13 December 2015

Aeon Essays: “Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?”

English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. 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. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost 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.

John McWhorter

I have always been confused by the odd spelling rules in English and its peculiarities, and here’s a good explanation. Long-story short: every time a new wave of settlers or conquerors arrived in England, the more complicated aspects of the local language were dropped or changed by the new comers, so their offspring inherited a simpler version, but also increasingly different from the Old English roots.

Then there are doublets, less dramatic than triplets but fun nevertheless, such as the English/French pairs begin and commence, or want and desire. Especially noteworthy here are the culinary transformations: we kill a cow or a pig (English) to yield beef or pork (French). Why? Well, generally in Norman England, English-speaking labourers did the slaughtering for moneyed French speakers at table. The different ways of referring to meat depended on one’s place in the scheme of things, and those class distinctions have carried down to us in discreet form today.

A language family tree - in pictures
The size of the leaves on the trees is intended to indicate – roughly – how many people speak each language. It shows the relative size of English as well as its Germanic roots.
Photograph: Minna Sundberg

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