… or is that a pork?
Why is the English language such pig? It’s a mess of spellings, weird sounds, rhythms and so many grammatical exceptions it makes your head spin. Accent Reduction is tough enough without having to cope with the peculiarities of the spelling and grammar (or lack of).
How can ‘bow’ and ‘bough’ be pronounced the same but also differently?What’s with bough and bought? What about through, thorough, and thought, and while we’re talking about through, why is it threw and through?
There are the obvious annoyances like their, there and they’re, to, too and two, buy, by and bye, for, fore and four, cite, sight and site … I could go on but you’re getting the idea, I’m sure.
Then there are weird plurals. Most of the time we simply add an ’s’ but there are oddities like ox and oxen, man and men, woman and women, sheep and sheep, fungus and fungi, alumnus and alumni.
Why do we have a pig, cows and sheep on the farm but pork, beef and mutton on the table? It’s enough to drive anyone mad!
Why in all the heavens is the past tense of ‘go’ ‘went’? That makes no sense at all.
A Very Potted History
Unlike many other Indo-European languages, like Hindi, German or Spanish, English has no formal scholarly language or language body. About as formal as we get is not to contract words. For example, in a scholarly work it would be frowned upon to write isn’t when you mean is not. That’s it and even that’s changing.
English is a bastard in the literal sense of the word. It has many parents. Latin, Norse, Anglo Saxon, French and Greek, all have made their marks on the language over the centuries. Like some bizarre linguistic magpie we continue to acquire vocabulary, ‘fiesta’ from Spanish, ‘schadenfreude’ from German, ‘Tsunami’ from Japanese, ‘bungalow’ from Hindi and so on and on and on. With all these parents come different ways of spelling, different rules for pronunciation and word order.
English in its current form, is also a very young language. It didn’t exist at all before 500 or 600AD. The native languages spoken in the British Isles before this time were Celtic similar to modern Welsh and Gaelic. Latin was brought by the Romans in 43AD, but it remained the language of the invaders and traders until the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476AD.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire Germanic and Norse tribes began a slow process of colonisation and conquest. Among these tribes were the Angles from modern Denmark and the Saxons from Saxony in Germany. The languages they brought with them combined to form Anglo-Saxon or Old English. The word Anglo is still used today to mean English. Anglia, the English region of the Angles is still shown on maps today as East Anglia, the core part of this region being the North Folk or Norfolk and the South Folk or Suffolk.
At the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066 Early English was unrecognisable to modern English readers, unlike the Norman French language which the invaders brought with them which is still recognisable as French. Old English became the language of the underclasses and the politically disempowered. French became the language of government while Latin continued to be the language of the church, education and learning.
By the fourteenth century, Middle English was becoming at least partially comprehensible even if the spelling was very hit or miss. The great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer is widely accepted as the father of modern English. He was the first person to write anything serious in the English vernacular. English was emerging as a language in its own right, but it was still not taken seriously as a means of written communication. It was for daily speech only, an oral language like modern creole and pidgin languages.
It was during Chaucer’s time that English became the language of the English Royal Court. Until then Norman French had been used. Remarkably, it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that English was regularly used as the language of government.
The advent of the printing press, dictionaries, and standardised spelling saw a rapid shift in the next three hundred years. It wasn’t until the time of William Shakespeare in the sixteenth and seventeen centuries that Early Modern English emerged. While a lot of the language is archaic, this is a language which most people would be able to understand, or at least get the gist.
Continues to Evolve
The story of English continues to evolve. English has dropped the use of the second person singular (thou/thee) opting instead to use the second person plural (you) for both. The use of thou and thee was rare when I was a kid and is unheard of now. There are shifts in the use of the verb ’to be’. ‘There is’ is favoured over ‘there are’ in many settlings. Verbs and nouns are often interchangeable. Famously Google, the name of the search engine can also be used as a verb to google meaning to use an Internet search engine to look for something. So we talk about googling something.
New words and phrases are constantly being added. The American Miriam-Webster dictionary added 370 new words last year. Australian English added 100 new words in 2020 and the Oxford English Dictionary added over 800 words in its most recent 2021 update.
That’s a neat segue to talk about Englishes because English is no longer the property of the English. It escaped from its cage, so to speak, and is now spoken as the first or an official language in dozens of countries around the world. There is Chinglish (Chinese English), Singlish (Singaporean English), Hinglish (Hindi English) as well as the more vanilla forms like Canadian English, Jamaican English, Irish English, Australian English, American English and Kiwi English to name but a few. Each has its own unique vocabulary, stress patterns and rhythms. Many have their own regional accents and variations.
Ironically for a language that itself started life as a creole language, English is now the basis for creoles and pidgin languages in some Caribbean nations, Papua New Guinea and some of the Pacific Island nations.
English started life as the language of the people and has continued to evolve over the course of more than a thousand years in that vein. What will the language look like in another thousand years? That’s anyone’s guess.
Why English isn’t such a Pig After all
If you’re coming to English as a second language and settling in an English speaking nation don’t be discouraged. Every language has at least one trick. One of English’s is that it’s heavily contextual. The meaning of individual words and sentences is determined by what the speaker intends. It gives you a lot of freedom to express yourself.
What I mean to say is that where you place the stress and how you say things determines what you mean. In the spoken language ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’, ‘whether’ and ‘weather’, ‘role’ and ‘roll’ sound the same. Context determines which one you’re talking about. In the written language, the phrases
“It isn’t mine” and “It is not mine”
are logically equivalent. However, in the spoken language there is a world of difference, or at least there could be, it depends on what you’re trying to say.
The real secret of English is that while the written language might be a mess, the spoken language has a beautiful simplicity. When I started to study the language from the perspective of teaching my Accent Reduction clients I was astonished to discover that the spoken language is very regular with only a small set of exceptions. I never learnt this at school and I doubt it is taught in many English Language Schools.
This regularity is one of the things we unpack in the full Accent Reduction program. If you want to find out more, head over to the courses page here. Accent Reduction Courses
As always if you need help, it’s only a phone call or an email away. Contact us We are here to serve. Our vision is to free thousands of voices, let us help you free yours.
Clearly Talking, Melbourne, Australia