May 4, 2021

Oddities of English

Everyone knows English has a vocabulary theft problem. As the joke goes, "English follows other languages into dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets for loose syntax." A crime that is its own punishment, because that makes English spelling a continuous horror, terrifying foreigners and torturing students with the ghastly truth that there are no consistent rules. Much like the Japanese collect writing systems (there are journal titles, in libraries, that have THREE going on at once. Good luck sorting them.) And students of Chinese have the other end of the problem, how do you look up the meaning of a character you don't already know? (They have systems of counting the brushstrokes for the main and secondary characters, and dictionaries organized by this counting system. And they have lookup contests like English has spelling bees, and for much the same reason...)

But what you may not know--

  • English doesn't have a formal vs. informal tense like many other languages do. Currently. It used to, up to and just past the time of Shakespeare. The formal tense is what we speak now. The informal or intimate mode is the "thee/thou" construction now only used in religious contexts.
  • English has a superfluity of words. There is no meaningful distinction between the meanings of "rock" and "stone" except one comes from Old French and the other from Old German. And why did we keep both? Probably poetry. It is handy to have different syllables in the parts bin when constructing sonnets.
  • Some words from Old English are still spoken today. Only a few and in isolated pockets of England, like linguistic pearls formed around grains of sand. We like our odd little words, we do.
  • They used to think spelling was optional during Chaucer's time (Middle English) but then they figured out it was consistent--for the same scribe. Because the scribes would speak as they wrote, and dialects were much more prevalent then than now.
  • English has a secret order for adjectives that native speakers are never taught, we just pick up. If the order is messed up we feel it is "wrong" somehow. It goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. So an "ugly tiny old rectangular brown western oak matchbox" works but "tiny old oak western brown ugly rectangular matchbox" doesn't.