THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

I am sorry for those who have to learn English as non-native speakers of the language; the pronunciation alone must be a puzzle to them, not to mention its many other illogical features. Spanish is spoken exactly as it is written, which certainly isn’t the case with English. You may try to guess the correct pronunciation of English words, and sometimes you may be right – but with many words you would be hilariously wrong. Though and thought are only one letter different, but in sound they are quite separate; even the initial ‘th’ is pronounced differently. The ‘gh’ is another conundrum; from the entirely reasonable ghost to the entirely unreasonable hiccough its tough! 

This brings us to the vexed question of homonyms, homophones and homographs. There is no unanimity about the precise difference between these words, but broadly homographs are words spelled the same but having different sounds and meanings; the metal ‘lead’ and a ‘lead’ as clipped to a dog’s collar are examples of homographs. Homophones are words which sound the same but you spell differently, like the metal ‘lead’ and to be ‘led’ astray. Homonym can refer to both homophones and homographs. I cannot say if there is another term for those words that both sound the same and are spelt the same (i.e. homonyms), but have different meanings; like ‘spelt’ (i.e spelled) and the grain ‘spelt’.  I don’t believe that most languages are quite so complicated and confusing.

Before Dr Johnson produced his lexicon there was no generally recognised source to go to for instruction on the correct spelling (and meaning) of English words; there were several alternative ways to spell the more complex ones. One need only read Chaucer to get an idea of how the language has developed. There have been frequent the attempt to reform the spelling of English in the last three centuries, and this became formalised in America with Noah Webster’s spelling books produced in  the early 19th century. Many of these reforms did not catch on in England, but the loss of the final ‘k’ in words like publick and logick certainly did; but quite why it has remained in such words as sick and quick is not entirely clear. The foreign origins of such words as academick may explain this, as Latin (from which they come) has no letter k. As far as the sound is concerned, there is no difference. Although the dropping of the ‘u’ from words like colour and neighbour took root in the US, soop (soup) and tung (tongue) never did, despite Webster’s attempts to popularise these spellings.

It’s not just the sounds and spellings that words have that confuse us; the meanings too differ greatly according to which side of the Atlantic you are. Take the concept of army vets; in Britain this could well refer to members of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. In America this could only be veterans of the armed forces. Cell phones versus mobiles, standing in line versus queueing, pavement or sidewalk; these are but a few of the diverging ways the language had developed across the pond.

English pronunciations, meanings and spelling are hard for foreigners to pick up, but English grammar on the other hand probably confuses native speakers more than foreigners. Most European languages require a certain awareness of grammatical constructs to formulate sentences, but few English words are inflected. That means they do not change according to their case, tense or mood. An exception is ‘I’ and ‘me’, and this causes endless trouble to us Brits (or we Brits!); if I mentioned that these words were the subject or object of a sentence respectively your eyes would start to glaze over, and if I said nominative and accusative you would probably need to have learnt some Latin to know what I was talking about. I have even heard the Prince of Wales saying that ‘It is a great honour for my wife and I’; it should of course be ‘It is a great honour for my wife and me’. Few people would say that ‘it is a great honour for I’ but for some reason the inclusion of another person in this sentence makes most Britons lose all sense of verbal rectitude.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

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