Learning another language as an adult can be frustrating. We’re problem-solvers. We look for patterns in language and try to formulate rules. Unfortunately, there’s not always much logic to be found in English.
In his book The Story of English in 100 Words, linguist David Crystal explains why.
“English has been this vacuum cleaner of a language, because of its history meeting up with the Romans and then the Danes, the Vikings and then the French and then the Renaissance with all the Latin and Greek and Hebrew in the background.”
This big mix makes English frustrating, but also fascinating! In this week’s article we’ll walk you through some of the myths and mysteries of English.
At first glance English grammar is a walk in the park. Nouns are easy, they just come in two forms (singular and plural). Verbs are too, they don’t have all the complicated conjugations like some languages. There are some irregular verbs, of course, but once you’ve learnt them, they stay the same whoever you’re talking about!
But take a closer look and you’ll see that things aren’t so simple after all. For example, we often use the present tenses to talk about the future:
And we can use the future tense for something we’re just about to do:
Then there are other forms like inversion, where the subject and auxiliary verb switch places:
Even when you’ve reached a good level of English, don’t be surprised if you struggle to make sense of English place names. They can be utterly confusing!
Some cities in the UK are especially difficult to pronounce and the spelling provides very little help. Have a guess how to pronounce these places below, then click on the link to hear the correct pronunciation for each one.
There are other places in the UK that don’t make any sense at all. Due to the fact that English is made up of a combination of languages, there’s a risk of saying the same thing twice (or three times!). For example, Bredon Hill in England, literally means ‘Hill Hill Hill’!
Check out this interactive map for more interesting British place names and their meanings:
It’s true that in Modern English we don’t divide all nouns into masculine and feminine groups. A house is a thing, an ‘it’ with no gender. But there was grammatical gender in Old English.
Even today, we have words that refer exclusively to someone of a particular gender. For example, we say ‘widow’ for a woman whose husband has died and ‘widower’ for a man whose wife has died. The same with ‘waitress’ and ‘waiter’.
However, gender-specific job titles are being used less and less. Instead of ‘fireman’, we tend to say ‘firefighter’ and ‘policeman’ has been replaced by ‘police officer’.
Have you ever thought about that little -ly at the end of adverbs? You know…like ‘quickly’, ‘carefully and ‘happily’. Well, in fact, it’s an abbreviation of ‘-like’. The long form of the suffix is rare, but it still exists in words such as ‘lifelike’ and ‘childlike’.
And it doesn’t stop there. ‘Like’ comes from the Old English ‘lice’, meaning ‘body’. It’s kind of funny that English adverbs use a suffix relating to the body (-ly), whereas Spanish/Catalan adverbs use a suffix relating to the mind (-mente).
This is a rule of thumb, intended to help with spelling certain words. Following this rule, ‘I’ should always precede ‘E’ (e.g. believe and friend), except when they come after a ‘C’ (e.g. receive and ceiling).
That’s great, but there are so many exceptions that the rule is hardly worth learning. For example, what about ‘eight’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘leisure’…or ‘efficient’, ‘society’ and ‘science’?
Basically, there aren’t any concrete spelling rules for English. So, for every new word, it’s important to check the spelling and learn the right pronunciation. You can do this using an online dictionary like Wordreference.
Frustrating or fascinating?…you decide!
Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.
a walk in the park (exp): something which is easy to do.
utterly (adv): absolutely or completely.
lifelike (adj): representing real life.
childlike (adj): having the qualities associated with a child.
rule of thumb (exp): an approximate way of doing or measuring something.
exp = expression
adv = adverb
adj = adjective