Have you ever wondered why foreign languages have extraneous grammar. Why do they lack certain words but then have too many of others? In this video, with the aid of famous 20th century linguist Roman Jacobson’s ideas, I explain a bit about why languages are different and how.

Below you can find the full transcript of the video. Happy watching!


Learning a new language as an adult can be frustrating. If you have ever tried to learn a new language –that is as an adult, You’ve probably said things like:  “Why do we have to use this tense?” or “I always forget to say that?” Or “what does this ending mean?”

Why does it seem that languages that we are trying to learn as adults have extraneou

s or unnecessary little bits of grammar and words? Why do we have to say things that we would never say in our languages? And Why is it that sometimes they don’t have a word or a tense or some little bit or bob that we want to use but we can’t just find?

In today’s video I will introduce you to a famous quote that explains this really well and illustrate it with examples from the other languages that I speak: Spanish and Turkish.

“The difference between two languages isn’t found in what can be said (in these languages) it’s found in what must be said in these languages.”

When speaking a different language or a new language the problem isn’t that you can or can’t express an idea, the problem is that you are forced (or required) to express certain ideas you would normally just leave your listener to guess about; and then you are not asked to point out –or you don’t event have the tools to point out certain kinds of information that normally in your own language, the language you speak better or in your native language you do have to point out.

For example in English we have “he, she, it” We have to point out the sex of third parties that we are talking about but in Turkish and Chinese you don’t, why would you point out that somebody is a man or a woman or whatever you just don’t say it.

Let me make these ideas more clear to you by giving you examples from the two other languages that I also speak.

¿Y pues me contabas cómo te van las cosas? ¿Qué hay de nuevo?

Nada. ¿Sabes?

No, dime.

¿A quién vi el otro día?

¿A quién?

A José-Miguel besándose con la María

¡Ay no me digas! ¿En serio?

Sí en serio

¿La María…?

La María, La María

No hay otra. Increíble. Esa, esa mujer…

You will notice that in Spanish We say Vi A JOSÉ-MIGUEL not Vi JOSÉ-MIGUEL

And likewise, you know if we fought with Miguel we would say GOLPEÉ A MIGUEL not GOLPEE MIGUEL. This probably sounds weird to English speakers who would never say something like “I punched to Miguel.” “In English we say I punched Miguel.”

Well it so happens that in Spanish we have this cultural or linguistic rule where if the object of a transitive sentence like “I see Mark, I hit Mark, I build a building.” If the object of a transitive sentence is a living thing, especially if it is human we mark it with A. And if it is not human, if it is not living we don’t mark it at all.

Y bueno entonces el otro día vi la nueva película de Tarantino. ¿Has visto tú la película de Tarantino?

No, no la he visto.

¿En serio? Es muy buena. Tienes que verla te la recomiendo.

¿Y qué te pasó ese día?

Bueno como te contaba. Ese día ya estaba cansado y frustrado y estaba hasta la corona con todas las boludeces de la vida. Y me puse tan frustrado, tan frustrado que sabes que lo que hice golpeé mi cabeza contra la pared.

¿Morris por qué lo haces?

In the examples you just saw, neither the wall in “I hit my head against the wall” nor “Tarantino movie” in the example about watching the Tarantino movie are living things. So we don’t mark them with A. And that is the general tendency in Spanish. Even though Spanish is a very diverse language and spoken my many different kinds of people with different cultural backgrounds, generally speaking, transitive objects that are human, or that we have a personal relationship with, or are living get marked with A, and things that are general or non-living don’t get marked with A.

Of course, dialects and people are not 100% predictable and these things do vary.

In Turkish and in many related languages and in fact in many languages around the world. There are often these little markers you put on things to let the listener know how you know what you know. They are called evidential markers.  And so if you received something as kind of hearsay or from a friend then that is marked as you know “I didn’t see this.” But if this is something that you experienced yourself and you know for a fact, you mark it differently or you don’t mark it at all.

Neyse, şey bu arada Mıguel ne yapıyorö haberin var mı?

Var, var, olmaz mı?


Ne olmuş biliyor musun? Özlemle evlenmış


Evet, Evet Özlem’le. Bildiğimiz Özlemle.

Kavga ettiği kız?

Evet Özlem işte. Aynı Özlem yani.

İngıltere’ye yerleşmişlerç Hatta Orada şimdi Londra’da bir ev alıyorlarmış

Yok artık

You can see in this first example that every verb is marked with a little –muş, –miş,  –müş ending. Which is used to let the listener know that the news that is being shared was gotten second hand. That is is not known for – as a certain fact.

At the same time these markers often get used to mark related things like whether something is a surprise to you.

Eh, Dilara bana bir şey söyleyecektin.

Ya, ya, sana öyle şeyler söleyeceğim ki.

Joshua’yı biliyorsun


En yakın arkadaşım

Joshua’yı seviyorum.

Dün bana hiç beklemediğim bir şey söyledi.

Eh, ne söyledi?

Bana aşıkmış yıllardır. Hatta benimle evlenmek istiyormuş.

Evet şok oldum.

Ne dedin ona?

Hiç bir şey diyemedimç Ne diyebilirsin ki? Kendini böyle bir durumda düşün yani. Ne diyebilirsin?

Joshua ne kadar zamandır böyle düşünüyormuş?

Uzun yıllardır olduğunu söyledi.

Yani dedim sana. Yabancılarla takılma.

Evet sanırm bundan sonra hayatıma hiç bir yabancı almıyacağım.

En iyisi o zaten.

Dilara marked all the things that she heard from Joshua with –muş because she didn’t expect them; she didn’y know they were true beforehand.  It’s very shocking news. But of course the telling of the story, what Josh said gets marked differently cause she was there for it.

In my own personal experience with learning Turkish as an adult. You know I am still not  100% sure on the muşes’ –the little endings. And even though I use them pretty well now after three years of practice and living here, there are still times when I am not entirely sure. Or it doesn’t come out entire naturally.

So why does Turkish have this little marker for second-hand news or unexpected news when English doesn’t? Why does Spanish have this little marker for marking living objects when English doesn’t. In English we say: I saw the wall; I saw the person. It makes no difference. These are the accidents of history. Just like humans and other primates have 5 fingers and five toes and they are arboreal, they climb trees, while sloths only have three, so in the same way certain languages have certain tools that were probably important in history and because they were important once, they continue to be important. They continue to be a part of that culture. They continue to be a part of the way that language communicates.

I like to tell people that language is like a puzzle. I am talking to you, and I am giving you a lot of the pieces of how I see the world and I let you fill in the rest. So a good example of this is the English “He, She, It” In English I am required, much to the chagrin of many people, to let you know that “he talked to her but she didn’t talk to him.” Why do I have to mark “she, he, it”? Why do I have to say him, her? Well, because that is sorta the information that we give in English, and we let you guess the rest. Um, in Turkish and Chinese and in many languages you don’t tell people about the gender or sex of other people, that gets guessed at. You sort of know it from the context. But other things you have to mark, like how you got the news and the living state of an object. That’s the beauty and randomness of language.