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5 Reasons English is (Supposedly) Weird

15 August 2019

You have probably seen videos showing how “weird” English is or read one of those top-lists stating something like, “top 10 reasons English makes no sense!” They list a number of reasons though, upon careful inspection, you realize that they actually repurpose similar features of the language. They focus on one or two inconsistencies or irregularities in the language as pass them as many, making it seem as though English were, essentially, a nonsensical mess. Let’s look at them with a critical eye.

Snap Language Video

This short video (Franco) covers the information in this article.

REASON 1: Spelling

Inconsistencies in spelling in English is one of the non-linguist’s favorites on the list of reasons the language is “weird.” An example people often mention is the possible sounds for the letters O-U-G-H. Below is a list of the possible sounds in words containing this letter combination.

  • /ʌf/ in enough, rough, and tough;
  • /ɒf/ in cough and trough; /aʊ/ in plough, bough, and sough;
  • /oʊ/ in dough, though, and furlough;
  • /ɔː/ in fought, thought, and bought;
  • /ɜr/ in borough, and thorough; and
  • /u/ in through and slough (when it means a marshy pond).

Although there has been some official and unofficial standardization of some of these spellings as in “hiccup,” “plow,” and “thru,” people resist spelling reforms. For example, although people find it acceptable to spell “through” as “thru,” they would likely resist “faut” or “bought” for “fought” or “bought” That’s probably because the inconsistency in spelling doesn’t really bother people—at least not that much. Once people get used to the supposedly “weird” spelling of a word, they’re fine with it.

The bottom line is that, despite the inconsistencies in spelling in English, it does not cause enough “weirdness” for people to want to “fix it.”

Regardless, from a linguist’s perspective, spelling is just a lot of conventions for (begin bold) one (end bold) aspect of the language: writing. Historical linguists do sometimes look at the spelling of a language because it can be like a fossil that gives you clues about how words used to be pronounced way back in the past.

“Historical spelling,” as in English, happens when a language changes over time, but its spelling doesn’t. That explains, for example, all the silent letters in “knight.” Originally, in Old English, the word was “cniht,” where you pronounced the C with a K-sound and the H with a guttural sound. Over time, the pronunciation changed, some spelling changes took place in Middle English, and we ended up with “knight.” Such a process resulting in historical spelling affected many words in English.

For a linguist, this is the extent that spelling explains features in a language. Nonetheless, historical spelling, which is not unique to English, does not necessarily make a language “weird.”

REASON 2: Homographs

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. They may sound different, as in these examples:

  • "Read" is pronounced /rid/ or /red/ in the present or past;
  • “bass” is pronounced /beɪs/ when it refers to a musical instrument but /bæs/ referring to a type of fish;
  • the stress in the word “content” shifts from the last to the first syllable in “If you’re content with the content of a box.”
  • “minute” is pronounced /ˈmɪnɪt/ in “There are 60 minutes in an hour” but /maɪˈnjut/ in “Bacteria are minute organisms.”

Sometimes homographs are homonyms, that is, they sound the same but have different meanings.

  • No one is fine when they have to pay a fine.
  • The subject of a sentence... the subject of a kingdom.
  • (The county) fair... to be fair.

The next reason is a very similar phenomenon, but they are typically listed as a distinct one in “top-list” articles or videos.

REASON 3: Homophones.

Homophones are spelled differently, sound the same, but mean different things.

  • You put a flower in a vase but flour in a cake.
  • They sell phones. They’re cell phones.
  • My son likes the sun.

How Many Reasons Are These?

Reasons 1, 2, and 3 are mentioned a lot. However, if you look at them closely, you realize that they all have to do with spelling and semantics. Does inconsistent spelling, homophones, and homographs make a language “weird?”

Languages like Dutch, Portuguese, German, Russian, and Indonesian (to name a few) underwent spelling reforms relatively recently to realign their spelling with the spoken language. This shows that historical spelling is not a unique feature of English. In fact, as languages change over time, they eventually end up with inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation.

Homophones and homographs are not unique features of English. Japanese, for example, Japanese has a lot of them. You can find homophones and homographs in many languages.

Homophones in Japanese

  • /aɯ/ can be both 会う (meet) or 合う (fit);
  • /aki/ 開き (opening) or 空き (vacancy);
  • /aɾawasɯ/ 著す (write) or 表す (express);
  • /ha/ 歯 (tooth) or 葉 (leaf);
  • /nami/ 並 (ordinary) or 波 (wave).

Homophones and Homographs in Spanish

  • oro /'oɾo/ (pray) or (gold);
  • la ama /la'ama/ (loves her) or (the landlady);
  • fuiste /fu'iste/ (you went) or (you were);
  • onda, honda /'onda/ (wave) or (deep).

Homographs in Portuguese

  • grama /'gɾɐ̃ma/ (gram) or (grass);
  • rio /'hi u/ (river) or (I laugh);
  • canto /ˈkɐ̃tu/ (I sing), (song) or (corner);
  • manga /'mɜ̃ŋga/ (sleeve) or (mango).

Homographs in Dutch

  • bank /bɑ̃ŋk/ (gram) or (grass);
  • sla /sla/ (river) or (I laugh);
  • naar /naːr/ (I sing), (song) or (corner);
  • lijken /ˈlɛjkən/ (sleeve) or (mango).

Homographs and Homophones in German

  • /'zaɪ tə/ Seite (page, side) or Saite (string);
  • Tor /toɐ/ (gate) or (goal);
  • /'hɔʏ tə/ heute (today), Häute (skins);
  • /stat/ Stadt (city), statt (instead).

The spelling in English is not very phonetic, it has homographs and homophones, and that’s normal in other languages. Then, why would you say English in particular is “weird?”

REASON 4: Irregular plurals

These top lists love bringing up that you say foot, feet but not book, *beek… You say louse, lice and mouse, mice, but you don’t say blouse, *blice or house, *hice.

Again, irregular plurals are not exclusive to English. Take a language like Arabic. Not only does it have dozens of rules for plurals but also many of them are irregular. If irregular plurals is a way to measure how “weird” a language is, then some other languages would be considered even weirder.

When people say, “The plural of goose is geese, so the plural of moose should be meese,” it should not be taken as actual analysis of English. Such a statement is more of a dad joke than a linguistic analysis that should be taken seriously. Nonetheless, many people take it seriously at some level, especially when many videos and articles keep passing these dad jokes for linguistic analyses.

Reason number 5: Inconsistencies in Pronunciation

We have an expectation that words “should” be pronounced a certain way. The word for “apple” is “apple;” if you pronounce it “opal,” it’s a different word. But English has many inconsistencies in pronunciation.

Yet, English has many regional or dialectal differences in pronunciation such as

  • “roof” /ruf, rʊf/,
  • “room” /rum, rʊm/,
  • “envelope” /ˈɛnvəˌloʊp, ˈɑːnvəˌloʊp/,
  • or “pecan” /pɪˈkɑːn, ˈpiːkæn, pɪˈkæn, ˈpikən/.
  • For some people,
    • “merry” and “marry” are homophones /ˈmɛr i/;
    • others, distinguish “merry” /ˈmɛr i/ from “marry” /ˈmær i /.

The superficial way to analyze this is to say English is “weird.” A linguist would put this into context, though. Having many ways to pronounce words doesn’t mean that English speakers use these pronunciations randomly. In fact, people are pretty consistent.

We learn the language in a social and cultural context. If you learned English where people pronounce “pecan” a certain way or say “I’m fixing to go,” you will likely say the same, and so will people in your in-group.

All languages have regional dialects with differences in pronunciation, syntax, phonology, semantics, and so on. These differences can be a nightmare for people learning English as a second language, but dialectal differences among English speakers doe not make the language “weird.” It just means the language is alive. Language changes over time, and it changes differently in different geographical areas. In any language, not everyone sounds alike everywhere.

What seems to be an inconsistency on the surface actually makes sense when you look under the hood and when you analyze the language in context.

What to Make of All This

As you can tell, my top-list is actually an “anti top-list list.” It’s fun to look at the language as a non-linguist and realize that there are inconsistencies in it. Some of them are pretty amusing. But English is no more or less weird than any other language. What seems to be an inconsistency on the surface actually makes sense when you look under the hood and when you analyze the language in context.

If the language were really as inconsistent, confusing, and weird as people make it out to be, we’d have a really hard using and understanding it. If that were the case, the speakers of the language would probably start changing it so that it made sense.

Languages are amazing, and we love English just as it is because of all the puns and Dad jokes we get out of it. But there is nothing unique or weird about it.


Related Topic

Read this article about contronyms, words that have the opposite meaning of themselves. It includes information on how speakers resolve the ambiguity contronyms create and a discussion about the implications for vocabulary learning and teaching.

You can also watch the related video in the Snap Language YouTube channel.


References

Franco, Marc. "5 Reasons English is (supposedly) weird." YouTube. N.p. 15 August 2019. Web. 15 Aug. 2019. https://youtu.be/eTMhNZ9d_mk

Sableman, Paul. Drive Thru. 2018, Photograph, www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/30636839998

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