The English language is illogical: is it because it’s a mixture of so many different languages?
Have you ever thought of the word eggplant and realized that there’s no “egg” in eggplant, or the word hamburger and realized there is no “ham”? Or perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present,” and thought it was completely illogical?
Examples of Why English Is Illogical
English tends to be a combination of prefixes, suffixes, and borrowed words from several other languages. As a result, we end up with endless combinations of words with unpredictable, sometimes contradictory, meanings.
Freddie filled in his form by filling it out? Why do performers recite a play, yet play at a recital? A slim chance and a fat chance are the same thing, but then a wise guy and a wise man mean completely different things.
It’s no wonder why non-native speakers find English to be so complicated, and why there are so often mistakes made when it comes to translating.
Yes, it’s lunacy, but while some parts of the English language are actually relatively straightforward, such as the fact that nouns only have a single gender, it is the spelling and phonetics that often boggle the mind. There are so many silent letters – knock, knee, knight – and plurals that just don’t make sense.
The plural of ‘box’ is ‘boxes’, yet the plural of ‘ox’ is ‘oxen’, not ‘oxes’. We see these arbitrary formations happen all the time in the English language, as well as words that sound similar yet are spelt differently, or sound the same but are used in different contexts.
These sentences demonstrate this phenomenon: “The city tip was so full that it had to refuse more refuse,” “The bandage was wound around the wound,” “The market garden was designed to produce produce,” and “To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.”
All of this is a result of language evolution.
Background of the English Language
The English language belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages but has been influenced over the centuries by many different languages. English is considered to be a “borrowing” language and that is why it developed the complexity that you likely find frustrating today.
English can be categorized into three groups: Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), Middle English and Modern English.
The invasion of the three Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) who came to the British Isles in the fifth century A.D from places now known as Northwest Germany and the Netherlands greatly impacted the English language. Their dialects mixed with English throughout the years.
Danes and Norsemen, also called Vikings, later invaded the country. Hence, Old Norse and Latin words are also found in the English language.
The Anglo-Norman French of the dominant class also heavily influenced vocabulary after the Norman Conquest in 1066, according to Merriam-Webster Online.
The Great Vowel Shift
Another major effect on the English language was The Great Vowel Shift, following and likely influenced by the development of the printing press. The irregular spelling of words posed a challenge for the printers, so the printers at the printing press had the English spelling undergo standardization.
However, the cause of “The Great Vowel Shift” is highly debated and this phrase particularly highlights the change in the pronunciation of long vowels to differ more from Spanish and Latin pronunciations.
And, even where there is spelling standardization, there is not necessarily standard English pronunciation. Just think of the amount of times that “ough” can be used in a word and sound completely different! Take Cough, Dough, Bough, Tough and Rough.
The English language gets even more complicated when you consider the differences between the spelling of British English and American English.
This is largely due to Noah Webster, who, in his first American dictionary in 1828, listed words that would all end in “-our” (colour, honour and favour) in British English without the ‘u’. This was reportedly an attempt to remove some of the French influence from the English language.
English continues to develop and change as hundreds of words are added each year, which may or may not actually be helping to decrease the illogicality of the language.
Some of the latest additions added to The Oxford Dictionary in 2014 included: “side boob,” “spit-take,” the abbreviation “cray” (crazy) and “yolo,” which was initially an acronym of You Only Live Once, but is now an actual word. *sigh*