Wednesday, December 23, 2015


“It’s a wonder English ever caught on,” said John McWhorter, “because it’s weirder than just about every other tongue.” English speakers know their language is odd. So do nonspeakers saddled with learning it. In countries where English is not spoken, there are no spelling bees. For a normal language, spelling corresponds to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

Anglophones are not exactly rabid to learn other languages. We’re left like the proverbial fish not knowing it’s wet. Our language feels normal, until you learn what normal really is.

We think it’s a nuisance that other European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason. But it’s we who are odd. Almost all European languages belong to one family–Indo-European–and all of them, except English, assign genders. There is exactly one language whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third-person singular. Why is English so eccentric? What made it this way?

English started out, essentially, a form of German. Old English is so unlike the modern version that it’s a stretch to think of them as the same language. Icelanders can still read stories written in the Old Norse ancestor of their language 1000 years ago, and yet, to an English-speaker’s eye, Beowulf might as well be in Turkish.

When the Angles and Saxons brought Germanic speech to England, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages, today represented by Welsh and Irish. The Celts were subjugated but survived, and since there were only about 250,000 Germanic invaders, very quickly most of the people speaking Old English were Celts.

The next thing that happened was that more German-speakers came across the sea. England was a tiny country and probably looked easy to dominate. That was the 9th century, and they didn’t impose their language. Instead they married local women and switched to English. They were adults and adults don’t learn new languages easily. There was no such thing as school and no media. Learning a new language meant listening hard and doing your best.

Then the Scandinavians arrived and spoke bad Old English. Young people learned what they could, but soon bad Old English became real English, and here we are today. The Norse made English easier. Old English had the crazy genders of a good European language, but the Scandinavians didn’t bother with those, so now we have none. What’s more, the Vikings mastered only the shred of a once-lovely system. They smoothed out the hard stuff. We can display all these bizarre Norse influences in a single sentence, but it’s what they did to English in those days.

Finally, as if all that weren’t enough, English got hit by a fire-hose spray of words from more languages. After the Norse, came the French. They conquered the English and ruled for several centuries, and before long English had picked up 10,000 new words. Then, in about the 16th century, educated Anglophobes developed English as a vehicle for sophisticated writing. They even cherry-picked some Latin words to lend a more elevated tone. English-speaking workers slaughtered animals to serve to the moneyed French speakers at the table.

Thus, English is indeed an odd language and the spelling is only the beginning. Then it becomes peculiar due to the slings and arrows–and caprices–of outrageous history. Now, don’t you wish you hadn’t wondered why English isn’t normal?


  1. That's incredible in short form. I wonder what a course on the language's genesis would be like. I'd sign up.

    1. Bob:
      I don't know if I'd sign up, but I'd like to know more too.


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