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August 2017

Why is English so…. weird?

By | Outside the Classroom | One Comment

Outside the Classroom:

Everything About English That You Didn’t Learn in Class

English language learners and native English speakers alike can agree that this language of ours behaves very strangely at times! But do you know why? Find out below!

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Why is the English language so stupid/weird?

Answer: Because of history!

English is notorious for having many exceptions to its rules regarding grammar, pronunciation, and spelling. This can, understandably, be very frustrating when one is trying to learn it. But wait! There’s good news. There is actually a reason that English is the way it is and when you see the connections, you will understand these patterns better.

As I explained in my article “Did English come from Latin?”, English has taken a huge amount of vocabulary from other languages and, in most cases, we have preserved the spelling and pronunciation from the original language. As an example, consider why we pronounce the “t” in blanket, but not buffet? Well, buffet was originally a French word and when we follow French pronunciation rules, a lone “t” is not pronounced at the end of a word (eg. ballet, buffet, valet, gourmet). Another case is when we keep the Italian pronunciation of “c”, a “ch” sound, in words we borrowed from them, like cello and ciabatta.

Although it is less common, English also occasionally follows the original language’s grammatical rules. Most well-know examples come from Latin, like alumni (plural), alumna (female) and alumnus (male). Latin and Greek words that follow their rules for pluralization are especially plentiful in the sciences: bacterium and bacteria, nucleus and nuclei, phenomenon and phenomena.

Now, these borrowings explain a lot of the exceptions that often annoy English language learners, but there is one more factor that is to blame for English spelling in particular. The bewildering relationship between the spelling and sound of many English words is a result of two huge events in history, one which you have certainly heard of and the other, probably not. In 1473, the printing press came to England and suddenly writers had to consider a standardized spelling for English where there had been none before. However, at the same time, another great change was taking place: the Great Vowel Shift! This is the name given to the time between 1400 and 1700 when English speakers in Britain began to pronounce all of their vowels very differently. For instance, before the change, farmers would have said something like “shape” when referring to their sheep. As you can imagine, it was difficult trying to get people from different regions of England to agree on spelling rules (hence why food, good, and blood don’t rhyme) at the same time as the language was changing so rapidly. There were also words that became standardized after which people simply stopped pronouncing certain sounds. For example, originally, every letter in the word knight was pronounced. Other words with disappearing sounds include calm, dumb, walk, knee, and gnaw. All of the letters in these words were originally pronounced, but now they each feature a silent letter, kept in the word simply because that’s how they are supposed to be spelled.

So, as you begin to look at the history of English, you can start to see patterns amidst the chaos! There are still plenty of things that make English difficult to learn, but understanding the reasons for its weirdness can help you learn these exceptions more easily.

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Did English come from Latin?

By | Outside the Classroom | 3 Comments

Outside the Classroom:

Everything About English That You Didn’t Learn in Class

There are many myths about English that are thought to be true by both English language learners and native speakers. But not to worry! I am here to set the record straight with some fun facts about the history of the English language.

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Is the English language Latin based?

Answer: No!

It is a common and understandable mistake to think that English is a descendant of Latin and related to modern romance languages (Spanish, French, and a few others). We borrow many words from languages, and Latin was a very important language in the development of Western society.

However, English actually comes from… drum roll… German! In fact, the birth of English can be traced back to an invasion of Britain in 450 A.D. by several Germanic tribes. Since Britain is an island and travel was difficult at that time, these people’s Germanic languages merged over time to form something new: Old English.

But what about all the words that we borrowed from French, Spanish, Latin, etc? Well, looking at the history of Europe can explain much of this influence. Two significant examples are the rise of Christianity, which brought Latin with it, and then, a few hundred years later, the invasion and occupation of Britain by the French-speaking Normans, which left us with thousands of French words.

Our many loan words from Latin and its descendants is largely due to politics and history, but it is also a result of English simply having a tendency to borrow words from everyone. Howard Richler writes in his book A Bawdy Language that “[English] has accumulated its vocabulary largely because of its willingness to accept foreign words.” People often notice loan words in Latin, French or Spanish like thesaurus, deja-vu and piñata, perhaps because they are familiar with these cultures and languages.  However, if you start to pay attention, you’ll find that English really just likes to share with everyone. From karaoke (Japanese), chutzpah (Yiddish), and zero (Arabic) to smorgasbord (Swedish), bungalow (Hindi), and tattoo (Polynesian), English showcases words from across the globe!

Also, being descended from a language is characterized by more than just shared vocabulary. For example, the features that are similar in English and Germanic languages also include grammatical rules, word order, and sound systems: the glue that holds the words together. Shared or similar vocabulary is easier to notice than other linguistic features, but shared vocabulary is not as important when determining relationships between languages. Words can be adopted and then dropped easily, but core grammar and pronunciation change far more slowly.

So, get curious and try to guess where your favourite word originated! Maybe it was picked up from French Normans, inherited from Germanic speakers, or borrowed from the other side of the world. To find out the word’s history, look it up in an etymological dictionary like Leave me a comment if you find something surprising!

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