‘Why I love the English language and all its weirdities’

Mar 22, 2019
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The English language has become the global 'lingua franca'. Source: Getty Images

English is a funny old language isn’t it? Full of strange quirks, unusual spellings and weird pronunciations. To cap it all, it’s actually not even a language at all, it’s a mixture of ancient and modern Greek, Roman, Saxon, Norse, Norman, French, Spanish, Italian, Egyptian and Indian, and I’m sure there are a few more that could be added too, plus of course all the new words that are being created these days to feed the requirements of the electronic age!

Because of its structure and the way it has been created over the centuries, English is accepted as being one of the more difficult languages to learn, which to me makes it all the more surprising that it is swiftly becoming the ‘lingua franca’ of the whole world, taking over to a large extent from French, which held the honor for many years. Of course, this situation is also being accelerated now, because of computers, most of which have English as their basic language, though they are very good at learning any other one, should it be required.

I have often wondered what it was, about such a small country, stuck on to the western edge of Europe, that caused it to gain such an important position in the world, not just with language, but through many other things, some good, some undeniably bad! I think it may be that, during the Victorian era, the English developed an enormous confidence in their own abilities, plus an adventurous spirit that led them to take over (or conquer, as some would say!), a large part of the globe, creating ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’, a group of countries now known as the Commonwealth, spread all over the world. Most of these countries contributed, each in their own small way, to what we now call ‘the English language’.

There developed, over the years, all the weird spellings and pronunciations we have to live with today. Things like ‘there’, ‘they’re’ and ‘their’, all sounding exactly the same, but with completely different meanings, or ‘’gh’ incorporated into words and sounding different in each — ‘enough’, ‘bough’, ‘ghastly’ or ‘haughty’. There are many, many oddities like this, pronouncing the same letters in different ways, but we also confuse foreigners by pronouncing different letters in the same way, such as the ‘f’ sound in ‘photos’, ‘funny’ and ‘cough’.

Another trick of English is to completely leave out the sounds of some letters, especially in the names of some towns, like ‘Gloucester’, pronounced ‘Gloster’ or ‘Launceston’, pronounced in Devon, where the original is, as ‘Lawnston’. How about the person’s name, spelt ‘Featherstonehaugh’, but pronounced ‘Fanshaw’!

One could go on for hours, remembering and mentioning all the weirdities of the English language, and I guess it really does boil down to the fact that so many of our words come from other languages and have been anglicised and absorbed, some of them even still being in exactly the form in which they arrived, though meanings may have sometimes changed slightly. Think of all the American Indian words we now take for granted, like ‘canoe’, ‘totem’, ‘tomahawk’ and ‘pemmican’. Or the language of music, pretty well all of which originates in Italy, (‘pianoforte’, ‘bass’, ‘contralto’ and ‘maestro’).

I confess I am grateful I originate from an English speaking country, where I was able to learn it at as slow and complete a rate as possible, accepting and surmounting all the odd hurdles placed in the way of a student trying to pick up the language. Being an English speaking person does mean that almost wherever I go in today’s world, I can make my meaning known to some extent, at least, not a privilege afforded to many Chinese, Arabs or Africans; I should remember though, not to be arrogant about my ability, which I have through the sheer fluke of birth — I always try to pick up a few useful words of the local language wherever I find myself, it can be a great way to ‘break the ice’ with the locals, as long as it’s not done in some sort of jokey way!

Do you speak many languages? How hard was it for you to learn a language other than your native tongue?

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