Further Learning: A History of Language – Part V – “What’s Up With English? (III)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education after school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

It’s time to talk more about how weird English is again! I’ve been reading from the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English and listening to the podcast Lingthusiasm. Information in this post will primarily be from these sources, unless otherwise stated. Most of this particular post is from Wikipedia, (wo)man’s best informational friend. (I realize some things on Wiki can be wrong. Take all knowledge with a grain of salt. Not just in this post, but also in life.)

And, as always, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction!

What’s Up With English? (III)

Did you know that English-speaking countries are really the only ones that have spelling bees? That’s how fucking dumb (and wonderful) our language is. It’s become a competition for us, knowing how to spell our own language.

That’s it. That’s the post.

…Okay, obviously not.

Today I wanted to talk about LETTERS!!! We’re going to discuss the alphabet and where our letters came from.

I briefly discussed in another post about how our numerals (1, 2, 3…etc.) came from the Arabic numerals. We didn’t have symbols for our numbers, we just used the Roman Numerals (I, II, III…etc.) that came so nicely with our letter system. Europeans adopted the Arabic numerals from Arabic-speakers in North Africa (who, in turn, had adopted these numerals as Hindu-numerals, because they’d originated in India.) I believe they were so quickly adopted, especially with the invention of the printing press, because it was a lot easier to print 1634 instead of MDCXXXIV.

So if we received our numerals from Arabic, where did our letters come from?

The First English Alphabet

Well, as I said with Roman Numerals, our letters are actually from the Latin alphabet. Which is why, if you go to Rome, the letters carved into the stone on the front of the Pantheon look so familiar, even if you don’t know Latin. But that wasn’t the first alphabet that English, as a distinct language from other Germanic languages, had.

English — or I should said, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) — was first written in a completely different alphabet. It was first written in Anglo-Saxon runes, which looked like this:

Rad, right? Not like the “r” rune called “rad” above…I mean like, rad “cool”…you get it.

Anyway, it wasn’t until Christianity came in to England, bringing the Latin alphabet along with it, that it slowly overtook. Then there was that unimportant, kind of forgettable time of the conquest of 1066, the Normans taking over with Anglo-Norman (Old French), and it disappeared all together shortly after.  We have remnants of these runes, like “wynn” which was used for the /w/ sound, which was later used with two Us (uu) in the Latin alphabet as a digraph and this is where we got “double-u” from. (A digraph is two letters together to create one sound, like (th) or (sh).

So, if we then had the Latin alphabet to write with, which was only made up of capital or majuscule letters, why do we have lower case or miniscule letters, too?

To my understanding, over time, when writing with a pen, these letters became much more round and simple. Eventually, it caught on to being normal practice as it was much easier to read words in the miniscule style. They kept important words, like nouns, with a capital, but eventually this dropped off to just proper nouns (although, in German, they still capitalize nouns) and the first letter in a sentence more recently. There’s also some debate about this, that lower-case letters might have existed alongside the original Latin alphabet with all capitals, but were never used together until later. I’m not an expert, so I literally have no idea which is true.

So…English has morphed from one set of languages, changed three times in three major ways, and even changed alphabets. No wonder it’s so difficult to spell.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • I’ve never been one of those people to harp to harshly about literally being used incorrectly. I have in the passed, but I’m above that now. It’s called growth. And knowledge. Because, guess what? Like all of our language, things change and keep changing. Literally is actually a word meant to be used specifically and only when its use is pertaining to the alphabet. That’s why it has the same root as other words like letter and literature. So unless you’re literally talking about the alphabet, literally, you’re still using it wrong. So use it wrong all you like! Nothing matters! We’re all going to die and English will sound different from what it does today. It’s fine! I promise!
  • Just like the runic letter “wynn” became the W, our fun friend “thorn”, or þ, became the (th) sound for a bit. You know what blew my mind while researching for this post? The term “ye olde” is a mistake. The y was the, now unused, letter  þ, but it looked so much like a “y” in old text that it was mistaken for one. It was the. THE olde. So your bookshop, bar, or tattoo is incorrect. I, personally, think this is hilarious.
  • So a digraph is when two letters are used to make a single sound, but a ligature is the actual mushed up letters to create a single symbol, like æ. The “and” symbol, &, the ampersand, is actually a ligature of the Latin word Et, which means and.
  • And, my favorite tweet that has kept me up at night: the alphabet is in no particular order. It’s random. But we alphabetize a lot of things in that order. But it doesn’t actually mean anything. Goodnight!

Good luck sleeping after that!

So, that’s a very, very simplified, amateur explanation of why we write with our current alphabet and where it came from.  That’s all for now!

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Further Learning: A History of Language – Part IV – “What’s Up With English? (II)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education after school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

It’s time to talk more about how weird English is! And I’m not alone in thinking that it’s a nutty language. Everything I’ve read agrees. It’s nuts. Since I’ve mostly moved on from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, I’ve been reading from his other book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.

What’s Up With English? (II)

As I’ve stated, English is not a neat and tidy kind of language. There are many strange words, strange rules, and far too many exceptions to those rules. It’s a mashed up, much-influenced, difficult to understand language. Even I, a native speaker of English, struggle with basic rules and the understanding of words.

I do wonder if this is a universal experience? Do others find that English is a strange, difficult language to understand or learn? Or is it a common experience to find ones own language rather difficult? I’m not sure about any of that.

But I do know that there’s one way to figure out if English really is that weird. And that’s by looking at it’s family.

And guess what? It turns out, if you look at the entire sub-family of the Indo-European languages known as the Germanic Languages…English is definitely the black sheep.

English is the Germanic Oddball

Let’s talk about the weirdo of the Germanic languages. If you look at the same sentence in several of the Germanic Languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Icelandic, and others), they appear to be very close in structure and word similarity. The one that jumps out as different is English.

An example:

German: Wo ist meine Tochter?
Dutch: Waar is mijn dochter?
Swedish: Var är min dotter?
Icelandic: Hvar er dóttir mín?
English: Where is my daughter?

For the most part, this sentence isn’t too bad. You can see the similar words, the structure is fairly the same with all. But it’s still real evident that English is much different than the others.

Here’s another example that shows it even more:

German: Können wir etwas Gemüse kaufen?
Dutch: Kunnen we wat groenten kopen?
Swedish: Kan vi köpa några grönsaker?
Icelandic: Getum við keypt grænmeti?
English: Can we buy some vegetables?

I mean…English barely looks even similar. You can see the connections and similarities between the other languages easily, even when the structure of the sentence and the words appear switched around. But with English? They barely look related at all.

Why is English so different? In the previous post about English, I talked about the influences on English because of several factors (the Vikings invading, the French taking over, and the general Latin makeover that was given by scholars) and these are some of the main reasons English is so different.

We know these languages are all connected by tracing back to earlier language groups and finding similarities. Take the word daughter, like above. In the others, we have Tochter, dochter, dotter, and dottir, which we know came from the Proto-Germanic word, daukhtrô. These are all similar to English’s daughter. (Side note: the ‘gh’ sound was once a ‘k’ sound, which is why the word “eight” is spelled the way it is, even though it comes from the Latin octo. So with the ‘gh’ it is still similar to German’s Tochter and Dutch’s dochter, even if it’s no longer said with the same sound.)

But what about English words that are completely different from the others? Well, we have those influences to thank. For example, in German, Dutch, Swedish, and Icelandic, there’s Eingang, ingang, ingång, and innganga. In English, instead of the similar Old English ingang, we have the word entrance, from French. And because of all those influences on our language, it looks much different from its cousins.

Also, I’m sure there’s a bunch of other reasons those sentences, and the languages themselves, look so different. But those are the ones I know for sure.

So what else is English doing so different?

Well, do and -ing is what it’s doing.

English speakers use the words do and did and does a lot. And we’re kind of the only ones who use these words that regularly? To my understanding, many languages don’t even have equivalent words. We have a so many ways to say, “I didn’t write” or “I did write” or “Did you write?” But other languages don’t have the same “did” in those sentences. In French, they’re simply, J’ai écrit to mean “I wrote” instead of “I did write” (which is obviously the same meaning in English, only there isn’t a distinction between them in French) and Avez-vous écrit? means “Have you written?” instead of “did you write.” There’s no equivalent sentence of “did you write?” because they just don’t say it that way. We have two different ways of saying it, but because “do” and “did” are more of an English thing. We say it in more than one way: one is more formal, “Have you written?” and one less formal, “Did you write?”

Within the same example, English tends to use the ending –ing in the present tense. If asked what you are doing, in English you’d say, “I’m writing” but in French you’d say, J’écris which means “I write.” Of course, French has a more specific sentence if needed to say “I am currently writing” is Je suis en train d’écrire.

You know what language does like doing the whole –ing thing? Celtic languages. Do you know was spoken around the area of and islands of England? Celtic languages. Did you know that most linguists think that English just…coincidentally does the same thing? And we didn’t get it from the Celts? They believe that all the Celts were completely wiped out during the invasion and it is impossible that they influenced the language. It makes no sense, but it’s true. It makes the most sense that, as McWhorter puts it, “While the Vikings were mangling English, Welsh and Cornish people were seasoning it.”

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • Recently, I saw a tweet on Twitter by @JohnRossBowie that said, “People who learn English as a second language are fucking superheroes could you imagine looking at the word ‘yacht’ […] and not just giving up” which immediately made me laugh and then think, where in the hell did yacht come from? So I googled it and it turns out, it’s from the Dutch word jaghte, from jaghtschip which means “fast pirate ship” from jag(h)t meaning ‘hunting’ and schip meaning ‘ship.’ Honestly, they’re SUPERHEROES. I didn’t know that! I just accepted “yacht” as a weird ass word and moved on with my life never even thinking about it. I mean, I’m not rich, so the word yacht rarely arises in my vocab, but still.
  • Speaking of the ‘gh’ sound switching from a ‘k’ sound, have you ever wondered why the names of the months are way they are? Octo-ber should be the eighth month, but it’s the tenth. And in turn, Sept-ember, Nov-ember, and Dec-ember should be the seventh, ninth, and tenth months. Well, you can blame the Romans changing it all up and moving them down to make room for January and February, previously just “winter”, and beginning the year there instead of continuing to begin the year in March like before. Also, they changed the fifth and sixth months, Quintilis and Sixilis into July and August (named after Julius and Augustus).
  • In Old English, the word for man was guma and the word for woman was cwēn, which is where we got the word queen. Which is awesome. However, because the -n was an object ending, it often turned into guman…which isn’t the origin of the word human? At all?? Human is from homo in Latin and later humaine in French, but I AM UNCONVINCED that there wasn’t a tiny influence somewhere in England??? It’s just too close to be a coincidence??? I’ll do more research and get back to it. Probably. If I remember. It’s probably just a coincidence. But still.
  • Because of those influences from the Viking invasion, French take over, and Latin lovin’ scholars, many of the words we have have synonyms at various levels of classiness (as I said about the English-derived pig versus the French-derived pork in the previous post about English). There’s two versions of begin, the mundane “start” and “begin” from Old English and “commence” from French. We also have a triple threat from each influence in increasing levels of formality: from the Anglo-Saxon ask; the French-derived question; to the Latin interrogate. This makes a lot of sense with the above examples of “Have you written?” being more formal than “Did you write?”

Black Sheep of the Germanics to (Second) Most Spoken Language in the World

English may be the weird cousin of all the Germanic Languages, but it did become the second most spoken language in the world today. Probably for a lot of terrible reasons. I mean, definitely for a lot of terrible reasons. I think we’ll get into colonization soon.

And as always, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction! So long for now!

Further Learning: A History of Language – Part II – “What’s Up With English? (I)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education outside of school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

This post will probably be one of several about English specifically. I expect I’ll be learning more, especially in the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter and The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, as I’m fascinated with the weirdness of English, so I’m definitely going to want to know more and talk about more!

I’ve been reading primarily from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, but I have several books in line to learn from. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.

What’s Up with English? (I)

English is weird. I’m sure other languages are weird, too. But English, my native language, sometimes just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve always wanted to know why certain words are the way they are. Like, why is “bologna” pronounced bel-OWN-ee? Why is “colonel” pronounced k-ERN-al? Or should I be asking why they’re spelled that way? There are so many more things that I want to know about English and I’m on a mission to learn as much as I can about all the weird spellings, rules, and history of it.

To answer those questions, I’ve found out: Bologna is actually Italian, a sausage named after the city in Italy, pronounced boh-LOAN-ya, which probably organically changed to an Americanized, easier pronunciation of buh-LOAN-ee over time. The spelling, for the most part, remained — except for those who changed it, sounding it out to “baloney,” which is also accepted as correct. As for colonel…or coronel…it’s still confusing. Basically, it comes from both French and Italian, and over time we acquired military terms from them, with interchanging spellings and pronunciations (like the word actually being three syllables and both ‘o’s were pronounced to be “col-o-nel” and “cor-o-nel“). And both spellings were used for a while in English. Eventually, we just stuck with the French pronunciation but the Italian spelling remained as a dumb-ass compromise. The second ‘o’ pronunciation was later dropped over time and it was just a weirdly spelled, two-syllable word. You can read about it here.

A Brief History of the English Language

As I said in the last post about language, all languages around the world are connected and derived from a singular (or several similar) language. Over time, with migration and other factors, one language because thousands. An early language to many of the European/Western Asian languages is Indo-European, a language branch that split up into many other branches. One of these branches is the Germanic branch of languages.

What’s part of the Germanic branch? Well, English, German (duh), Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Scots, Frisian, Icelandic, and a few others.

English has a close relation to Frisian, but was heavily influenced by other Germanic languages, Norse, French, and Latin, which is why so many modern words are derived from so many different other languages. There’s even more than just those listed above.

Essentially, there’s four stages of English after the Germanic split from the main Indo-European language. From Proto-Germanic, one of the many languages to come from it, and is the earliest form of English as its own language, is called Old English. This early version of English was spoken in the early Middle Ages (550 – 1066 CE). This is what Beowulf was first written in. During this time, around the year 787, Vikings invaded speaking Old Norse (ancestor of Scandinavian languages) and brought early versions of the words again, get, both, same, skirt, and sky into the language.

After Old English, the language transitioned into what’s called Middle English, spoken from about 1200 – 1450 CE. This is the version of English in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. After the French won against England and took over in 1066, many words from the French invaders remained in the English language just like the Viking’s Old Norse. This is where we received thousands of words like, flower, debt, people, change, wait, chair, tax, music, and beef. And, speaking of “beef,” one of my first introductions into learning about language was from this video by Lindsey Williams, in which she explains why there’s different words for the meat of an animal versus the animals themselves (beef/cow, mutton/sheep, pork/pig) and it blew my mind.

After Middle English came Early Modern English, spoken during the time of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible, from 1500 to 1700 CE. Around this time, is when scholars, as Lindsey Williams in the second video of hers below says, just kind of put letters wherever they wanted for the hell of it. In McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, he calls this the “Latinate” layer, where they were including more Latin derived words.

And that brings us to the latest version of English, Modern English! (Or, Late Modern English? I don’t know, we speak differently than we did in the Early Modern English phase, so I’d assume it should be its own era at this point.) It’s what I’m typing in right now. It’s been spread around the world (sometimes forcibly pushed on people, which ain’t great) and has become one of the most spoken languages in the world.

Will there be another version of English, as it changes and morphs through time? I’m not sure. Again, I’m not an expert. But there’s already so many dialects of Modern English, and it’s safe to say that they’ll continue to change on their own through each generation. It’s very clear that English today is much different from the English spoken just 100 years ago.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • The evolution of the alphabet is WILD. As a graphic designer who knows a bit about typography and letterform, seeing the evolution of how the shapes of our (Latin) alphabet is so cool. It’s so interesting to see the slight and large changes, to see how some letter branches off of each other, like “F” and “Y” having the same origin, and later the “V” splitting into “U” and “W”, is about the greatest thing I’ve ever learned. That’s right up my alley. That’s my jam.
Matt Baker, UsefulCharts.com 
  • And speaking of form, have you ever wondered where the shapes of our numbers came from??? Because I sure never did until I was taught in design school that the origins of our number forms (1, 2, 3, 4…etc.) came from Arabic!
  • Another fun fact I’ve learned, is that “English” words “shampoo” and “bungalow” are from the language of Hindi, one of the main languages spoken in India (also an Indo-European language). I’m sure there are others, but I think it’s interesting that so many words in English aren’t even originally our words, but they become so common, most English speakers don’t even realize it!
  • AND THIS IS MY FAVORITE FACT! I actually threw the book after reading this one. Are you ready? You’re not ready. Unless you already know. But have you ever wondered why there’s “warm” and “warmth,” and “grow” and “growth,” but there’s only “slow” and not “slowth”…well that ain’t true. It’s sloth. Because of the sound and semantic changes from “slowth,” sloth is really now only used in a moral context as one of the capital sins and, of course, the adorable animal.

That’s all for now

English is a weird language, but as it’s my native one, of course I’m fond of it. I’m real excited to learn more and will hopefully have a second part specifically about English soon, but until then, my next History of Language post will be about…DIALECTS, PIDGINS, and CREOLES! No, not the bird.


And of course, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction! So long for now!