Professor Wu's Rulebook

Why is the English language so weird?


English spelling is undeniably chaotic. There’s an exception to almost every rule, 26 letters have to do the job of around 44 phonemes, and ‘English’ is less its own language than a strange combination and mixtures of myriad other languages both ancient and modern. The linguistic fingerprints of thousands of people can be found everywhere in our orthography. So no wonder people often think of it as being, well, weird (or should that be wyrd?)

Why is this? Well, the wonderful folk over at Mental_floss have compiled a handy little video to explain just this. In words and pictures, they give us a brief history of our weird spelling system and the people who made it.

The story starts with the missionaries who first wrote English – their impression of the Germanic language of the native Anglo Saxons – down as best they could using the Roman alphabet they knew. They made a reasonable job of it – once they’d found extra letters to cope with the pesky Germanic sounds they didn’t have in Latin (such as th or gh).

But the pronunciation changed. This is partly down to the arrival of the French (1066 anyone?), but it’s also because of the various different regional accents spoken across Britain – and because of the choice of letters used by printers using newly invented printing presses.

As the centuries rolled by, the language evolved as reformers began to alter existing spellings, basing their decisions on the Latin and Ancient Greek variations. A couple of centuries later, and words imported from foreign countries were kept more or less as they were. Although, in some cases, as with the word colonel, words were created from two foreign (in the case of Colonel, French and Italian) spellings and pronunciations.

Attempts to standardize and control language have often been aimed at simplifying English – but have had numerous unforeseen implications. Often, language becomes more complicated – not because of new rules; but because of new people and new ideas. What this means for the future of English is that it will continue to evolve and mutate. New words will be added and the meanings of existing words will change.

The reflection of this will be seen in our dictionaries, which reflect popular choices of spellings and words. Think “LOL”, “Selfie” and, last year, the “smiley face” “Emoji”.

In short: the history of English has not yet been written. The one constant of the language that will exist long into the future just as it has been with it through its past, is that it will remain, undeniably, weird.

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