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.