Folium: English Is Not Normal via Aeon

Folium: English Is Not Normal via Aeon

Folium: English Is Not Normal via Aeon

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I am sure you have noticed, but English is a pretty strange language, and I know many who agree to that statement. John McWhorter is is a professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University. He writes in his article titles “English is Not Normal” about how, well to put it bluntly, English is weird. You may have noticed that the majority of issues native and non-native English speakers face is spelling. Spelling can be a English student’s worst nightmare. McWhorter points out that in other countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. That may sound so peculiar, but that’s because most likely you are reading this because you have grown up an English speaker and have sometimes been required to participate in a spelling bee, correct? Let’s see how else English proves itself abnormal.

What do you do when every letter is silent?

What do you do when every letter is silent?

Spelling has everything to do with writing whereas language is basically about speaking. But the spoken word came about long before writing did. Humans have always communicated through speech but written language took a while to master. McWhorter explains that there is no other language that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without proper training or instruction. What he means by that is that English is so complex in mechanism. For example it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family, the Indo-European, and of all of them English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders.

Why in our crazy language can your nose run and your feet smell? Even in English, native roots do more than we always recognise. We will only ever know so much about the richness of even Old English vocabulary because the amount of writing that has survived is very limited. But from what we do know, we know it’s weird and difficult to fully master by non-native speakers. When we understand a little more where English words derive from it makes it a little easier to understand why we use the words we do but memorizing all of those rules and words is not an easy task. The multiple influxes of foreign vocabulary also partly explain the striking fact that English words can trace to so many different sources often several within the same sentence.

“As if all this wasn’t enough, English got hit by a firehose spray of words from yet more languages” – McWhorter

So what is it that makes English so hard for foreigners to learn? The answer is: the combination of its vocabulary, orthography, and pronunciation. McWhorter concludes his article reinstating that English vocabulary stems from a variety of languages, and forget about trying to spell that vocabulary and good luck on the pronunciation. There is just no escaping the English language. English is the most widely spoken language in the history of our planet. Half of the world’s books are written in English. Sixty percent of the world’s radio programs are beamed in English, and more than seventy percent of international mail is written and addressed in English. Eighty percent of all computer texts, including all web sites, are stored in English. So we will have to learn to live with the weird thanks to its “outrageous history.”

Julie Martin
LEAF Editor & Contributor

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