Friday, August 08, 2014

English is just weird, man.

AMES Nicoll once famously said of the English-speaking world: "We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." This tendency to shamelessly loot other languages (and to boldly split infinitives if one feels so inclined) has created an overabundance of weirdness in the English language.

For instance, when your friend calls your cell and asks what you're up to, you don't reply with the present-tense structure almost every Romance language follows: "I go to the store." No, English only uses the present tense when it's referring to things you do habitually, as in "I go to the store on Tuesdays." If you want to explain to your friend about your specific, current trip to Trader Joe's, you have to use the present continuous tense and say, "I am going to the store." ...what? Why? Because that's how we do it, is why. Doesn't make a lick of sense. And why is there an extraneous "do" in the phrase "What do you do for a living?" It isn't necessary to make sense of the sentence, but if you leave it out and say "What do you for a living?" it's considered non-standard usage.

Then there are spelling/pronunciation issues. Heaps of them. Since we nick words from all corners of the globe, English rules of spelling and pronunciation (yes, they do exist!) tend to go right out the window. "Cachet," which ought to be pronounced "cash-it" if following English rules, is actually pronounced "ca-shay" since it was borrowed from French. "Nike," the running shoe company, looks like it should rhyme with "bike," but since it's borrowed from the Greek word for victory, it's pronounced "Nigh-key." Likewise, "chimera" looks like it should be pronounced "chim-uh-ra" (and for a very long time I pronounced it that way, not knowing any better), but no, it's another rip-off from Greek: "kye-mare-ah."And in the name of all that is holy, do not get me started on the "ough" combination in English. There are at least ten ways I know of to pronounce this combination of letters (and I've heard each and every one of them, since my surname happens to contain this combination): "uff," "off," "ow," "oh," "aw," "oo," "up," "uh," "ock" and "och." (For the record, the proper pronunciation in our surname is "oh," as in "Oh, I just know I'm going to screw this name up again.")

English plurals are a regular nightmare. Yes, you can add an S to the end of nearly anything and get away with it, but you may have to fiddle around a bit with the stuff that comes before it. If a word ends in a vowel, you usually have to add a silent E as well (tomato = tomatoes). If it ends in an F, you must usually tweak the F to a V (loaf = loaves, half = halves), BUT not always (roof = roofs). Some words don't change at all from singular to plural; you just have to determine which they are from context (sheep, moose, fish, deer). And then there are random plurals (again, borrowed from other languages) like "alumni" and "tableaux" that simply defy description or logic; they just sit there on the page going "THPHPHBPT! Neener!"

Finally, there are a few odd items for which English has no proper word. Consider this: the singular generic term for one animal is a "cat" (plural: "cats.") The male is a "tom," the female a "queen" and the young are "kittens." Now for another common animal: the male is a "bull," the female a "cow" (or if young, a "heifer") and the young are "calves." The plural generic term is "cattle." But what is the singular generic term for one of the commonest farm animals known to man?

Yup. Weird. But I still prefer English over Esperanto.


Fenchurch said...

I actually looked up the cattle thing, but I don't recall what the answer was (it was something weird like "herdbeast" or some such).

And the roof/roofs thing was one of the few spelling issues I had to work to hammer into my brain when I was a kid. It didn't help that I'd encountered hoof/hooves first.

Soozcat said...

Yeah, the only term I've been able to find is "cattlebeast," which I have never actually heard someone use with a straight face.

Chrys Houghton said...

I understood none of that. But then again, where do you think I got some of the grammar problems in the little things I write? Bad grammar doesn't make itself!

MarieC said...

English is indeed crazy! No wonder spelling is so hard for so many.

Stephanie Burton said...

A fantastic book called The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg tells the story of the language from the earliest days of Alfred the Great. Only very few words predate the arrival of the Engs - who were from Germany!
I love that English is such a mix, and it does amuse me when I hear 'English' people yelling at recent immigrants to 'speak English, why don't you?', especially when they are ignorantly using sentences with practically all foreign-origin words!