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!
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.
- The History of English – Early Modern English (Great Vowel Shift, the printing press, etc)
- What is a Foreign Plural in English Grammar? by Richard Nordquist
- A History of the English Language: Past Changes Precipitate Worldwide Popularity by Lauralee B. York
- And if you’re really keen… Trask’s Historical Linguistics by (one of my favourite books!)