Flying back from Vienna on Austrian Airlines yesterday, I saw the following notices printed on the back of the seat in front of me:
Gurte während des sitzens geschlossen halten*
Fasten seat belt while seated
*some airlines begin this sentence with a "bitte", which would make the German even longer
Die schwimmweste befindet sich unter ihrem sitz
Life vest under your seat
As so many times before, I was struck by the terseness of English. See, for example:
"French vs. English" (8/2/15)
Why did English develop this predilection for terseness? Is it something innate in the language? Is it a predisposition of the people?
I was an English major in college, and I can still recall very clearly the injunctions of my professors, both verbally and in their written corrections to my papers, to cut out all unnecessary words. They convinced me that my writing would actually be more vivid and powerful if I removed all
Of course, Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) is by nature very short, but in that respect it differs from the Sinitic vernaculars, which are generally much more expansive. The section on "Literary Chinese" in the Wikipedia article on "Adoption of Chinese literary culture" brings this difference out nicely:
Thus the written style, based on the Old Chinese of the classical period, remained largely static as the various varieties of Chinese developed and diverged to become mutually unintelligible, and all distinct from the written form. Moreover, in response to phonetic attrition the spoken varieties developed compound words and new syntactic forms. In comparison, the literary language was admired for its terseness and economy of expression, but it was difficult to understand if read aloud, even in the local pronunciation. This divergence is a classic example of diglossia.
Literary Sinitic can get away with extreme terseness because of the density of strokes per character, which overall add semantic content to the writing. But that additional information is not available through speech, only visually in written form.
I was trying to think of an example, so as not to leave my readers wondering what in the world I was talking about, and the first thing that popped into my mind was a verb related to speech pathology, viz., "stutter; stammer; speak with spasmodic repetition":
kǒuchī / kǒují (Taiwan Mandarin) 口吃/喫
Both in writing and in speech, people will often reduplicate the syllables thus, jiéjiēbābā 結結巴巴 (295,000 ghits; the unreduplicated form jiēba 結巴 yields 370,000 ghits).
A Literary Sinitic word for "stutter; stammer" is:
jiǎn 謇 (can also mean "speak out boldly")
It can be expanded as 謇吃 jiǎnchī.
There are probably other words in Literary Sinitic for "stutter", but I can't think of any off the top of my head. I thought that perhaps there might be a character for one such word consisting of the radical for "speech" (yán 言, Kangxi #149) inside the radical for "sickness" (nè 疒, Kangxi #104). Of course, I didn't know whether there really were such a character, nor whether, if in fact there were one, it would mean "stutter; stammer" or would signify some other form of speech pathology. It seemed logical, though, that if such a character existed, it would probably signify some type of speech defect. Well, it turns out that there really is such a character, but it is pronounced hū (I have no idea why yán +nè should be pronounced hū) and it means "excessive sleep; hypersomnia" (I have no idea why 言 ["speech"] + 疒 ["sickness"] should mean "excessive sleep; hypersomnia"]). These are just some of the mysteries of the mighty Chinese writing system.
There are more than 75 characters pronounced jiǎn and more than 250 characters pronounced jiān, jián, jiǎn, or jiàn, so if you are giving a lecture or holding a conversation about stuttering, just saying jiǎn will not get your idea across, and you probably won't get the tone right anyway because you likely won't be a speaker of perfect Standard Mandarin. Even if you were speaking Middle Sinitic or Old Sinitic, which have richer phonetic inventories than Standard Mandarin, there would still be too many homophones for people to know for sure which of them you're talking about. Moreover, unless you have a high degree of literacy, you're unlikely to know the character 謇 in the first place.
By some miracle that I do not fully comprehend, English manages to be terse and intelligible at the same time.