How weird is that?
I’ve been trying to write this entry all week, but getting nowhere.
Our starting point is whether English is a remotely normal language. Of course it’s a natural language because it has a body of native speakers and is successively acquired by new generations as part of a natural process of language acquisition. Conlangs, on the other hand, can only approximate to natural languages if that is the intention of their creators.
But how normal is English?
The idea of markedness comes from the Prague School. If there’s a binary opposition, then of a pair one is more preferred (unmarked) and one is less preferred (marked). Thus voiceless obstruents are unmarked compared with voiced obstruents. Some languages only have voiceless obstruents. On the other hand, voiced sonorants are unmarked. In fact, voiceless sonorants are much rarer than voiced obstruents.
If we look at what is marked or unmarked cross-linguistically, would English diverge more from the norm, less from the norm; or do languages not show a sufficient range to ever have more than their share of marked structures? English could well be more marked with respect to one part of its grammar than others. British English and related dialects have a low back rounded vowel in hot (marked) and a mid-low back unrounded vowel in hut (marked). Syntactically English is a VO language, but like the other Germanic languages we prefer [Adj N] to [N Adj] which is often found in other VO languages.
(It should be noted that these are observations about tendencies. Marked structures are found less frequently, but they’re there. There’s nothing to stop a VO language having OV features, perhaps because the language is in transition. Mind you, [Adj N] has been in English since forever and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; but the moment the adjective takes a complement, it follows the noun [e.g. clothes ready to wear].)
Of course, there are also areal similarities in the world’s languages. The languages of Western Europe (apart from Basque) tend to have minimal nominal inflection, a little more verbal inflection, and a preference for SVO word order. As you move into Eastern Europe, the amount of inflection increases and with the Uralic, Altaic, and Turkic languages you start getting agglutinating. By the time you get to the far east of the Russian Federation, things are getting polysynthetic, which then continues on the other side of the Bering Straits. (Yeah, I know. This is all a little simplistic.)
Compared with the languages at the far end of this “continuum”, English is weird indeed.
And so, by perverting (verbal adverb) logic, I can say that my original hypothesis was correct. English is not remotely normal, but when you’re near it, it is.
[Dude, you give me a headache. -ed.]