The history of Modern English. Why is English so damn hard?

1st February 2016

“I knew you would see the ewe by the trough under the bough of the yew tree as you rode on the road through Worcestershire.”

For a native English speaker, reading this sentence aloud (not allowed!) will create few problems. For everyone else, it demonstrates just how tricky the mother tongue can be.

A 2015 Reddit pole revealed that non-native English speakers find ‘Worcestershire’ the trickiest word in the English language to pronounce, closely followed by choir and squirrel!

Not only are our place names often ridiculous (Ryme Intrinseca anyone?), but we also have a passion for homophones (you/ewe/yew, rode/road, aloud/allowed), whilst we change the pronunciation of the same letter combinations apparently at will (trough/bough/through). For added spice, we also sneak in a healthy smattering of silent letters, so as to differentiate between true English disciples and trainee knights.

It’s little surprise then, that as a second-language English speaker, you’re (not your!) feeling a little bamboozled.

But why, as the world’s third most widely spoken language , is English so complicated to learn, and what can you do to help master the intricacies of this ancient tongue?

All-conquering heroes.

English, like so many of today’s European languages, is an amalgamation of the languages spoken by the various invading forces which colonised the British Isles in the thousand or so years following the Roman conquests of AD 43. With each new conquest, our language developed, taking on strong influences from the dominant tongues of the invading tribes.

The fact that Britain was invaded multiple times by disparate tribes from Europe and Scandinavia, is one of the main reasons why our language has evolved to become one of the most complex and intricate of modern-day tongues.

Ye Olde English

Some 1,500 years ago, the invading Angles brought their Germanic language to these largely Celtic and Roman shores. They were followed by the Saxons and the Jutes whose languages were also derived from ancient Germanic traditions. Over time, Britain’s native Celtic tongues retreated to the fringes of the island where many of them still live on today (Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish and Manx). Meanwhile, the Germanic languages of the invading peoples amalgamated to produce an Anglo-Saxon language which is now known as Old English.

Old English is almost incomprehensible to a modern-day English speaker, but many of its Germanic influences remain, such as in irregular verbs combinations like drink – drank – drunk (drincan - dranc - druncen), and everyday words like heart (heorte), come (cuman) and old (eald).

Baffling place names

What is interesting however, is that while very few Celtic words seeped into Old English - other than colloquialisms such as brock and tor - many of Britain’s original Celtic place names survived (think Lincoln, Axmouth, Avon and Dover). This is one of the reasons why some of today’s town and village names are baffling for foreigners and second-language speakers; they are derived from an entirely different language.
Enter the Danes and the French
Viking invasions took place in Britain from 793AD right through until the Norman Conquest of 1066. The fortunes of the Vikings waxed and waned in Britain, but their linguistic influences - of Danish, Norwegian and other Scandinavian tongues – made a lasting impression. Many English words used today come from the ancient Norse languages of the Vikings, such as sky, leg, skull, egg, crawl, lift and take.

The Vikings weren’t the only culture to influence our language during this era. When the French-speaking Normans conquered Britain in 1066, Old English was condemned to become the language of the common people, while the new ruling classes spoke only French.

In the 800 years that followed, Old English continued to be widely-spoken, but it gradually took on more and more French influence. Words such as damage, prison and marriage became part of the common parlance. As British society became more settled, many words of French derivation were also used to describe politics, law and religion such as parliament and justice. Middle English (the language of Chaucer) was born.

Why so many synonyms?

What is interesting to note, is that many Old English (Germanic) words - rather than being superseded - continued to co-exist quite happily alongside their Middle English (French) counterparts (think bold/courageous, freedom/liberty). This helps to explain why today’s modern English has such an expansive vocabulary, and why many synonymous words are derived from different linguistic roots, and therefore have conflicting pronunciation rules.

The birth of modern English

Two major changes took place from about 1400 onwards which resulted in a gradual shift from Chaucer’s Middle English, to the modern English we speak today.

The first, was the huge expansion of the English vocabulary due to the introduction of many Latin (and to a lesser extent, Greek) words; these being the languages of education and scholarship. Latin had influenced English since the days of the Roman conquests, but it wasn’t until the Renaissance of the 1500s that Latin vocabulary really began to take hold (think of allusion, democratic, imaginary, juvenile, sophisticated). The influence of Latin increased even further during the Industrial Age of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in the growing fields of learning and science.

The Great Vowel Shift

The second major change of this era, was what is now known as the Great Vowel Shift; a dramatic change in pronunciation which brought about many of the intricacies and irregularities which make modern English so tricky to learn.

The cause of this shift is largely un-known, but gradually, longer vowel sounds shifted upwards - that is, they were pronounced higher up in the mouth. ‘Me’ became what would once have sounded ‘may’, ‘mine’ superseded ‘meen’, ‘sheep’ changed from ‘shape’, ‘house’ from ‘hoose’, and so on.

In addition, the spellings of some words changed to reflect this vowel shift, but many did not, hence why so many words today are pronounced differently from how they’re spelt. In addition, regional variations in vowel shift led to even further inconsistencies in pronunciation and spelling, with many words such as ‘food’ and ‘good’, and ‘move’ and ‘hove’ seemingly rhyming on paper, but sounding entirely different in speech.

Adding yet another level of confusion, this rapidly evolving change in pronunciation, coupled with a rather slower evolution in spelling, gave birth to English’s famous silent consonants (think of dumb, scent, campaign, hymn, knot, castle and so on). And so, modern English arrived.

Modern English – the hybrid tongue

As we have seen, English is not quite as pure a language as some would have us believe, but has been influenced over millennia by derivations of Latin, Greek, German, French, Norse and indigenous Celtic tongues. Coupled with a dramatic shift in pronunciation which began in around 1400AD (with standardised spelling lagging behind by about two hundred years) and regional variations in accent and spelling, it’s easy to see why English has evolved to become rather a complex and contradictory language.

English students – don’t despair

Despite the complexities of the language, it remains a fact that more people are trying to learn English than any other language in the world. It is the language of political negotiation, international business, science, medicine and aviation.

But if you are battling to learn English as a second-language, don’t despair because this is where a working knowledge of phonetics can allow you to grasp the intricacies of English pronunciation without necessarily having access to a native English speaker to guide you.

Phonetics explained

Phonetics is a branch of learning that examines sounds in a language, and describes each separate sound using the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

IPA uses a single symbol to describe each sound, and if a letter in a word is silent, no IPA symbol is used in its transcription. Therefore, if a word is spelt phonetically using IPA, there can be no ambiguity as to its pronunciation, which is hugely helpful to English language students who are trying to master this irregular and often perplexing language.


Next time:
What is phonetics and how will it help you to master the intricacies of English pronunciation.