By: Phoenix Grubbs
February 27th, 2023
This article is part of our Fall 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
When English is someone’s first language, it’s easy to miss all the weirdness that comes with it. From wacky pronunciations to wild grammar rules, English is an oddity among the world’s languages. Its strangeness can be traced to its history and the many other languages that contributed to its formation.
“English has been influenced by so many languages over the course of its history,” said Kate Fedewa, a professional & public writing professor at Michigan State University, with a doctorate in English. “The language itself bears witness to the many people and cultures that English-speaking people have interacted with over the past 1300-or-so years.”
English began developing around 450 AD when the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, invaded the British Isles after the Romans left. The Britons and the Celts, the native inhabitants of the British Isles, found Anglo-Saxon words more useful for everyday life, so they adapted to using Anglo-Saxon vocabulary instead of further integrating their language with Latin. It was not until much later, around 591 AD, that the English language adopted more Latin vocabulary from Christian missionaries after it had already developed its own grammatical system.
English was also heavily influenced by French. “A lot of our political words have French origins, since French was the dominant language of the ruling class in England for much of the Middle Ages,” said Fedewa. French gave English many culinary terms as well. While poor farmers would refer to their livestock as “cows” and “swine” in English, noble people would refer to their meals as “beef” and “pork” in French. This difference stuck with the language, causing English speakers to continue referring to the animals with their old English names and their food counterparts by their French names today.
Of course, it’s all too easy to overlook these huge advancements because native English speakers learn the language as it is without knowing its history. “English is a very complex language!” Fedewa said. “And it has so many dialects. We tend to think of the dialect of English that we speak as just ‘English,’ but there is actually this beautiful, amazing range of Englishes connecting people around the world and also simultaneously making our own version of English unique to our community.”
English sounds strange to non-native speakers because it has more phonemes than many other languages. Phonemes are unique speech sounds, and depending on which dialect of English is spoken, it can have around 44—the majority of languages have around 25 to 30. English also has an unusually large set of vowel sounds, around 11, while most spoken languages have between five and six.
In the Quartz article “Linguists found the world’s ‘weirdest’ languages—and English is one of them,” Adam Schembri, reader in linguistics in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, expanded on this. He said, “English has some comparatively unusual consonant sounds as well. Two sounds, those represented by the ‘th’ in ‘bath’ and ‘bathe’ respectively, are found in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in [the World Atlas of Language Structures].”
English’s phonemes were strongly influenced by Germanic languages. If a native English speaker was told to mimic a German speaker and a Spanish speaker, they would likely find it easier to pronounce German words correctly because German words emphasize harder consonants. Take the English word “disgust” for example. In Spanish, disgust is “repugnancia,” while in German, disgust is “Ekel.” “Repugnancia” uses much softer consonants like “n” and “c,” making it more unusual to native English speakers than the hard “k” sound in “Ekel.”
However, since English has adopted many words from other languages over the years and continues to do so, its number of phonemes has had to expand as well. For example, English has adopted the word “tortilla” from Spanish and the word “dollar” from Dutch. The double “l” phoneme is different in each: “tȯr-ˈtē-yə” and “dä-lər.” Since English has taken both words into its vocabulary, its speakers use both phonemes.
Not only does English sound strange due to all of the languages that influenced it, it has a wacky grammar system. “English has some things in common with Germanic languages, some things in common with Romance languages, and some things in common with other languages as well,” said Fedewa. “The grammatical feature that really sticks out to me about English is how dependent it is on word order—English speakers make meaning of words by subconsciously tracking the structure of our sentences.”
An example of English’s grammatical oddities is the verb construction “do.” English uses “do” to form questions (“Do they know?”), to make a statement negative in connotation (“They do not know”) and sometimes to emphasize another verb (“They do know”). This is because English retained its usage of “do” from the Celtics.
In his article “English is not normal” for Aeon, author and professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University John McWhorter said, “At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses ‘do’ in just this way. Thus English’s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. We’re still talking like them, and in ways we’d never think of.”
Unlike many European languages, English grammar is weird because it isn’t gendered. Old English was gendered like Spanish is today; Spanish words are characterized as masculine or feminine, such as the masculine “el perro” for dog or feminine “la leche” for milk. Over time, Old English transformed into modern-day English, dropping the gendering of words because of the Vikings. When the Vikings integrated into the British Isles and stumbled through trying to speak Old English, their bad, ungendered version of Old English eventually became normalized.
As Great Britain became a global superpower, English spread across the world through colonization and trade. “There are more non-native speakers of English than native speakers,” said Fedewa. Today, English is one of the most common second-languages people learn. It is food for thought that such a weird language became so popular despite its apparent and abundant oddities.
It’s even odder native English speakers often assume one nation should mean one language. This idea comes from the nationalistic notion that English is uniquely tied to only United States or United Kingdom culture.
“That is not how English (or any other language for that matter) works,” said author and professor of medieval studies Jocelyn Wogan-Browne in her article “The English Language Is, and Was, Profoundly Multicultural” for The Public Medievalist. “English, as a language, has always been enriched by contact with other languages. Waves of immigration, as well as conquest into and out of England (and Britain), have ensured that!”
“Nevertheless, nation-state language myths—‘one nation, one language!’—persist,” Wogan-Brown said. “Modern English speakers often inherit a historically shaky sense of how English works, imagining the English language as a single continuous entity with clear boundaries.” These misunderstandings lead native speakers in the US to condemn those who don’t speak Dominant American English, such as people who use African American English Vernacular. The irony of demanding cultural exclusion from an already culturally rich language is lost on them because they don’t understand English’s history.
“English has been the language of the oppressed and the oppressor, a language used to bring people together and to keep people apart,” said Fedewa. “It’s important to learn about the history of our language in order to better understand its role in our present systems of power.”
Phoenix Grubbs is a senior double-majoring in English with a creative writing focus and Professional and Public Writing. They are an aspiring author and copyeditor, and they adore all things fantasy and sci-fi.