English is one of the most popular languages in the world, and also one of the most peculiar. It’s a language of aspiration; the language people are most likely to be learning. It’s the language of science, and of many of the world’s most powerful international institutions. Yet it’s not an obvious choice for the role of universal language, thanks to its odd rules and perplexing spelling conventions.
Take the ‘th’ sound for example. It’s considered one of the most challenging features of pronunciation for those learning English. English has a fairly high number of vowel sounds, adding to the pronunciation challenge of new learners. Even more unusually, we have more vowel sounds than letters to express them. The schwa is the most common of these.
Expressed in the vowel sound for words such as ‘the’ or replacing the ‘I’ in ‘decimal, this weak and unstressed vowel is skipped over rather than pronounced; a kind of lazy vowel noise.
It’s massively frustrating for language learners, and it’s a chore to learn which vowels are pronounced as schwa when they are written as any of the five available vowel letters in the alphabet.
No close cousins
English is also quite unique in the sense that it has no real close cousin. Thai and Lao, or Spanish and Portuguese, are two examples where there’s a fairly high degree of mutual understanding between speakers of either language.
English isn’t like that – partly because our language is such a historical mishmash of different language snippets.
Unlike related languages in the Indo-European language branch, English doesn’t bother gendering nouns. Although it’s a fairly perplexing idea that fridges and chairs must be either male or female, English is unique among its European language cousins in not following this convention.
Or to put it another way – English is the first language in its family to have shed this practice. English is thought to have dropped gendering practices from grammar between the 11th and 13th centuries, which coincided with the arrival of Norse settlers in the north of the country.
English isn’t the only language in the world to be grammatically mostly genderless. But there’s one way the language is totally unique and that’s in the way it gives a unique ending to the third-person singular, and only the third-person singular.
Other languages will either give unique endings to the first, second and third person format (such as the French je suis, tu es, il est) or the verbs have no unique endings. English gives a unique format only to the third person (I do, you do, she does).
Other peculiarities include the way we phrase questions. How an English speaker phrases a question is often the best way to reveal whether they are a native or non-native speaker.
Adding question tags to a sentence is one way to turn a declaration (“this is your house”) into an interrogation (“this is your house, isn’t it?”). That’s not a common way of spinning a statement into a question format.
And there are a few other quirks, such as collective nouns; unique names for groups of particular kinds of animal such as a murder of crows or a parliament of owls.
The huge mismatch between English spelling and pronunciation is a cruel trap for anyone trying to learn it as a second language. Silent G’s (gnome, gnat, and gnaw) and silent K’s (know, knead and knit) are puzzling for non-native and native speakers alike.
This is well illustrated by the 18th-century poem, Chaos which complains of the perplexing pronunciation of the language:
“Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,”
When ending a sentence, ‘ough’ can be pronounced at least six different ways, depending on whether you write plough, through, dough, enough, or cough. And we can’t forget the different ways words are pronounced depending on your social class or region of origin, such as ‘scone’, ‘garage’ and ‘bath’.
There are many reasons why we’ve ended up with these eccentricities of language. One theory attempting to explain the shedding of gendered grammar around the 12th century suggests that the convention was dropped to make it easier for bilingual speakers caught between Old English and Norse.
There’s also the mystery of the Great Vowel Shift, a seismic change in how our language was pronounced that may have been driven by population displacement following the Black Death, or possibly by the influx of French loanwords.
English has evolved through the throwing together of different language populations, such as the arrivals of groups of Angles, Saxons and Jutes among the native Celtic populations.
These groups spoke languages that were very different from the native language and it’s probably thanks to this mashup of tongue that we get oddities such as the use of the word ‘do’.
‘Do’ can be used to make a sentence into a question, so whilst most sentences would form a question like ‘Have you got a dog?’ in English, it’s possible to say ‘Do you have a dog?’. ‘Do’ can also be used for emphasis, such as ‘Do help yourself to biscuits’. Such constructions are unique to English and surviving Celtic languages.
As a mongrel language, English is padded out with words that have very similar meanings to one another. ‘Napkin’ and ‘serviette’ are just two examples of words that refer to the same thing. This example is unusual because ‘napkin’ is considered the more refined choice of word rather than the French-derived ‘serviette’.
Generally speaking, it’s the French version of the word that’s considered to be the more refined thanks to the period of British history when French nobility dominated the poorer English-speaking serfs. ‘Comprehend’ is a bit fancier than ‘understand’, for instance.
English is a language riddled with eccentricities that form traps for unwary language learners. Not only do these add to the complexities of learning the language, they also make it unique among other languages. English simply doesn’t conform to the same patterns and conventions of other languages in many key areas.