English as she is spoke (and writ)

Of all the world’s languages, English is arguably the richest in vocabulary. It probably has more words than any other comparable language. But it can be a pain to learn.

English is related to Dutch and German, and it shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary with those languages. However, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, it was hugely influenced by Norman French, which became the language of the ruling class, and by Latin, which was the language of scholarship and of the Church.

Consequently, English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the members of the Romance language family to which French belongs. English is also adept at appropriating foreign words and has absorbed vocabulary from many other sources. So it seems that, at the very least, there are some quarter of a million English words, excluding inflections and words from technical and regional vocabularies. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

English clearly has characteristics that are assets on the world stage. For example, unlike other European languages, the gender of every noun in modern English is determined by its meaning and does not require a masculine, feminine, or neuter article. However, in French, the moon is la lune (feminine) while the sun is le soleil (masculine). German is more complicated. The moon is der Mond (masculine), the sun is die Sonne (feminine), while child, girl and woman are das Kind, das Mädchen and das Weib, all neuter. Turnips are female (die Rübe). As Mark Twain noted in A Tramp Abroad, “In German a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Pronouncing English is a perennial problem:

“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.”

Historically, inconsistencies in the English language were gradually ironed out and by 1700 CE English spelling had reached the phonically incoherent jumble we still use today. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) pinned it down and, ever since, English has been spelt by linguistic fiat rather than by phonic rules or common sense. In recent years there have been proposals to “standardise” the spelling of German, French, and Spanish. Fortunately, none has been successful. It is the quirks of a language that make it interesting and keep it alive.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), playwright, socialist freethinker, supporter of women’s rights and advocate of abolishing private property, saw language as part of the class struggle. The complexities of English were an obstacle to reform, so Shaw campaigned to simplify spelling, punctuation, and the alphabet. He, too, failed. Writing the play Pygmalion (1913) – on which the musical My Fair Lady was later based – he claimed in its Preface that:

“The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen.”

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, until one considers the following:

“We’ll begin with a box and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
The one fowl is a goose but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may found a lone mouse or a whole set of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why should not the plural of both be called beeth?
Then one may be that and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural wouldn’t be hose.
And the plural of cat is cats and not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say Mother, we never say Methren,
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim!
So English, I fancy you all will agree,
Is the funniest language you ever did see.”

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