From the Archives: Why English is Awfulsome

Originally published November 14, 2020.

English is an amalgamation of several different languages. Any given sentence may have words with origins in German, French, Latin, Persian, and various Nordic languages, among others. Add to the United Nations of word origins the loosey-goosey rules governing syntax, punctuation, colloquialisms, contractions, and subject-verb agreement, and the Frankenlanguage you’re left with is a beautiful mess of expression. English is the smartest dumb language out there, and here are (or here’re) a few examples:

You will undoubtedly be able to pronounce read differently than you pronounce read. If you try a bit harder, you may pronounce content (noun) differently than content (adjective). Of course, those pronunciations depend entirely of the meaning of the intended word. This is, however, not always the case. For instance, you might hear advertisement pronounced two different ways depending on where the speaker is from, independent of meaning (because advertisement only has one meaning). Similarly, the multiple accepted pronunciations of compositeharassmentdatavalet, and filet, among others, add to the confusion.

Add to all that the regional words and how drastically they can change depending on location. Pants are what Americans wear to cover their legs; pants are what Brits wear under their trousers. Then there’re the words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same. Totwo, and too, as well as theretheir, and they’re are common examples.

10 Hard Words to Spell in English

Then there’s syntax. As a refresher to your seventh-grade English class, syntax generally refers to the acceptable order in which one can put words to make a coherent sentence. This manifests itself in two main ways. The first is historical. Think of old books and how they are sometimes difficult to understand despite definitely being the same language. Read some Shakespeare, perhaps even more recent and American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Occasionally you will read a sentence and think, “why did he phrase it like that? No one talks like that!”

The second way syntax can be funky is when intentionally manipulated to convey a certain emotion or theme, or to otherwise fit a literary meter. For example, listen to music. Musicians will use passive voice (Google it if you don’t know it because I can feel my audience fading and a discussion of passive voice would put them right to sleep) to be theatrical on occasion. That’s why Yellow Submarine by the Beatles say sky of blue and sea of green instead of blue sky and green sea. But these are generalities. Here is an example I just made up:

An honorable man from the United States, I am, and straight to the point shall I get! This is a grammatically and syntactically correct sentence despite the fact that it sounds absurd when read aloud. Why would someone word a sentence that way when they could say “I’m an honorable man from the United States and I’ll get right to the point”? Probably drama. Maybe they’re just pretentious, though.

On top of all of this is the myriad accents, slang, regional dialects, and accepted incorrections (“you’ve got mail” is not grammatically correct and has bothered me since the Clinton administration), and you have yourself one rat king of a language that is somehow complicated and simplistic, ugly and beautiful, utilitarian and dramatic. Because our language is a veritable melting pot, we are one of the few languages that regularly engages in spelling competitions. We have clever sayings like “i before e, except after c” (which is more the exception than the rule) to help us remember how to spell things. We have silent letters, we have letter combinations that can be pronounced differently, we have at least six ways to describe fried batter (pancakes, flapjacks, flatcakes, griddlecakes, hotcakes, slapcakes), we have words like frenemy and fur baby, we have wonderful hyperbolic phrases like I’m so hungry I could eat a horse, but most importantly, we have about 175,000 wonderfully diverse words to choose from when communicating with each other.

So while English is frustrating when you’re looking through a trough for a draught of thoroughly thoughtful drink you sought to combat the tough drought, and although you may be overwrought and wish to plough through a doughnut until you’ve fought off your rough cough into an afterthought, it is also a beautiful language. If you think it, see it, breathe it, taste it, feel it, or hear it, there’s probably a word for it. And if there’s not a word for it, we’ll just steal a word from the Germans.

1 thought on “From the Archives: Why English is Awfulsome”

  1. Pingback: Quick Hits, Vol. 34 - CosasTotum.com

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