. Ido shares with Esperanto the goals of grammatical simplicity and consistency, ease of learning, and the use of loanwords from various European languages. The two languages, to a great extent, are mutually intelligible."

[Edited at 2007-01-13 15:46]

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Maaike van Vlijmen  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:43
Italian to Dutch
+ ...
I understand Jan 13, 2007

Hi Ruxi,
I understand what you mean. However, my problem is not with Italian verb tenses, but Portuguese. In Italian I know when to use which tense, but in Portuguese there are completely different rules (I first learned Italian and a few years later Portuguese), and I cannot seem to get it. It frustrates me too. What I try to do is pay special attention to it when I talk to people or read books or articles. I hope it will help me to develop a kind of "feeling" for it. I know it's possible, because in English and Italian I have that feeling, so I hope I will get it also in Portuguese. My advice is: try to speak it a lot with native speakers (and ask them to correct you) and try to "feel" the language, until it starts to sound natural. Focus on your problem areas.
Accept it: sometimes languages make sense, sometimes they don't. But doesn't that count for so many things in life, and life itself? Good luck!

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:43
English to Spanish
+ ...
Logic, Quality and Quantity Jan 13, 2007

Languages have only the logic of the human mind behind them. So yes, as you have discovered, there are many things about them that are logical and many others that are not, similar to the thinking of humans. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that "it's said that way, and that's it".

I assume your native language is Romanian so therefore that will make it easier to learn any other latin-based language such as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc. at least at a practical level. In many cases the "logic" is similar.

Maybe some course in linguistics might help. I cannot say because it is s subject I have never studied.

Now going on to another subject, to be a competent professional I think one must value quality over quantity. That is, it is not how many languages you know, but how well you know them that counts. Thus, it is quite unlikely that a person who "knows" ten languages for instance, really knows any of them at anything approaching a native level with the exception of their own native language, and perhaps not even that.

Therefore I would recommend that you concentrate on knowing your strongest language pair as well as possible. You can work on others, but with the idea that they may be good for "getting along", but you would not dare to offer your professional services as a translator in those languages.

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transparx  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:43
English to Italian
+ ...
Hi Ruxi... Jan 13, 2007

a few things:

First, yes, I believe that languages are very logical although grammar often masks the underlying logic. What syntacticians do is precisely try to make that logic explicit. Universal grammar, for those who believe in it, is very close to logic.

Second, don't believe people who tell you that "things are that way because they are that way." There is a reason for rules, but obviously not many teachers know them. While I was learning English, I had many teachers (native speakers) tell me things like "English is crazy sometimes! You just have to memorize the rules!" Well, it turned out that English was not that crazy, after all.

Third, do not confuse syntax with morphology. Of course, there is no way to understand why a word in German (but also in Italian and many other languages) is masculine or feminine or neuter (for those languages where this applies). It'd be like asking why peope say "table" and not "nable," for instance. In addition, one noun could be masculine in language X and feminine in language Y. For example, "book" is masculine in Italian, but feminine in Russian. Why? Well, here there is no answer, I agree, unless one were to study historical linguistics. Even then, I don't think he or she would discover any logic behind gender -except, of course, for those cases where grammatical gender and real-life gender coincide.

Fourth, studying tenses and moods (not modes --if I may correct you) as well as modal forms can be frustrating, I agree. After a long time, I realized the problem lay exactly in the way these notions are approached and explained. As a consequence, I stopped teaching tenses and started teaching time -time relationships, that is; by the way, what you were referring to is called "sequence of tenses" in English. Similarly, I stopped teaching moods and modals and started teaching modalities.

Finally, I disagree with those who claim that you should just listen to natives speak and try to learn that way. Of course, it is important to have good teachers at the beginning, as is to be exposed to live, spoken language, but there is a lot we can do ourselves. One thing learners should do -but I must admit many teachers tend to hinder and inhibit this natural ability- is try to find their own answers to questions. The key is often a simple question: "Why?". The key to learning time relationships is another simple question: "When?".

[Edited at 2007-01-13 17:00]

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Maaike van Vlijmen  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:43
Italian to Dutch
+ ...
Clarify Jan 13, 2007

Hi transparx,
In response to your final point (I'm not sure if you were referring to my post) I would like to clarify that I didn't mean that one should learn it only that way. I wanted to say that it can help, in addition to language lessons. I'm also someone who always wants to know "why?" when it comes to linguistic rules, and I agree that many teachers are not very willing to go deeper into that. As I learned during my university years, there is logic behind rules (not all of course) and it is very interesting!

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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:43
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
If you seek logic do not persue language Jan 13, 2007

Logic is only one rudimentary artificial language for the use in simple tasks like arithmetic.
Language is part of every culture and humans like to differentiate themselves. Like individuals try to dress individually or rather according to the community they identify with, communities want to differentiate by language and other cultural things.
We like to be understood by our peers, but don't like it if strangers or enemies understand us. So every community developes its own code. Also within languages we differentiate into dialects and regional variations and are proud that outsiders do not master all finesses.
If language were easy how could you tell who belongs to your community?


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transparx  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:43
English to Italian
+ ...
Hi Anne Jan 13, 2007

Maaike Anne wrote:

Hi transparx,
In response to your final point (I'm not sure if you were referring to my post) I would like to clarify that I didn't mean that one should learn it only that way. I wanted to say that it can help, in addition to language lessons. I'm also someone who always wants to know "why?" when it comes to linguistic rules, and I agree that many teachers are not very willing to go deeper into that. As I learned during my university years, there is logic behind rules (not all of course) and it is very interesting!

No, I wasn't referring to your post in particular, but to a fairly widespread -and, in my opinion, unfounded- view.

I'm happy to see where you stand with respect to logic and language, however.

All the best,

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Henrik Pipoyan  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:43
Member (2004)
English to Armenian
Any language has logic Jan 13, 2007

I would even say there is no logic beyond language, because our logic is based on the language we speak (and think). But language also has tradition and history, which are the reason for the numerous exceptions each language has. This testifies to the fact that a language is a living organism, like ourselves. How many times in our lives we have done illogical things just because our prejudices or memories (i.e., tradition or history) have led us to ignore logic?

Each phenomenon in a language that seems to have no logic today, has had its logic and has fit in some strict mathematical structure sometime in the past, but over the time the language has preserved only the most necessary elements of that structure, getting rid of the unnecessary parts. This is called optimization. Our life is too short to be able to see this process in its integrity. An individual life is just a short instant in the life of the language. What we see seems something stable and final to us, because for us these changes are too slow, but in fact it’s just one point in the long way the language passes, and many forms are just on their way of development.

This is a blessing for us, translators, because if language were something that could fit into a simple system, we had to look for another job. Who would hire a translator to do something that a simple device like a calculator would be able to accomplish in a second.

If you look for logic in the content of the language and not in its form, you’ll see that there is nothing more comprehensive, powerful and everlasting in the world. Language is able to express all the great ideas man has had in his history and those that are still to come, all the great poems ever written and those that are still to be written, all the feelings that we have ever felt and those that we’ll probably never feel. How can language lack logic, when logic is the product of language and cannot exist without it? Simply human possibilities are too limited to explain anything that is outside our symmetric system.

[Edited at 2007-01-13 22:23]

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xxxMalik Beytek
Local time: 10:43
My dad once said capacity for math was important for learning a language. Jan 14, 2007

transparx wrote:

"...It'd be like asking why peope say "table" and not "nable,"..."

Why that's easy!? When I think of the word "table", the image of a hand, open, coming down on a table, comes to my mind; and when I think of the word "nable" the image of a hand waving horizontally, as in negative sense, comes to my mind.

I am joking in appearing to suggest that to be answer but the image of hand coming to mind is - obviously - true.

I recall reading (rather, I was glancing at it, quickly, in an encyclopedia many years ago, when I was searching for something else) that grammar was basically math, logic.

Even before that, when I was much mcuh younger, when I suggested one day to my father that perhaps the reason why I seemed to be a bit more adaept at learning and using langauges was that I had an ear for mussic; he said no, that was because I had "a good math mind" to convey literally what he said in Turksih. (And my dad was a good teacher of German language - good enough to come second place in a national competitive exam).

Much later, I learned that math was also the basis for difefrent colors, as well as musical notes.

Math seems to govern every thing, even mother nature. I don't think a language can defy math, or logic, and still be a language.

If you don't believe me, well then ask Echer? Here - ascending and descending - enjoy:

[Edited at 2007-01-14 11:11]

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