Why English is so strange

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

Why can you write debt but not det? Why balance sheet and not balans sheet? And why is there often no rhyme or reason to the rules of English?  

The reason is that, along with other British institutions such as the monarchy and Parliament, the English language has endured for centuries by bending with the prevailing wind, absorbing foreign influences and constantly changing while essentially staying the same. How it did so is a story in four parts.   

English started life in the lowlands and small islands off the north coast of the Netherlands, among them Terschelling. Home now to just 4,870 people with houses made of masts from ships wrecked on its shores, it was from here that some of the first Germanic tribes set sail in the 5th century CE for the damp isle of Britannia about 200 miles southwest.   

Stepping into the vacuum created after the retreat of the Roman Empire, the invaders slaughtered and enslaved the Celtic natives, dominating their culture so completely that only a few words of the Gaelic language survive in English today (e.g. Thames and London).   

In their place came the newcomers’ own languages, Old Saxon and Old Frisian, with their earthy words of the farm and home, from which we get stock from the Frisian for tree stump. Many of the most commonly used words in the language today, such as like, the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that and have come from these Germanic roots.   

Within a hundred years, four different tribes of these Germans – the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes – ruled half the land mass in seven kingdoms. The languages developed too, with each tribe speaking its own dialect of what, by then, had become Old English. The Angles, by far the largest tribe, having dominated the north and east, gave their name to the country and the language.  

Then came the second wave of influence: Irish monks in the 7th century who established monasteries, bringing their Latin script with them, with its elegantly curved letters inscribed on parchment. This replaced the runes used by the English – letters with mostly straight lines, etched into wood and used for short messages. 

The monks’ Roman script enabled a more sophisticated and profound use of the language, allowing for the beautifully illustrated manuscripts of Lindisfarne and Jarrow, and epic stories to be written, such as the great poem Beowulf.   

But this flourishing culture of scholarship came under attack in the third wave of influence from the Vikings in 793. They sacked Lindisfarne and took over all but one of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Old Norse, their language, started to dominate and threatened to wipe out Old English.   

Only the kingdom of Wessex in the southwest, led by Alfred the Great, was able to hold them back. The subsequent peace treaty established a border, with Danelaw holding sway over the north and east and English law to the west. Old English began to absorb the language of the Danes – the words that survive are mainly simple, one- or two-syllable words like thrift, law and loan.   

By 1066, the Danes had been kicked out and English King Harold was on the throne when the fourth wave came from France: Duke William of Normandy stormed across the channel and took the English throne that he perceived as his birth right. For the next 300 years, the French conquerors transformed the culture, law and, once again, the language. 

William imposed Norman rules of trade and administration on the country, with official documents in Latin and French, enriching English with its vocabulary, as in the language of money today – interest (from interesse), dividend (divider), supply (soupplier), demand (demander), cost (cout) and price (pris).  

Over the following centuries, the language continued to be enriched through trade and immigration, now with over 300 words from other languages present in English, such as chocolate (from the Aztec language Nahuatl), taboo (Polynesian) and algorithm (Arabic). But at its core, the grammar, syntax and most of the vocabulary used in everyday English have their roots in old German, Danish, French and Latin.  

This mongrel language with layers of ancient influences topped with French and Latin dominance is why accounts have to balance not balans and why we write debt and not det (from the Latin for debitum). As Canadian author James Nicoll said: “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”  

It is why non-native English speakers the world over are baffled by its inconsistencies, stumped by exceptions to pronunciation rules and tripped up by illogical spelling rules. In this, as in so many other matters, a good editor can be your guide.  

 

(This article draws heavily on The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg, published by Sceptre, 2004)