The English Language (2)

English is a western Germanic language, but it is influenced by just about every other language in the world. The most influential tongues were Latin, Greek, and French, but we English speakers have picked up words and expressions from most of the other languages known to man. And as we have added to our language, we have, at the same time, uprooted any sensible set of rules about how we pronounce our words. The way we say our vowels is exemplary. The letter “a” can be pronounced aa (as in “nasty”), ah (as in tardy), uh (as in about), or it can be silent (as in read). The letter “e” can be pronounced as eh (as in “bet”), ee when doubled (as in “feet”), uh (as in “brother”), and so on. We have two letters, y and w, which can sometimes act as vowels, sometimes as consonants. Then we have diphthongs combining vowel sounds. Beyond them are the consonants. The rules for how to pronounce consonants run to pages.

In short, our pronunciation rules are voluminous and make little sense. My favorite example of English inconsistency is the way we pronounce the vowel-consonant cluster “ough.” You can prove my point by saying aloud tough, through, though, thought, and cough.

All the languages I have worked in other than English follow strict spelling and pronunciation rules. As far as I know, English is unique in its failure to systematize its usage. That makes learning to spell in English a major challenge, even for native speakers. That in turn makes it probably the most difficult language in the world to learn for speakers of other languages. Learning vocabulary in English means memorizing spelling/pronunciation for every single word in the language.

So I have another reason to be grateful that English is my native tongue—I’m spared the struggle to learn it. And English’s rampant inconsistency explains why our children must spend years in school learning to speak and spell words in their own native language.

So here I am in English. It’s mine, and, like it or night, I’m its.

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