“I before E except after C, or when sounding like ei as in neighbor or weigh”–or if the word is ancient or species? Pronunciation rules that ought to make sense but are tough to learn?
English can be frustrating, even for native speakers. With exceptions to almost every rule and spelling that has nothing to do with pronunciation, English students can be left thinking, “they’re not making any sense with their language there!” How did this happen? Why is English so weird? Here are a few reasons that might help you understand the mind-boggling idiosyncrasies of this odd language.
When the Normans sailed from northern France and conquered Britain, they brought not only a new regime to the island but also a new language as well. Norman-French was the language of the ruling class, and so a number of French words and sounds entered English as a result.
Many of these words relate to governance: “country,” “parliament,” and “judge.” The Normans also brought “leisure” and “pleasure,” along with the /zh/ sound in those words. These words tend to follow different spelling conventions than Anglo-Saxon (Old English) words.
A Massive Vocabulary
With over half a million words, English has the largest vocabulary of any language. By contrast, German has a vocabulary of 184,000 words and French 100,000. Many of these words are borrowed from other languages. To make matters more complicated, English often has multiple words for the same concept, with words of different origins often carrying different connotations.
Words of a Latinate origin can sound more sophisticated (Medieval Latin sophisticatus, “tampered with,” “mixed with a foreign substance”), while words of a Germanic origin often have a more everyday feel (everyday, “ordinary,” from Old English ǣfre + dǣg).
The diversity of the English lexicon makes sense given how many peoples made their way across the English Channel and left their mark on the isles, from the Celts (Celtic languages) to the Anglos, Saxons, Jutes, and Vikings (Germanic languages) to the Normans.
English Spelling Standardization (Or Lack Thereof)
By the time English once again became the official language of England after centuries of Norman rule, the language had changed considerably. New words, new sounds, and new grammatical constructions all had to be accounted for, and English writers solved these problems in any way they saw fit. Manuscripts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (first published in 1387), for example, contain spellings based on character accents rather than on any orthographical standard, so “home” may be rendered as “ham” in the mouth of a northern English speaker and “hoom” in the mouth of a southerner.
Sometimes, pronunciations evolved, but spelling did not. In the Middle Ages, knight was pronounced the way it was spelled, with the “gh” sounding something like “ch” in German. So when the French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail calls Arthur’s men “silly English ka-nig-its,” he’s not too far off from the word’s Medieval pronunciation.
The Great Vowel Shift
The phenomenon most likely to make students of English go “oh I get it now” is the Great Vowel Shift, which occurred roughly between the 1300s and the 1600s. English vowels were once pronounced more or less like Romance language vowels, but over this period of time, the pronunciation of vowels changed into what they are today.
It’s a problem related to the question of spelling standardization. The spelling of words that entered the lexicon earlier congealed around their pre-vowel shift pronunciation, while newer words conformed to newer orthographical standards. That’s why “tomb” and “bomb” sound different. “Tomb” entered the English language around 1200, while “bomb” is first attested in the late 1600s. And it’s why Shakespeare could rhyme “love” and “remove” in “Romeo and Juliet” (1597):
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage
So there are a few reasons English is such a bizarre and difficult language. Understanding the language’s history and recognizing the origin of English words goes a long way to understanding why it is the way it is now and why it continues to evolve so rapidly.
Of course, there is an argument that the standard of language we use today is not what it used to be. It’s certainly not the queens English! (you can hear what that sounds like here) And you should use proper English when you’re out on a date for the first time with a lady when chivalry and good manners might get you the next one.