The Weirdness Of The English Language
The English language is weird in many ways. Our daily use of it prevents us from scrutinizing it and realizing its peculiarity.
Aeon Magazine published an essay on how and why English is so different from other languages:
How is English so different from other languages? Here are some distinct areas:
- Spelling: “The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition.”
- Genders: “[A]lmost all European languages belong to one family – Indo-European – and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.”
- Verb conjugation: “[Only English] requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s – why just that? The present‑tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla).”
Now, why is English so peculiar? The answer can be found in the historical influence on the English language by those who invaded and inhabited the British Isles over the ages.
English began as a Germanic language, brought about by the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes during or after the 4th century. Their language is what became Old English.
When they brought their languages to England, they found that the island was already inhabited by people who spoke their own tongues: The Celts.
The Celts’ languages were different from English, which leads to the first reason for English’s peculiarity:
Their languages were quite unlike English. For one thing, the verb came first (came first the verb). But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. That looks familiar now because the Celts started doing it in their rendition of English. But before that, such sentences would have seemed bizarre to an English speaker – as they would today in just about any language other than our own and the surviving Celtic ones. Thus English’s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues.
Secondly: In later years, around the 9th century, more Germanic speakers migrated from Scandinavia to the island. Those Germanic Peoples spoke Old Norse.
However, instead of imposing their language onto the “natives”, they slowly adopted the local English tongue. And because they were adults, and lacking formal learning resources (language apps were not to be invented for another thousand years and more), they simplified the language and adapted the pronunciation (some would say that they “butchered” the English language).
We can only imagine what kind of German most of us would speak if this was how we had to learn it, never seeing it written down, and with a great deal more on our plates (butchering animals, people and so on) than just working on our accents. As long as the invaders got their meaning across, that was fine.
So the Scandinavians did pretty much what we would expect: they spoke bad Old English. Their kids heard as much of that as they did real Old English. Life went on, and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English, and here we are today: the Scandies made English easier. Old English had the crazy genders we would expect of a good European language – but the Scandies didn’t bother with those, and so now we have none.
The final reason of English’s weirdness is the influence from French and Latin, thanks to the Norman conquest of England starting in the 11th century.
English had thousands of new words competing with native English words for the same things. One result was triplets allowing us to express ideas with varying degrees of formality. Help is English, aid is French, assist is Latin. Or, kingly is English, royal is French, regal is Latin.
Interestingly, the variety of sources of influence to the English language explains the different ways we accent words today:
Clip on a suffix to the word wonder, and you get wonderful. But – clip on an ending to the word modern and the ending pulls the accent ahead with it: MO-dern, but mo-DERN-ity, not MO-dern-ity. That doesn’t happen with WON-der and WON-der-ful, or CHEER-y and CHEER-i-ly. But it does happen with PER-sonal, person-AL-ity.
What’s the difference? It’s that -ful and -ly are Germanic endings, while -ity came in with French. French and Latin endings pull the accent closer – TEM-pest, tem-PEST-uous – while Germanic ones leave the accent alone.
English is a fascinating language. Despite its ubiquity and its lingua franca status, it is rarely scrutinized. This essay successfully uncovers its historical influences which explain its current idiosyncrasies.