I hear all the time about what a “weird” and “difficult” language English is. So many irregularities and things that don’t make sense.
Well, I beg to differ. English is actually one of the easiest languages to learn. Which, incidentally, is related to WHY English is the most commonly known language in the world. (Yes, Mandarin is understood by more people, but you’ll find English in many more countries than you will Mandarin.)
Language is always changing. It is always either growing simpler or more complex. Languages spoken by large, spread out groups of people grow simpler as differences develop but people still have to communicate with one another. Languages learned by large groups of adult learners also grow simpler, as adult speakers never learn a language as well as children do. Languages spoken by small, insular groups of people grow more complex. The most complex and difficult to learn languages in the world are spoken by small tribes, mostly in Africa, that have little contact with the outside world.
Historically, English was a language both of the conquerors and the conquered.
Angles conquered Wales and worked very hard (though unsuccessfully) at conquering Scotland, eventually asserting political dominance, if not military dominance. The Celtic languages have been largely replaced by English. English was shaped by these Celtic languages as adult Celts learned English. (More on this in a future post!)
England was later conquered by France (discussed in my post Fancy French, Plain English). English was shaped by French as English nobility adopted French and English became marginalized.
As the language of the British Empire, English encountered and was influenced by numerous languages, and these encounters have created numerous versions of English. (Brits have quite a reputation for being snobbish about English, but there is no linguistically sound reason to say that they’re the only ones who speak “real” English.)
Many of the things in English that seem like random oddities do in fact follow a rule, and are a result of the numerous influences on English.
- The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
- Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
- I did not object to the object.
Taken at face value, these words that change their pronunciation seem strange and irregular, but when you analyze them, the rule becomes apparent.
- “Refuse” with the accent on the first syllable is a noun. “Refuse” with the accent on the second syllable is a verb.
- “Present” with the accent on the first syllable is a noun. “Present” with the accent on the second syllable is a verb.
- “Object” with the accent on the first syllable is a noun. “Object” with the accent on the second syllable is a verb.
Other examples I know are “romance” and “address.” The part of speech changes when you change which syllable gets the emphasis. Not so irregular now, is it? These words are actually following a rule. This dates back to the Middle English of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Similarly, there are words whose vowels change depending on the part of speech. For example:
- “Row” the verb has a long vowel, but “row” the noun is part of the vowel family “ow.”
- “Sow” the verb has a long vowel, but “sow” the noun is part of the vowel family “ow.”
- “Wind” the verb has a long vowel, but “wind” the noun has a short vowel.
- “Tear” the verb has a short vowel, but “tear” the noun has a long vowel.
These words, and other examples, are less predictable, but still have a sort in internal sense, and are not the random chaos that English’s detractors would have you believe.
C and G, which can be hard or soft, (meaning “k” or “s” sound and “g” or “j” sound), are also cited as one of the things that makes English “difficult,” follows a very clear rule:
C and G are hard unless followed by e, i, or y.
Yup. Simple as that.
If a word is spelled really strangely, like “boulevard” or “bureaucracy,” it comes from French, in which case, French is clearly a much more challenging language than English is.
You might think English’s idioms are strange, like “when pigs fly” or “when Hell freezes over” to mean something that will never happen, or “drink like a fish” meaning to drink a lot. But you should check out some of the idioms of other languages. For example, in Armenian, to iron someone’s head is to annoy them, in Cheyenne, riding a goat is to be separated from your spouse, and if you hang noodles on your ears in Russian, you’re talking nonsense.
Everyone’s idioms are a bit odd. That’s what makes them idioms. They don’t make English any more difficult or weird than any other language.
There are numerous other “oddities” that really aren’t that odd when you actually analyze them, but I think this is a pretty good start. I hope I’ve convinced you that English really isn’t any stranger than any other language, or, at least, is not stranger than its history warrants.
What do you think? Share in the comments below!
10 Funny English Idioms on Voxy.com
Idioms and Sayings in Various Languages on Omniglot.com
See also The Power of Babel and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.