September 2017

Tidbits on the English Language - No. 6: English's Strengths and Weaknesses

When I was a student, I found the following poem (author unknown) that mocked how inconsistent spellings can be in relation to how they are pronounced. Are you familiar with it?

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through?
Well done! And now you wish perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird;
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead --
For goodness sake don't call it 'deed'.
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a 'moth' in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose --
Just look them up -- and goose and choose.

And cord and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart --
Come come, I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I'd mastered it when I was five!

Today, when I did a quick online search, I found many different sources of information related to this poem. (This certainly would not have been possible when I was a student!) The items found included a transliteration of the poem into phonetic symbols, and YouTube videos of the poem being read in American and British English. Incidentally, I found many poems like this that were themed on such inconsistencies between spellings and pronunciation. Listening to a native read such poems and seeing how they are spelled (in subtitles and captions) help non-native speakers confirm the actual pronunciation against a spelling. If you would like to see any of these videos, they should be easy to find through a YouTube search.

Meanwhile, it is also true that English has aspects that can be considered its strengths as a global language.

The first is that unlike other European languages, there is no grammatical gender (masculine, feminine or neutral). That means that one does not have to deal with the complexities of changes, for example, in articles (a/the) or adjective forms depending on the gender of a noun. Noun genders can be quite troublesome for a non-native speaker. For example, in French, "moon" is a feminine noun (la lune), while the "sun" is masculine (le soleil) for no obvious reasons. In German, however, the moon is masculine (der Mond) while the sun is feminine (die Sonne). Child, girl and woman are all gender neutral (das Kind / das Mädchen / das Weib). However, there is no way to explain the reasons behind why a certain gender is used. Noun gender is something that one simply does not have to deal with in English.

The second strength is that English grammar is relatively straightforward, which makes it flexible. The inflection of nouns and adjectives are extremely simple. This flexibility also applies to parts of speech. So, for example, nouns can be used as verbs, and verbs used as nouns. These are things that cannot be done by other European-based languages.
The following are some examples:

- We can bus children to school and school them in English.
- I have to foot it over to the drugstore for some medicine.
- This is my second visit to Osaka during my stay in Japan.

The third strength is that about 80% of English vocabulary was originally borrowed from other languages. This gives English an enormous vocabulary. (You can read more about this in a past column.) The English language was born in the 5th century when various European ethnic groups crossed over to and settled in Britain, and their languages mixed and simplified. That means that the origin of the English language followed development from pidgin to creole. English is not the indigenous language of the British Isles (which was Celtic). Unlike Latin and French, which was used by the upper classes (a minority), English spread from the bottom up, starting with the masses. Because of this, if you study the etymology of words in daily use, you will find that they originated from the languages of a variety of ethnic groups (e.g., Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Dutch and Latin). Even today, there is English vocabulary that has retained the same form as that of words found in various European languages (e.g., German, Yiddish, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish). There are also countless loanwords with origins outside of European languages. They include Hebrew, Arabian, Hindi, Bengalese, Malay, Chinese, Tahitian, Polynesian languages, African languages and the languages of Brazil's indigenous minorities. If you look at how widely English is spoken today and the sheer amount of words and expressions that were absorbed from other regions, you will see that there are characteristics that are not found in other languages.

English continues to be Indianized or Africanized ceaselessly, completely independent of the UK and the US. A language such as English, that incorporates so much diversity, even from cultural aspects, has few equals in history. There is no way to begin to imagine what English will be like in a century or two.

Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department