English is Quirky

I recall an old T-shirt slogan: ‘Bad Spellers Untie,’ and it reminds me of so many students and colleagues who struggle with proper usage but spelling and pronunciation in particular untie unite writers and speakers. Here are some facts:

English did not spring from Zeus’s brow as Athena did, completely perfect and formed. Instead, it is, at best, a bastard language—and I say that with love, for it is my native tongue—one that is a culmination of many languages coming together only partially over time and due in large measure to the invasions that the tiny island of Britain endured over centuries. (A wonderful history of the language is The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, and a DVD is no doubt available of the TV series.). We have at base a quasi-Germanic language cobbled together with Celtic roots (Irish and Scots Gaelic) and Scandinavian sauces, mixed with a large helping of Middle French, spiced up with Latin and Greek terms. Of course, when my rebellious ancestors assumed control of the New World which became the USA, we added our own toppings to an already rich yet complex recipe.

Old(e) English—as a child, I remember my mother actually washing out my mouth with soap because I spouted a word picked up from my brother who had absorbed it during a visit to the grandparents. I did not swear again until I was a college graduate in my 20s! Those words that you’re not supposed to use in ‘polite’ company, the terms that ladies in particular are not to hear or say, are termed Anglo-Saxon words. But, wait, you say. Didn’t the Normans who invaded England in 1066 and added Norman-French mixed with Norse sayings ever swear? Duh! Of course they did. Anglo-Saxon terms for bodily functions and coarse language stuck while Norman French didn’t.

Warning! Bad words coming, so don’t share this with the kids!

Shit, piss, crap, bitch, and ass are all remnants of our Anglo-Saxon roots, along with ordinary words like road, crow, cradle, big, shirt, bull, and so on.

Why? With the Norman invasion came their French language and customs but the vast majority of Saxons preferred their own native tongue. Terminology for certain aspects of Medieval life broke along class lines, with the mostly enslaved Saxons who worked the fields, grew the crops, cooked the meals, made the cloth, and so forth lending their terms to the language while the wealthy Norman nobles who consumed everything produced by the Englishmen and women changed these terms into their Middle-French (mixed a bit with Norse) language within their circles. For example:

  • Saxon cows on the hoof became beef (boeuf) on the table
  • Sheep were turned into mutton (mouton)
  • Pigs slaughtered turned into pork (porc)

So, no wonder non-native speakers are confused. Despite their best efforts, the Norman-French could not eradicate English because it was too popular and too many people spoke it. After intermarrying with Saxons and Celts (Scots, Irish, Welsh), the Normans kept some of their language but became absorbed by English.

Since the Normans controlled universities and churches for almost 500 years, much of their language inserted itself into Saxon English. In an age when illiteracy was commonplace, spelling didn’t much matter, and pronunciation changed frequently. We have, thus a storehouse of Norman-French terms that assume an English spelling and pronunciation: flower, lesson, minister, enchant. Others retain the French spelling, creating difficulties for everyone: beauty, people, jeopardy, muscle, marriage, autumn.

At the same time, Middle-English, which was a mixture of mostly Germanic and French words, was developing into what we call Modern English. The invention of the printing press enabled anyone with the time and money to read; literacy was no longer the sole province of the clergy and nobility. Efforts began to standardize spelling and pronunciation, but they were not effective until the Victorian age. Most people spelled words as they SOUNDED, and frequently spelled even their own names multiple ways. Here is an additional layer of confusion—what sounds like A (long A) to me may sound like a (short a) to you, especially if you’re Scottish. And people stopped pronouncing some consonants in a number of words that still have those useless bits: the k in knight, the g in night, the b in lamb, or those Germanic guttural sounds that we don’t use anymore, yet we retain the ‘gh’ representing those sounds: laugh, eight, thought.

Then, one of my favorites, THE GREAT VOWEL SHIFT occurred. Whenever a professor referred to this incident, I always pictured an old car careening down a steep hill, its driver trying desperately to downshift his vowel so he wouldn’t crash–crank, crank, shift, damned ya!—that image still makes me chuckle. It simply means that people changed the way they pronounced certain vowels or changed meanings  with different letters: great, neigh, wear, tear, bread, sew and so, to and two and too, teach, death.This explains the enigma of British English not sounding like American English as well as Brits ‘misspelling’ words—humour vs humor, colour vs color, saying ‘shed-jewel’ instead of ‘sked-jewel’ (schedule). Here’s a little bit of a poem by Willard R Espy illustrating our problems:

“Remember: utter gaunt, but aunt;

Font, front, wont; want, grand, grant.

Say finger, singer, ginger; pause

O’er words like gauge and mauve and gauze.

Toss back and forth in badinage

Age, and foliage, and mirage.”

Additionally, some Elizabethan pseudo-intellectuals tried to look smart by misspelling words to make them appear to be Classical with Latin or Greek pseudo-spellings. This added more unnecessary consonants like dou[b]t, recei[p]t, so[l]dier, diar[rh]ea. All this continued into the present, as scientists and physicians decided to use Latin and Greek terminology for their big ideas. As centuries pass, English on both sides of the Atlantic has absorbed words from other languages with original spellings and pronunciation, such as bouillabaisse, etiquette, bouquet, pinata, camouflage, guerrilla, humus, and the like.

So, no wonder you had have trouble spelling. One of the good things about English, though, is that we don’t have to conjugate, deciding whether our personal pronouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter as the Germans do (mein herr, meine dame, das madchen).

Germanic & Celtic Languages c. Story of English

Germanic & Celtic Languages c. Story of English

 ©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD (except as noted)


4 thoughts on “English is Quirky

  1. What do you mean Brits “Misspell”? (only teasing – I saw the quotation marks). I remember hearing a Shakespearean scholar back in the, well never mind how far back, what’s relevant is that he was saying that Elizabethan English was closer to contemporary American English than it was to modern English as spoken in the UK. He cited some of the rhymes as well as language. For example the word “trash” which, to my ears sounds very American, yet it will be found in Elizabethan lyrics – just one of the words we lost to the colonies. However we did gain from our eastern colonies and now have “bungalow”, “Khazi”, and “Char” amongst others. and so it evolves.

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    • You’re so right, rambler. Ours is a living language indeed. Of course, some local dialects in the US retain other English tendencies, like adding an ‘r’ to vowels and losing the ‘r’ elsewhere. Bostonians and Mainers in particular practice this: ‘Pack the cah in the yahd.’ I watched a Mainer try to say ‘bra’ and her tongue got so tangled I think she had a brain cramp!

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