Weird History
3.1k readers

The Actual Reasons Why English Is So Weird

Updated July 14, 2021 3.1k views14 items

Anyone who has tried to master the English language has probably posed the same question: Why is English so weird? Sure, it's the language of Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, but many parts of English aren't as easily identifiable as the names of these celebrated English-language writers.

If English sounds difficult, that's because it is difficult. Why is English so hard? Filled with inconsistent pronunciations, endless lists of exceptions to grammar rules, and alternative meanings of words that are dependent on context, English is by no means a straightforward language to pick up.

English partly owes its reputation as a strange language to its history. Shaped by other languages, English didn't develop in a cultural vacuum - Germanic and Romance languages, among others, flavored English over the course of centuries. As it adapted over time, its rules, conventions, and spellings changed with it. Chances are good that English will continue to change and adapt over time.

  • Words Are Borrowed From So Many Different Languages

    The English language developed in what is today England. Indeed, the history of England itself shaped the language. 

    England experienced waves of migrations over the course of many centuries, and each new cultural group left an imprint on what became modern English. Germanic groups brought their language traditions beginning in the 400s. A few centuries later, the arrival of Norman invaders brought French words and patterns.

    As English developed, it drew from these and other languages. The Normans alone introduced 10,000 words to English. Besides French words, English has also absorbed words with roots in Spanish - like mosquito - as well as Persian, Chinese, Latin, and Dutch.

    Those different language traditions have brought variety to English - but they've also introduced different spellings, pronunciations, and speech patterns. For example, the introduction of Germanic and French words changed vowel pronunciations. Consequently, two words that have the same letter patterns may not have the same pronunciation.

  • The Exact Same Letter Combinations Can Sound Completely Different

    Some words in English may use the same letter combinations, but that doesn't mean they are pronounced in a similar way. 

    For proof, look no further than words ending in -ough. "Trough," which rhymes with "cough," does not sound like "though" - which rhymes with "snow" - even though their final four letters are identical. 

    Like so much else in the English language, the reason for this can be found in the words' origins. "Trough" has its roots in Germanic words. (Interestingly, it hasn't always been pronounced the same way - it used to rhyme with "loch.") By contrast, "though" comes from Middle English and Nordic languages.

    Due to changes to the language and individual words' origins, the pronunciation can be totally unique.

  • Some Letters Are Sometimes Silent

    It's understandable that people may stumble in their pronunciation of words like "knight" or "knife" - in both instances, the "k" is silent.

    Though they look weird and serve no real purpose any more, silent letters are actually there for a reason - and not just to make life difficult for English learners.

    Most silent letters weren't always silent. In the Middle Ages, Old English speakers would have pronounced every letter in a word - the "k" in knight would have been pronounced. But pronunciation patterns changed, even as spellings didn't change at the same rate.

    Other silent letters were simply added over time for a variety of reasons. According to linguist Ned Halley, scholars sometimes added letters as a knowledge boast:

    As the influence of the Classical world was revived in the 15th century, scholars of English desired to remind their readers that most of the words in the language originated in Latin and Greek. To show off their knowledge that doubt, then spelled "dout" [...] derived originally from Latin dubitare they added the b - and it stuck.

  • 'I Before E Except After C' Is A Fundamental Rule, But It's Not True

    It's arguably one of the easiest spelling rules to remember: "I before e, except after c" is supposed to help people determine whether the "i" or "e" comes first in various words. The only problem? It's not accurate.

    There are so many exceptions - likely 900 of them, to be exact - to the rule to render it more or less useless. Just think of words like "weigh," "neighbor," or "counterfeit" - they certainly don't follow that rule. In fact, this rhyming rule has proven to be so ineffective at teaching spelling that the British education system considers it "not worth teaching" anymore.

    If there are so many exceptions, why does this rule exist in the first place? Advice on the placement of "i" and "e" appeared in grammar texts by the middle of the 19th century.