(ORDO NEWS) — It is believed that the English language dominates the world due to its “flexibility”. But native speakers of English and those who speak it know that it is actually very strange. How this oddity is expressed and where it came from, Aeon explains, referring to both grammar and history.
No, English is not uniquely vibrant, powerful, or adaptable. However, it is actually weirder than so many other languages.
English speakers know that it is very strange. Those people for whom he is not native and who teach him are also aware of this. The weirdness we most often see is related to spelling, and it’s actually a real nightmare. Spelling contests are not held in non-English speaking countries. In normal languages, spelling at least claims to have a basic correspondence with how people pronounce words. However, English is not normal.
Spelling is naturally related to writing, while language is essentially related to speech. Speech originated long before writing, we speak much more, and about a couple of hundred of the thousands of languages existing in the world have little or no written language. But even in colloquial speech, English seems strange. Its oddities can easily be overlooked, since English-speaking residents of the United States and Britain are not particularly eager to learn other languages.
However, our monolingual tendency makes us like the proverbial fish that doesn’t know what “wet” means. Our language is perceived as normal only until a person gets an idea of what a normal language really is.
For example, there is no other language that would be close enough to English in the sense that half of what people say could be figured out without doing it at all, and everything else could be learned with little effort.
The same can be said about German and Dutch, as well as Spanish and Portuguese, as well as Thai and Lao. The closest thing to an English-speaking person may be a little-known Northern European language called Frisian: if you know that tsiis is cheese, and Frysk means Frisian, then it’s not hard to imagine what the phrase means: Brea, bûter, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk. However, this is an artificial phrase, and in general we tend to think that the Frisian language is more similar to German, which is true.
We consider it an inconvenience that in many European languages gender is attributed to nouns for no reason whatsoever, and at the same time for the French the moon turns out to be feminine, and the boat is masculine, and so on. But in fact, we ourselves are strange: almost all European languages belong to the same family – Indo-European, and only in one of them, in English, there is no such category of gender.
Want more examples of weirdness? You are welcome. There is only one language on Earth, in which the present requires a special ending only in the third person singular. In this language, I write like this: I talk, you talk, he / she talk-s. But why is this happening? Present tense verbs in normal languages either have no endings at all, or have a bunch of different endings (in Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And name another language where you should insert the word do for negation or to ask a question. Find it challenging? This is probably the case, unless you are from Wales, Ireland, or northern France.
Why is our language so strange? And in general, what is this language in which we speak, and why did it become that way?
English, in fact, started out as one of the Germanic ones. Old English is so unlike the modern version that it takes considerable effort to count it as the same language. Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon – does this really mean: “And we Danish kings, in the days of this we heard about the glory of kings”? Icelanders can still read similar stories today, written in the Old Norse predecessor of their language 1,000 years ago, yet to the untrained eye it might seem that Beowulf was written in Turkish.
The first thing that removed us from that original language was this: when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and also the Frisians) brought their language to England, there were already other people on the island who spoke other languages. These were the Celtic languages, which today are Welsh, Irish, and on the other side of the English Channel, in France, also Breton. The Celts were enslaved, but survived, and since there were about 250,000 German conquerors in total – comparable to the population of such a modest city as Jersey City – it quickly turned out that most of the people who spoke Old English were Celts.
Crucial was the fact that their language was very different from English. So, for example, the verb was in the first place with them. And the Celts also had strange constructions with the verb do: they used it to formulate a question, make a sentence negative – and even to create a kind of addition to the verb: Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. It looks familiar now, as the Celts began to do it in their own version of the English language as well. However, before that, such a proposal would have seemed strange to an English-speaking person – as it will seem strange today in any language, except for our own and surviving Celtic ones. Please note that the very discussion of this unusual use of the verb do makes us discover something strange in ourselves – as if you were told,
To date, there is no established existence of languages other than Celtic and English on Earth that use the verb do in the same way. Therefore, the strangeness of the English language began with the transformation in the mouth of people who were more accustomed to completely different languages. We continue to speak like them, and we do it in a way that would not have occurred to us ourselves.
When you say “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”, do you ever get the feeling that this is some kind of counting? In fact, the way it is – these are Celtic numbers, which have undergone changes over time, but you can still understand that they go back to the words used by rural people in Britain, counting animals or playing games. And here are the words from the children’s song: “Hickory, dickory, dock” – what does it all mean? Here’s a clue: the words hovera, dovera, dick in the same Celtic language meant eight, nine and ten.
Then there was another event that influenced the English language: on the island, having crossed from the continent, there were a large number of speakers of the Germanic languages, who had very serious intentions. This process began in the 9th century, and this time the conquerors spoke another branch of the Germanic language – Old Norse. However, they did not impose their language. Instead, they married local women and switched to using English. However, these were already adults, and adults, as a rule, do not so easily learn a new language, especially when it comes to a society where spoken language is used.
Then there were no schools and no mass media. Learning a language then meant listening carefully and making great efforts to understand. We can only imagine how we would speak German if we had to teach him this way: meeting with him not in written form, not just working on pronunciation, but mostly on our plate (cutting animal carcasses, communication with people and the like).
As long as the conquerors could communicate what they wanted, that was fine. But this can be done using a very rough version of the language – the legibility of the Frisian sentence quoted proves just that. So the Scandinavians did exactly what was expected: they spoke bad Old English. Their children heard as bad as real Old English. Life went on, and soon their bad Old English became real English, and this is what we have today: the Scandinavians simplified the English language.
Here I must make one clarification. In linguistic circles, it is risky to say that some language is “simpler” than another, since there is no single measurement system that could be used to make an objective rating. But even if there is no light streak between day and night, we would not say that there is no difference between life at 10 am and life at 10 pm. The same can be said for languages: some have more bells and whistles than others. If someone were told that he was given a year to study either Russian or Hebrew, and then they would pull out a nail for every mistake made during a three-minute test to test knowledge, then only a masochist would choose Russian – unless by this time he would have already mastered some kind of related language.
Old English contained the crazy categories of genus that we expect to find in a good European language – however, the Scandinavians did not pay much attention to them, and therefore now we do not have them. Note this oddity of English. In addition, the Vikings learned only one part of the once excellent conjugation system: therefore, the lone ending -s appears in the third person singular, and now it is stuck there, like a dead insect on the windshield of a car. Here, as elsewhere, the Vikings have smoothed out intricate material.
They also followed the example of the Celts and changed the language in a way that seemed most natural to them. It is well known that they have added thousands of new words to the English language, including those that seem to us exclusively “ours”: sing the old song “Get Happy”: the words in the title come from Old Norse. It seemed that sometimes they wanted to leave in the language indications like “We are here too” and therefore supplemented our native words with equivalents from the Old Norse language. As a result, there were such duplicates as the words dike (for them) and ditch (for us), scatter (for them) and shatter (for us), as well as ship and skipper (in Old Norse skip meant ship, and therefore skipper is shipper ).
However, the above words were just the beginning. They also left their mark on English grammar. Fortunately, teachers in school now rarely talk about what is wrong to say Which town do you come from? That is, we are talking about putting a preposition at the end, instead of inserting it right after the word starting with wh. In that case, the question would sound like this: From which town do you come? In English, sentences with “isolated prepositions” are quite natural and understandable and do no harm to anyone. However, in this case, the question of dampness and fish arises: in normal languages, prepositions are not isolated and do not hang out at the end of a sentence. Spanish speakers, note that the phrase El hombre quien yo llegué con (“The person I came with”) is as natural as wearing trousers turned inside out.
From time to time, a language allows you to do something like this. In one case, we are talking about the Aboriginal language in Mexico, and in the other case, about the language in Liberia. No others. In general, such things are perceived as oddities. But did you know that the same things were allowed in Old Norse and have survived in modern Danish?
We can show all these strange Old Norse influences in one sentence. Say the following phrase: That’s the man you walk in with. It is strange because 1) the definite article does not have a special masculine form to match the word man; 2) there is no ending in the verb walk and 3) you do not say “in with whom you walk”. All these oddities are due to what the Scandinavian Vikings did in the old days with good old English.
But that’s not all. Streams of words from several other languages have poured into the English language like a fire hose. After the Scandinavians came the French. The Normans – the descendants of the same Vikings, as it turned out – conquered England, ruled it for several centuries, and during this time the English language was replenished with another 10 thousand new words. Then, beginning in the 16th century, educated English speakers began to cultivate English as a medium for a sophisticated writing craft, and therefore it became fashionable to borrow words from Latin to give the language a more sublime character.
Thanks to the influx of new words from French and Latin (it is often difficult to establish the original source of a particular word), words such as crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion have appeared in English. These words are perceived today as quite English, but when they were new, many educated people in the 16th century (and later) found them annoyingly pretentious and intrusive, and this is how they would rate the phrase “irritatingly pretentious and intrusive” …
Think about how French pedants today wrinkle their noses when faced with the flow of English words that penetrate their language. And there were even writers who suggested replacing grandiloquent Latin borrowings with their native English words, and it’s hard not to regret losing some of them: instead of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion, we could have crossed, groundwrought, saywhat and endsay.
However, language tends not to do what we want it to do. The die was already cast: English received thousands of new words, which began to compete with English words for the same things. As a result, we have triplets, which allows us to express an idea with varying degrees of formality. Take, for example, the word “help”: help is an English word, aid is a French word, assist is a Latin word. The same applies to the word “royal”: kingly is an English word, royal is a French word, regal is a Latin one. Notice how these words increase in importance with each new variation: the word kingly sounds almost derisive, regal is as direct as a throne, while the word royal is somewhere in the middle – a worthy but not impeccable monarch.
And then there are twins – they are less dramatic than triplets, but they are funny nonetheless. We are talking about such Anglo-French pairs, as in the case of the word “begin”: begin and commence, as well as the word “desire”: want and desire. Culinary transformations are especially noteworthy here: we kill a cow or pig – these are English words – to get beef or pork, French words. Why is this happening? Probably mainly because in Norman-conquered England, English-speaking workers worked in slaughterhouses and thus served the rich French-speaking and their feast. Different ways of designating meat depended on a person’s place in the existing system of things, and class differences have come down to us in this unobtrusive form.
However, it is a caveat lector because traditional explanations of the English language tend to exaggerate the importance of imported formal levels in our speech. Some believe that only they make the English language uniquely rich. This is the view taken by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in their book The Story of English (1986). In their opinion, the first large borrowing of Latin words allowed people who spoke Old English to express abstract thoughts.
However, no one has quantified wealth and abstractness in this sense (who are these people, people of any level of development, who can testify to the absence of abstract thoughts and even the lack of the ability to express them?) In addition, there is no language known where to designate one concept there would be only one word. In languages, as in human thinking, there are too many nuances – and even ambiguities – for them to remain so basic. Even languages without writing have formal registers. Moreover, in the English language there is a simple word for life, as well as a subtle word for existence, while in the language of the American Zuni aborigines there is an even more subtle word – inhalation.
Even in English, native roots do more than we usually notice. We can judge about the richness of the vocabulary of the Old English language only by the few surviving works. Easier to say, the word “comprehend” in French has given us a new formal reason to say “understand”. However, in Day English itself, there were words that, translated into modern English, would look something like this: forstand, underget, and undergrasp. They all seem to mean “to understand,” but they certainly had different connotations, and it is very likely that these differences involved a certain level of formality.
Nevertheless, the Latin invasion really caused the appearance of certain features in our language. So, for example, it was at that moment that the idea arose that “big words” were more sophisticated. In most of the world’s languages, longer words are not considered “taller” or any special. In Swahili, the phrase Tumtazame mbwa atakavyofanya simply means “Let’s see what the dog does.” If formal concepts insisted on using even longer words, then a Swahili speaker would be required to have superhuman abilities to control their breathing.
The English belief that big words are more meaningful is explained by the fact that French and especially Latin words tend to be longer than words in Old English: compare end and conclusion, walk and ambulate … The many cases of influx of foreign words also partly explains the fact that English words have so many different sources – sometimes several at once within the same sentence. The very idea that etymology is a polyglot’s smorgasbord, and that every word has a fascinating history of migration and exchange, seems quite common to us. However, the roots of the vast majority of words are much more obscure. A typical word might be, say, an early version of the same word – that’s it! Studying etymology is not very interesting, for example, for those who speak Arabic.
In all fairness, it should be said that bastard words are quite common in the world, but the hybridity of the English language is far superior to most other European languages. The previous sentence, for example, contains a mixture of words from Day English, Day Scandinavian, French, and Latin. Another source is Greek: in an alternate world, we would call photography “light painting.” In accordance with a fashion that peaked in the 19th century, scientific concepts were to be given Greek designations. Therefore, we have incomprehensible words denoting chemical elements: why don’t we call monosodium glutamate “single-salt glutamic acid”? But it’s too late to ask such questions. At the same time, such a “mongrel” vocabulary is one of the reasons
And finally, because of this flood of borrowed words, we, native English speakers, are forced to deal with two different ways of stating the stress. Add a suffix to wonder and you get the word wonderful. But if you add an ending to the word modern (“modern”), then this ending will pull along the stress: MO-dern, but mo-DERN-ity, not MO-dern-ity. However, this kind of thing doesn’t happen with wonder, and so we have WON-der and WON-der-ful, as well as CHEER-y (funny) and CHEER-i-ly (fun). However, this does not happen with the word PER-sonal (“personal”) and person-AL-ity (“person”).
So what’s the difference? Is it not that —ful and —ly — Germanic endings, while —ity came to us from France? The French and Latin endings move closer to the stress – TEM-pest, tem-PEST-uous – while the Germanic endings leave the stress alone. You don’t usually notice such things, but this is one of the reasons why this “simple” language is not really simple at all.
Thus, the history of the English language, from the moment it landed on the shores of Britain 1600 years ago, to the present day, shows how the language becomes pleasantly strange. Significantly more events have happened to him than to any related language or any other language on Earth. Here is an example of the Old Norse language taken from the 10th century: we are talking about the first lines from the Younger Edda. These lines in translation mean: “Angry was Ving-Thor / he woke up or he was mad when he woke up”. In Old Norse it is written like this: Vreiðr vas Ving-Þórr / es vaknaði.
And this is how these two lines sound in modern Icelandic: Reiður var þá Vingþórr / er hann vaknaði.
You don’t need to speak Icelandic to understand that the language hasn’t changed much. The word “wrathful” used to be vreiðr, and today it is reiður, that is, it is the same word with a slight difference in the ending. In Old Norse, the word vas meant was (was), but today you need to say var. Small change.
However, in Old English the phrase “Wingtor was angry when he woke up” would have been “Wraþmod wæs Ving-Þórr / he áwæcnede). We can not easily guess that this is “English”, but today we are much further “Beowulf” than the people of Reykjavik from Wingtor.
English is a really strange language. Just look at its spelling. In his highly popular book Globish (2010), its author McCrum glorifies English as a uniquely “living” language, as “a very persistent language that the Norman conquerors failed to suppress.” He also finds English remarkably “flexible” and “adaptable” and is impressed by its “mongrel”, hybrid vocabulary. McCrum simply follows a long tradition of brilliant and powerful praise, which is reminiscent of the Russian idea of a “great and powerful” Russian language, as the 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev called it, or the French idea that their language is uniquely “clear” Ce qui n ‘ est pas clair n’est pas français (“what is not clear is not in French”).
However, we are not inclined to decide which languages are “powerful” and which are not, especially when you consider that some obscure languages spoken by a small number of people can be magnificently complex. The common idea that English dominates the world through “flexibility” suggests that there were languages that could not transcend their tribe because they were mysteriously inflexible. However, such languages are not known to me.
What really sets English apart from other languages is its significant structural strangeness. And he acquired this unusualness as a result of the need to endure the “blows of the sling and arrows of cruel fate,” and also to experience her whims.
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