English Comparative and Superlative: Why It's More Green to Be Greener

English has two ways to mark a comparative adjective: the Germanic affix "-er" and the insertion of Latinate "more" (plus).

As we know, history of the English language has made it a peculiar being that lives in two worlds of language: that of the Latinate and that of the Germanic. English is a Western Germanic language, just like the German and Scandinavian languages, but, as the reader may be aware, there was a long time in which the court language -the language of the church, the monarchy and polite society -was French. This was caused by the Norman Conquest, which one may remember not paying attention to in school. Hence we have a gigantic mixed vocabulary and a very challenging morphosyntax, particularly as it affects comparative (better) and superlative (best) adjectives. Some adjectives demand Germanic -er suffix and some demand Latinate more insertion before the adjective.

Where a speaker of French can rely on always getting to say "Cette voiture est plus rapide" and a speaker of German can rely on always getting to say "Dieses Auto ist schneller," a speaker of English has to know, for every adjective in the language, whether "This car is faster" is correct or not.

According to this writer's upbringing, a car can be faster, but Sylvia's parties must be more fun than Jenny's. However, a glance into Google demonstrates that funner is alive and well, which means that, as descriptive students of language, we must respect it, and take the opportunity to use it. We notice that the every-day, physical adjectives get to stay comfortably germanic: longer, taller, smaller, shorter, bigger, sooner, later, happier, angrier, prettier, uglier, and so forth.

There also, however, appears to be a behavior governed by certain word shapes that can be put in morphological classes. For instance, one probably wouldn't dare say "forthcominger" or "cooperativer." Where we can say "prettier," we have to say "more beautiful." It seems that verbs or nouns that have been made into adjectives through addition of certain suffixes are scared of Germanic comparative -er. We say certain suffixes, because we do have EN live-li-er = DE leben-dig-er, which demonstrates the same, old Germanic suffix -ig as prett-i-er does. The student is encouraged to keep digging.

The problem seems only to affect the English comparative, since the superlative must conform to Germanic best:

This is the best cake I ever tasted = das ist der beste Kuchen, den ich je probiert habe.

To the Germanic mind (which a native English speaker arguably has), the Latinate or Romance doesn't even have a superlative:

El pastel de tres leches es mejor. The tres leches cake is better.

Señor C es el mejor maestro. Mister C is the better teacher (meaning to say the best).

Whatever the reason, now the reader can reflect upon the mixed history of the English language and state, knowing that mixing two language families can really complicate things. However, language wants to be understood, and so do people, whether we act like it or not. The unique situation in which the English language has found itself continuously for a thousand years -one of imperialist conquest -forces English to blend with other languages to ensure the survival of the sociopolitical entity that speaks it.

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Kathleen Murphy
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Posted on Dec 25, 2010