On English-ish


This actually is because I read a Cracked article about why English makes no sense, and the comments berating it as ugly and broken, difficult and clumsy.

Which it is, let’s be clear. English is a mongrel language, impure in thought and deed, a mishmash of imports, loan-words, dialects and slang. One language superimposed on another, leaving ragged ghosts around the edges of pronunciations, spellings and grammar. Oh, sure, to an extent this is true of all languages, and I’m sure we all think we’re unique. Maybe every language has had a great vowel shift*. Maybe.

It got me thinking, anyway, about English. About how we use it, and how it shapes us. It is, in its** curious little way, a poet’s tongue. I realise I say this primarily because I’m a poet*** and I write in English, but honestly stop making me qualify every statement. I just want to talk for a bit.

It’s because of the strange, pocked history of our language that we have something so rich and fluid. Words that shift meaning depending on vague, unknowable syllable stresses, unremarked upon by their context. We can pound and compound words and phrases together, unrelated in all but form until meaning emerges, unbidden. That word looks like this word, sounds like that word, means the same as those words. Wordplay is a feature, not a bug – as part of the English character as forming an orderly queue (and we can’t even keep the word queue under control).

Rules made up by eccentric monks, rules enforced by invading drunks, a bit of Norse a bit of German, a little Dutch and lots of Norman, Sanskrit and Latin, some ancient Greek, and nonsense terms from modern geeks. The language of Shakespeare and JK Rowling (and I bet that comparison has some howling), a Romance tongue that’s not romantic, with wicked rules for the pedantic. A scrapbook, a montage, one big portmanteau, but still more use than Esperanto.

*And I still don’t really understand that, no matter how hard I try. **Possessive its has no apostrophe! Why is that? Because it’s weird, that’s why. ***I can say this without cringing because… I don’t know why.

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