Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why English Is Weird

People like to joke around about how weird the English language is. How come we don't pronounce things how they're spelled? How come our grammar is so weird? I personally was so fascinated by the uniqueness of English that I studied just the language in college (no lit analysis for me, baby, mwahaha!).

They say English is the hardest language to learn in the entire world, and I would be willing to agree with that. To start, it has the largest lexicon on the planet. Sure, other languages have more declensions and "rules" and phonemes, but English is so difficult because it constantly breaks rules. There's an exception to everything.

Why is that? Is English just a rebel or something? I wish, wouldn't that be cool? (English rides up on its chopper, clad in leather, wearing aviator shades, sporting some wicked chops. "What you lookin' at, punk?") But that's not the case.

It's all about the history, actually. Yeah, way more boring than a chopper-riding English language. I still find it fascinating though. I'll give you a little run down:

1. Old English
Back in the day, we're talking Beowulf days, English was essentially a Germanic dialect. The Anglo Saxons brought it to the island with them when they took things over. Once there, it differentiated itself from other Germanic languages by taking on a bit of the Celtic (lots of place names and such). Old English is nothing like English today. It had Germanic declensions (conjugations-ish) for nouns and adjectives and stuff like that. The pronunciation was completely different (night would have had that lovely German sound to it [neecht] and was often spelled nixt).

2. Middle English
Enter the Normans in 1066, who were French speakers. They took over the government, and suddenly French became the language of awesomeness. What happened to English? It absorbed a ridiculous amount of French into the vocabulary and grammar. (Think The Canterbury Tales) This is why we have many words for the same thing—beef is the French, cow is the German...porc is the French, pig is the German, etc. What happens when you mix a Germanic and Latin language together? Well, you get something that looks more like the English we know. Except it's still pronounced more like German (wife is still weef, house is still hoos).

3. Early Modern English
Something extraordinary happened from around A.D. 1200-1600—The Great Vowel Shift (I know, the name begs to be made fun of). (Think Shakespeare) Vowels changed in English. The reasons are still kind of unclear, but the theory is that mass migration to the cities of Southern England after the Black Death brought a lot of dialects together. These dialects merged with each other, creating the pronunciations we know today. BUT people kept the old spellings, which is why our spelling makes for the only rigourous National Spelling Bee worthy of ESPN coverage in the world.

4. Modern English
That would be what we're speaking today in all its glorious dialects and flavors. And there's enough there to study for a lifetime. We continue to absorb words and structures from other languages—heck, we're so used to stealing stuff it's just part of the language. If, by some miracle, we don't have a word for it, we have no problem taking one from somewhere else. Think of the incredible Spanish influence in the South, the Asian words slowly filtering in, even Polynesian words like "taboo."

Once you know the history, I think it's easier to see why English is so "messed up." I wouldn't say messed up though, I would say "richly laced with history." All languages are, but I, of course, have a particular love for this language I've studied and spoken all my life.


  1. Absolutely excellent post Natalie. I never knew about The Great Vowel Shift but it makes perfect sense. The study of language, dialects and accents is incredibly interesting. Although I have to say that I barely understood a word of that Wikipedia link.

    I think English is an amazing language - full of richness and expression. I've learnt a few in my time (though none as well as English I admit) and for me it has the best pallete with which to paint an image.

  2. This post is so great!!!! Thank you. I only knew about the German, so it's really nice to understand the rest of it. I always wonder if the language will simplify itself. I also speak Thai, and the alphabet used to have two different S letters. In recent years, one of the S letters was consciously phased out. Then again, we still haven't adopted the metric system.

  3. Wow excellent information! I'm going to go back and reread this, what great research you've done! I do feel bad for my daughter who is just learning to master spelling, I tell her reading is the best way to understand this crazy language.

  4. Great post! I had to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English in college, and it was a total eye opening experience. So weird that words like "at" and "the" were exactly the same as today, while larger words were so different.

  5. I had to take a semester on the History of English to learn all that stuff Natalie. Good post!

    The hilarious thing was learning how to pronounce the Early and Middle English. And translating, even crazier.

    But the thing about English that makes me love it is how nuanced you can make your writing. My word for English is nuanced. Yeah.

    With something like a million words and happy to take more, English will probably continue to develop into a true internation patois or trade language in a couple hundred years.

  6. Cool post! As a history buff, I found it quite interesting. :)

  7. Very interesting post. It is so easy to take the English language for granted. Sometimes the rules of the English language seem to absolute, like mathematical truths. But really it's fluid and changing, and it wasn't always what it is now. So what will it become?

  8. Great post! I think you might like this one, too, that my friend did awhile ago. :D

  9. Janey, I'm definitely biased to English as well:) So much room for expression and experimentation!

    Davin, I know it's hard to believe, but English HAS simplified itself a lot. Example: Remember those archaic words "thee" and "thy" and such? Those used to be forms for the familiar "you" and "your." Kinda like the French "vous" vs. "tu." Historically, languages are "lazy"—simplest forms win out.

    T. Anne, reading is definitely the best way to learn spelling! You just have to see the words—rules are too constantly broken.

    Anna, I took a whole semester of Middle English, and I love how my teacher kept saying it was just like English. Yeah, uh, no.

    WW, yes, I took a class like that too. I loved it. English actually has more like 5 million words...though of course many have become archaic. Let's bring them back!

    Ren, glad you found my nerdiness interesting:)

    Jessie, you ask a question every linguist asks! Where is the language going? It's so hard to say. I can say for sure it's not going to die any time soon. Other than that, who knows?

  10. Oops, I didn't mean 5 million...I'm being ridiculous. It's like 500,000. There's the right five. But that's not including scientific words...so yeah.

  11. Methinks me agrees! It is the most beautiful language out there! Great post! ;-)

  12. Love it. I love linguistics, and the evolution of language is fascinating to me. Especially English, for all the reasons you said.

    Regarding how we spell things differently than pronounced, I think American English has, over the past 200 years, been in the slow process of respelling everything. Like "draft" instead of "draught", or "dialog" instead of "dialogue". The simpler spellings are primarily American, and we make more everyday (much more quickly with the internet now!).

    Also, after learning Thai and trying to teach English to Thai people, I agree: English is much harder to learn than most, if not all, other languages.

    Also also, Davin: คุณพูดภาษาไทยหรือ (don't know if that'll show up right, but it was fun to type!).

  13. Now you're talking my language! I love this kind of thing and have studied it some too. Grammatically speaking English isn't that bad--a lot easier than say Finnish, but the vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, etc. Yikes! It's a killer. I've tried teaching it to French speakers. The whole "there's an exception to every rule" is a huge part of what makes it so hard.

  14. Lois, just the thought of Finnish still makes me shudder. Something like 12 declensions for every word? Ack. One of my professors went to Finland on his mission, and he was highly admired in the department for knowing that language.

  15. Interesting post and comments. Of course the main reason that English spelling doesn't reflect modern pronunciation is because the Great Vowel Shift arose in English affect the invention of printing; I think it happened earlier in other Germanic languages.

    I'm from Northern England and speak a dialect called 'Broad Yorkshire' which still maintains the difference between the familiar and formal form of 'you'; additionally most of the vowels are pronounced much closer to Old English and the vocabulary contains many Scandinavian words - there are also similarities with Dutch and Frisian.