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Why is English so Weird?

English tag on bottom of old book

If you’re a native English speaker, you might not have realized it, but English is a mighty weird language—especially when compared with Spanish, German, French, and the other far-reaching European languages. Through a bit of tough, thorough thought, though, you can begin to appreciate how hard it must be for non-native speakers.

So, what gives?

Just How Weird is English?

Every language has its quirks and oddities. English isn’t special because it’s the only language with them; it’s just that it has quite a few more than most. If it were a small, isolated language spoken on a small, remote Pacific island, everyone would just kind of expect it. But it’s the fourth most-spoken first language in the world and the second most-spoken language overall.

Think: is there any other language that you can sort of follow along with even though you’re not a native speaker? Spaniards can understand huge swathes of Portuguese, Swedes can chat with Danes, and Thai people can read Lao. But English? Nope.

So, while it’s easy to find long lists of the problems with English, here are some of the bigger ways in which it’s weird:

  • More vowel sounds. Most languages have five or six distinct vowel sounds, English has 11—and only five letters to represent them. This is part of why words like “though,” “through,” “cough,” and “rough” are all spelled with the vowel pair “ou” but pronounced differently. Australia has three “a” s in it, and they’re all different too.
  • Loads of homographs. A “bat” is both a flying mammal and a piece of sporting equipment. “Fine” can mean a sharp edge, a delicate touch, that everything is well, or that you owe the police some money. Both “bat” and “fine” are homographs: words that are spelled the same way and may even be pronounced the same way, but that have entirely different meanings. English is packed with them.
  • And homophones. Even when words have unrelated meanings and are spelled differently, they may be pronounced the same. Wearing “jeans” is in my “genes,” but please “warn” me if they look “worn.” They’re a real challenge too.
  • Plenty of contronyms. Contronyms are the absolute worst. They’re words that mean two, contradictory things at once—like “clip.” You clip things out of a newspaper and then clip them together. Or you sail your boat fast into a harbor and then make the mooring rope down fast so it won’t blow away. And after you dust your strawberries with sugar, you dust your table to get rid of any sugar that spilled.
  • A weird way to ask questions. Is the sky blue? The sky is blue. In English, when you ask a question, the order of the subject (“the sky”) and the verb (“is”) get flipped. Very few other languages do this. Most, like French and Japanese, add a “question particle” or rely on intonation to indicate that something’s a question.
  • No noun genders. Remember from your French or Spanish classes that nouns have a gender? For example, it’s “un bateau” (a boat, a male noun) and “une maison” (a house, a female noun) in French. While it might seem odd when you learn it, it’s actually English that’s the weird one: it’s nearly unique among Western European languages in not having some kind of gendered noun system.

And that’s just a few of the biggest, easiest to explain issues. There are countless, more subtle ones that would take an entire article to demonstrate. But in conclusion: English is basically just a gigantic mess.

How Did it Get That Way?

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in the 11th Century

Alright, we all accept English is weird—let’s look at how it got that way.

The root language for English, such as it is, is Old English, which is an offshoot of the languages spoken by the Germanic tribes in Northern Europe about 500 years ago. The Romans never conquered much of the area, so it’s distinct from Latin and the Latin-based languages like French, Italian, and Spanish.

The Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic tribes migrated to Britain, bringing with them their language. The Celtic people already on the island took up the lingo but also started to put their own spin on it. This was the first of many outside influences.

Things ticked over for a few hundred years—until the Vikings arrived. They spoke Old Norse, another Germanic spin-off, and as they settled, further corrupted Old English with loan words and grammatical changes. Most people were illiterate so everyone had to learn orally, which messed things up even more.

And the Vikings weren’t the last people to invade/settle Britain. The French-speaking Normans followed in the Eleventh Century and set themselves up as the ruling class. Now latinate words start to mix with the old germanic ones.

Then, in the 1600s, Modern English starts to appear. Literacy is on the rise and educated writers, like William Shakespeare, are coming up with new words as fast as they can. Mostly, they found inspiration in French and Latin words, so they get added to the canon. This is why there are “triplets” of words, such as help (Germanic), aid (French), and assist (Latin), or kingly (Germanic), royal (French), and regal (Latin), that mean much the same thing but have different etymologies. English is now very much its own beast—and keeps growing as such.

As science and the Enlightenment kick off, there’s a trend to add Greek works for scientific concepts. The English conquest of India and North America adds words like loot and chocolate to daily parlance. Words are being added hot and fast, and, really, the process hasn’t stopped since. Just look at the lists of words added to the dictionary each month.

Weird Roots

Again, English isn’t special just because it’s adopted some words from other languages. To a greater or lesser degree, every language adopts loan words. Even the famously resistant French can’t get rid of “le weekend” or “le hashtag.”

What’s unusual about English is just how diverse its roots are. We’re not talking about a few loan words from different languages; the entire dictionary is a hodgepodge of different etymologies. In any English sentence, you will often have words with Old English, French, Latin, and even more obscure roots just mashed in there together. In most other languages, the words will predominantly be from earlier versions of the same language. French comes pretty directly from the Vulgar Latin spoken in Gaul at the collapse of the Roman Empire. Even today, Middle French is somewhat readable to most French people today. Middle English is impossible for any of us to even hazard a guess at.

So there you have it: English’s weird rules, homonyms, contronyms, homophones, vast vowel selection, and other crazy quirks are all a result of how many outside influences it’s taken on throughout its history. It’s not going to change now.

Source: English is Not Normal by John McWhorter.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »