Welcome Word Nerds! Nothing highlights the inconsistencies of the English language like teaching your kids spelling or helping them learn to read. As a homeschool mum I’m currently doing both at multiple levels, and I can tell you I’m so very grateful for the fantastic spelling program we use. (All About Spelling for those who are interested). But have you ever stopped to wonder why the English language is the way it is?
For example, try reading this poem by English-born Australian poet W. T. Goodge, simply titled “Ough!“: (hint: each even numbered line rhymes with the line before it – and British English spells ‘plow’ plough)
The baker-man was kneading dough
And whistling softly, sweet and lough.
Yet ever and anon he’d cough
As though his head was coming ough!
‘My word!’ said he, ‘but this is rough;
This flour is simply awful stough!’
He punched and thumped it through and through
As all good bakers always dough!
‘I’d sooner drive,’ said he, ‘a plough,
Than be a baker anyhough!’
Thus spake the baker kneading dough;
But don’t let on I told you sough!
It makes it’s point, doesn’t it?!
This morning I came across one of those articles that makes my word-nerd heart go pitter-patter: English is Not Normal. It’s quite a fascinating read for those who are interested in how the English language developed, discussing not only spelling and vocabulary, but also the grammatical uniqueness of English compared to other languages.
Basically, English has developed over the course of around 1,500 years from the influence of no less than six distinct, and very different languages. It began as a Germanic language, brought to England by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (from the area of modern-day northern Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark) in the middle of the first millenium AD. England was already inhabited by Celtic speakers when these Anglo-Saxons arrived, and so the first steps in the development of the English language came when the Celts tried to learn to speak the language of their Anglo-Saxon invaders.
From this beginning, you then add the following influences, in chronological order:
- Old Norse (with the Viking invaders);
- Norman French (with William the Conqueror);
- Latin (the language of the church and universities, and therefore drawn upon by those who wanted to make English less ‘common’ sounding.) “Starting in the 16th century, educated Anglophones developed a sense of English as a vehicle of sophisticated writing, and so it became fashionable to cherry-pick words from Latin to lend the language a more elevated tone.“;
- Greek (scientific developments in the 19th Century, eg photography, the telephone, psychology).
Is it any wonder English spelling and pronunciation gets confusing? And imagine what it was like for those early speakers, trying to learn to communicate with one another without the aid of formal study: “[A]dults don’t pick up new languages easily, especially not in oral societies. There was no such thing as school, and no media. Learning a new language meant listening hard and trying your best.”
And when you think about it, learning the vocabulary is the easiest part of learning a new language. It’s the grammatical structure that often takes the longest to master, and these speakers weren’t interested in mastery; so long as they got their meaning across, they had achieved their purpose. As the writer of the article so eloquently puts it, “We can only imagine what kind of German most of us would speak if this was how we had to learn it, never seeing it written down, and with a great deal more on our plates (butchering animals, people and so on) than just working on our accents.”
The different pronunciations of ‘ough’ is just one of many legacies of all these years of gradual mangling and melding. But these oddities also mean that people who are much cleverer than I can come up with things like these:
If an S and an I and an O and a U
With an X at the end spell Su;
And an E and a Y and an E spell I,
Pray what is a speller to do?
Then, if also an S and an I and a G
And an HED spell side,
There’s nothing much left for a speller to do
But to go commit siouxeyesighed.
If GH stands for P as in Hiccough
If OUGH stands for O as in Dough
If PHTH stands for T as in Phthisis
If EIGH stands for A as in Neighbour
If TTE stands for T as in Gazette
If EAU stands for O as in Plateau
The right way to spell POTATO should be
* I was unable to find an original source for either of these poems, and borrowed these from www.viviancook.uk/SpellHumour/Jokes.htm
Do you have any English oddities to share?