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!

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