7 reasons why English is a messed up language

While the amount I write here might lead one to imagine I do nothing else, I do in fact have a day job. I teach English as foreign language.

That’s forced me to think about my own language from the point of view of an outsider (more specifically that of a Vietnamese ten year old). And that brought me to a realisation of just how strange it is. Indeed, in some regards it is positively sadistic.

Don’t get me wrong it could be worse. For starters, we don’t use tones or grammatical gender and we have an alphabet where letters (somewhat) correlate with sounds rather than having a different character for each word as Mandarin does. The result is that we have 26 letters rather than the thousands. And there are only really five ways to conjugate a verb in English.

But what English gains through the simplicity of its rules, it loses in their inconsistent application:

IRREGULAR VERBS – not a peculiarly English problem by any means but it’s annoying nonetheless. There is no reason beyond inertia that the past tense of build should be built rather than builded. As irregular verbs by definition lack an internal logic, pretty much the only way to learn them is by rote.

HOMOPHONES – speaking of which why should rote and wrote have the same sound? They are different words with different words, so why in English do we have to guess which one the speaker means from the context? That particular example is pretty niche but there are some more problematic ones. I recently heard my boss ask a student she was placement testing “what do you wear at school?” and he kept trying to tell her the name of his school because to him the question sounded like “where do you go to school?”. This also makes spelling harder: consider how often even native speakers get to, too and two confused.

PRONUNCIATION THAT’S ALL OVER THE PLACE – Homophones exist in part because in English spelling and pronunciation are only weakly correlated with one another. The most obvious example is that c can sound like an s or a k.  There are, however, more subtle ones that I didn’t even notice before I had to start teaching them. My favourite is that in the sentence ‘I ate a pizza in Pisa’ you say the ZZs as an s but the s as a z. My least favourite is that despite both starting with ‘th’, think and the don’t actually rhyme.

POOR S HAS FAR TOO MANY JOBS – If you want to pluralise something in English you generally add an s to the end. But you also do the same to indicate possession. And, an awful lot of the contractions like it’s and let’s result in a word with an s as the final letter. This is in addition to words like James and analysis that naturally end in s for no functional reason.

This gets especially confusing when two of those functions are required simultaneously. Its really ought to be it’s but can’t be because that’s also the contraction of it is.

WE MOVE THE STRESS ALL OVER THE PLACE – No less an authority than the British Council states: “There are patterns in word stress in English but, as a rule (!), it is dangerous to say there are fixed rules. Exceptions can usually be found.” This matters more than one might initially think because wrongly stressed words can be hard to decode and in some cases (like export) it actually changes the meaning.

OUR VOCABULARY IS PRETTY BYZANTINE – On this point let me quote a rather good post I stumbled across on a teaching blog: “In terms of vocabulary, English is like a patchwork. It is a mixture of (mostly) Middle French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. As a result, there are often different words to express the same idea. For example, one doesn’t speak of “touchy feedback” but of “tactile feedback”, and not of “smelly system” but of “olfactory system” (the system in the body that perceives smells). If you do something using your hands, you don’t do it “handily”, you do it “manually”, and the “green” electricity you may be using doesn’t come from “sunny plants” but from “solar plants”.

This process results in vocabulary size that is somewhat larger than necessary. This is not a bad thing per se; it adds some expressive power to English and makes it a good starting point for learning other European languages. However, in combination with English pronunciation and spelling problems, this can be a huge nuisance to learners, especially since spelling of such words usually reflects the original spelling in the language of origin, not their contemporary English pronunciation.”

IT’S NOT CLEAR WHAT CORRECT ENGLISH ACTUALLY IS – Any widely spoken language will have multiple variants. What is frustrating about English is that there isn’t an obvious default for learners to go to. It would be odd for someone without a good reason to learn to speak German like they were from Bern rather than Berlin. Yet learners can have strong and contradictory preferences regarding whether they want to learn American or British English. If they move schools or teachers they may go from learning one to the other. The obvious differences in vocabulary and pronunciation are relatively simple to paper over. It’s the less noticed differences in grammar and idioms that are fiddlier to sort.

This is a problem that’s likely to get more complicated in the near future because there’s a good chance that people may soon want to start being taught Indian English or Globish.

I feel rather differently about these final two points than I do about the first five. English’s labyrinthine vocabulary and its global subsets are not just annoyances that could theoretically be jettisoned without harm; they are an indispensable part of its richness. They make English harder to learn than some Esperantoesque construction yet they also make it far more worthwhile to do so.

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3 thoughts on “7 reasons why English is a messed up language

  1. Let’s take this one point by point.

    While the amount I write here might lead one to imagine I do nothing else, I do in fact have a day job. I teach English as foreign language.

    IRREGULAR VERBS – not a peculiarly English problem by any means…
    Correct! Too bad he doesn’t realize the same thing applies to most other things on his list as well.

    HOMOPHONES – speaking of which why should rote and wrote have the same sound? They are different words with different words [sic], so why in English do we have to guess which one the speaker means from the context?
    Dude, have you ever looked at French?
    That particular example is pretty niche but there are some more problematic ones. I recently heard my boss ask a student she was placement testing “what do you wear at school?” and he kept trying to tell her the name of his school because to him the question sounded like “where do you go to school?”.
    What? Those two sentences don’t sound the same at all!

    PRONUNCIATION THAT’S ALL OVER THE PLACE – Homophones exist in part because in English spelling and pronunciation are only weakly correlated with one another.
    Isn’t that the same point as above? Are you stretching this list out because you couldn’t actually find seven reasons why English is a messed–up language? Wait a minute, the URL says “5 reasons”! This means two reasons must have been added later! And you still need filler?
    My favourite is that in the sentence ‘I ate a pizza in Pisa’ you say the ZZs as an s but the s as a z.
    Really? You pronounce “pizza” the same way as “pisser”?
    My least favourite is that despite both starting with ‘th’, think and the don’t actually rhyme.
    I know what he’s trying to say here, but he phrased it very badly. “Think” and “the” wouldn’t rhyme even if the digraph th were pronounced the same way in both words.

    POOR S HAS FAR TOO MANY JOBS – If you want to pluralise something in English you generally add an s to the end. But you also do the same to indicate possession. And, an awful lot of the contractions like it’s and let’s result in a word with an s as the final letter.
    Oh, please! In Polish, an a at the end of a noun can mark the genitive singular, the accusative singular, the nominative plural, the accusative plural, and the vocative plural.
    The German definite article der can mark the nominative singular, genitive singular, dative singular, and genitive plural.
    This is in addition to words like James and analysis that naturally end in s for no functional reason.
    Does this guy think other languages assign no more than one function to a letter, and then that letter can’t be used unless it fulfills that function?
    This gets especially confusing when two of those functions are required simultaneously. Its really ought to be it’s but can’t be because that’s also the contraction of it is.
    No, the reason its isn’t it’s is because possessive adjectives don’t receive an apostrophe. That’s why you don’t write “hi’s” or “he’r.”

    WE MOVE THE STRESS ALL OVER THE PLACE
    Yawn! Take a look at Russian.
    This matters more than one might initially think because wrongly stressed words can be hard to decode and in some cases (like export) it actually changes the meaning.
    Depending on whether you emphasize the first or second syllable of the German verb umfahren, it either means that you drove around something or that you ran it over.

    OUR VOCABULARY IS PRETTY BYZANTINE – On this point let me quote a rather good post I stumbled across on a teaching blog: “In terms of vocabulary, English is like a patchwork. It is a mixture of (mostly) Middle French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. As a result, there are often different words to express the same idea. For example, one doesn’t speak of “touchy feedback” but of “tactile feedback”, and not of “smelly system” but of “olfactory system” (the system in the body that perceives smells). If you do something using your hands, you don’t do it “handily”, you do it “manually”, and the “green” electricity you may be using doesn’t come from “sunny plants” but from “solar plants”.
    All the examples cited show that those words don’t express the same ideas. “Touchy” means “easily offended.” “Tactile” means “relating to touch.” Those are very different concepts, and it should be obvious why you use the latter to describe feedback. Similarly, it should be obvious why you talk of a system that relates to the sense of smell rather than a system that has an unpleasant odor, etc.

    IT’S NOT CLEAR WHAT CORRECT ENGLISH ACTUALLY IS
    Oh boy, I’m not even touching that one!

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      However, I would suggest that in your rush to show off how much linguistics you know you have rather missed the point of this post. It’s not arguing that English is different from other languages. It’s just giving native speakers an idea of some aspects that look strange to an outsider.

      You might want something deeper than that but you are not the target audience.

  2. Pingback: » On English as a National Language

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