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 Atlantic6 min readAmerican Government
There Once Was a Republican Fight for D.C. Statehood
Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET on June 17, 2021. When residents of Washington, D.C., got the chance to vote in the 1956 presidential primaries, their first opportunities to vote since Reconstruction, it was at the behest of a Republican president, Dwight E
The Atlantic5 min read
I Was Taught From a Young Age to Protect My Dynastic Wealth
A common ideology underlies the practices of many ultra-wealthy people: The government can’t be trusted with money.
The Atlantic8 min readAmerican Government
How to Hold Trump Accountable
A torrent of new revelations is filling in the picture of how Donald Trump used, and abused, his authority as president. But the disclosures may serve only to underscore how little remains known about all the ways in which Trump barreled through trad