A Humorous Look at How The English Language Is So Confusing
English Is Confusing
There are approximately 375 million people who speak English as their first language. That makes it the third largest after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It’s the most widely taught foreign language in the world.
English has been the world’s universal language for many years. Much of the world’s business is conducted in English. International treaties make it the official language for all maritime and aeronautical communications.
However, even though the language is widely used, it’s not easy to learn. There are many confusing oddities such as homophones, homographs, homonyms, and inconsistent spellings that conspire to make English difficult to learn and easy to misunderstand.
English originated as a mixture of related dialects brought to England and Scotland by Germanic settlers (the Anglo-Saxons) by the 5th century. Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries brought the influence of Old Norse. In the 11th century, the Norman conquest of England brought a heavy Norman French influence. Throughout this entire time, Latin, being the official language of the Christian church, also had a strong effect on the language.
With such a tumultuous beginning, it’s no surprise that the language developed its share of oddities. Many of the words and rules from the original languages, which frequently conflict, carried over into English grammar. This makes it hard to learn, especially for students of English as a second language.
Homonyms are words that are spelled the same and pronounced the same, but have different meanings. Native speakers usually know what is meant based on the context, but imagine the confusion of someone trying to learn the language for the first time!
Here are some examples.
- A tire is the round rubber thing on a car or what happens to you if you stay awake too long.
- A bat can be a flying mammal or what you use to hit a baseball.
- Change can mean “to alter” or it can be money you get back after a purchase.
- A deck is what you shuffle on poker night or it could be where you relax with a glass of wine on a summer evening.
- A groom is half of the special pair at a wedding or how you keep your horse healthy.
- Gross is excessively icky or it’s twelve dozen of something.
- Hail is chunks of ice falling from the sky or it’s a way to get a taxi.
- Fall is what happens if you don’t watch where you’re going and it’s my favorite season of the year.
- Light can help you see in the dark, be the opposite of heavy, or a way to make your fireworks do something interesting.
- Well can be how you feel after recovering from an illness or it can be the source of your drinking water.
- Bark is what a dog does when a stranger approaches or it’s the protective outer layer of a tree.
Homophones are words that have the same sound as another word but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Here is a short list of examples.
- two/to/too - I’ll give two of these to you, too.
- they’re/there/their - They’re in there studying for their test.
- team/teem - Each of the teams teems with talent.
- horse/hoarse - The horse trainer went hoarse calling out commands all day.
- morning/mourning - The new widower was still in shock, but he would be mourning by morning.
- ads/adds - The savings from all the ads adds up over time.
- baron/barren - The baron never had any children because his wife was barren.
- see/sea - We could all see the ship sinking into the sea.
- coward/cowered - When the fight started, the coward cowered in the corner.
- crews/cruise - The crews on the cruise ships worked hard to make sure everyone enjoyed the experience.
- symbol/cymbal - The drum kit’s manufacturer had its symbol engraved on the cymbal.
Words like these can be very confusing for someone trying to learn conversational English.
Homographs are words that have the same spelling but a different sound and a different meaning:
- Lead means to go in front of or it’s a heavy metal used in car batteries.
- Wind is a gust of air or it’s what you do to an old clock.
- Bass is the deep sound from your stereo or is a type of fish.
- Sow is what farmers do with seeds in the spring or it’s the mother of piglets.
- Wound is an injury, but wound is what a clock is after you wind it.
- A dove is a bird related to a pigeon, but dove is what you did at the pool last summer.
- Close is what you are when you’re nearby, but close is what you do to the freezer door to keep the ice cream from melting.
- A minute is 60 seconds, but something minute is very tiny.
- A record is a vinyl disk containing your parent’s music, but record is what you do to your favorite TV show so you can watch it later.
- Tear means to rip up, but a tear is what falls from your eye when you’re sad.
Negatives Without Positives
In English, the prefixes in- and un- are used to denote the opposite of a base word. For example, insane is the opposite of sane and unsatisfactory is the opposite of satisfactory. However, as these examples will show, these rules don’t always apply.
- “Inert” means (among other things) lacking any chemical reactions. However, there is no word “ert” to indicate the opposite.
- “Inhibit” means to prevent or discourage from doing something. There is no word “hibit”.
- If something is “inverted”, it’s upside down. However, if something is rightside up, it’s not called “verted”.
- I’ve met a number of disgruntled people, but I’ve never met someone that I could call “gruntled”.
- I’ve heard awkward people described as “ungainly” or “inept”, but I’ve never heard someone described as “gainly” or “ept”.
Then there are the words “flammable” and “inflammable”. You’d expect that adding in- to “flammable” would produce its opposite. In this case, they mean exactly the same thing!
Is English your native language?
English spelling “rules” seem more like suggestions than rules. Some words have the same sounds but use different letter combinations to make those sounds. Other words use the same letter combinations, but sound completely different. There are silent letters that are written but not pronounced, and there are lists of exceptions to the various rules.
- The letters “ough” can sound like “uff” as in tough, like “oh” as in though, or like “ot” as in thought. They can also sound like “ow” as in bough or “off” as in cough.
- The long “A” sound can be spelled in a variety of ways such as in pain, weight, great, rein, and mate.
- The long “I” sound can be spelled like in sight, height, align, isotope, bayou, wine, and rhyme.
- The long “U” sound can be spelled as in do, two, flue, flu, shoe, threw, who, loom, duty, or chute.
- There are also silent letters such as the “g” in reign, the “p” in psychotic, the “h” in hour, the “k” in knee, the “w” in write, and the “b” in doubt.
I’m glad I learned all this as a child; this would be difficult to learn as an adult!
“Ghoti” is a word constructed to illustrate the spelling and pronunciation irregularities of the English language. The first published reference to ghoti was in 1874. In this word, the “gh” is pronounced like the “gh” in the word “tough”, the “o” is pronounced like the “o” in the word “women”, and the “ti” is pronounced like the “ti” in the word “nation”. Put that all together, and “ghoti” is pronounced exactly like “fish”.
To Make It Plural, Add An “S” (Sometimes)
Even a simple task like making a noun plural has its challenges in English. Typically, you add an “s” or perhaps and “es” to the end of the word to make it plural as in book/books and box/boxes. They there are slightly odder words where you have to replace the last letter (y) with an “ies” as in lady/ladies and baby/babies.
Then things start to get strange. The plural of “ox” is “oxen”, not “oxes”. The plural of “child” is “children” rather than “childs”. Then there’s tooth/teeth, foot/feet, person/people, mouse/mice (but not house/hice), knife/knives, wife/wives, and goose/geese.
There are even words that are both singular and plural depending on the way they’re used. You can have one deer or five deer, one sheep or a dozen sheep, one species or many species, one moose or five moose (never mooses or meese).
There’s no shortage of examples of odd and curious inconsistencies with English. If you enjoy learning about the language, its history, and how it developed the way it did, I highly recommend the book Mother Tongue - English & How It Got That Way by the author Bill Bryson.
It’s an amusing examination of the history of the language. You’ll learn something and be entertained at the same time.
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© 2014 Ron Bergeron