In 1990, author Bill Bryson published a fascinating, often uproarious, account of how an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants developed into the world’s most popular language in The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.
As a high school English teacher for the U.S. Peace Corps in the Philippines, it is both exhilarating and exasperating trying to teach, let alone explain, the intricacies and contradictions of this language to my students. Thanks to Bryson, I’ve now found a way to get their attention — through jaw-dropping trivia and side-splitting laughter.
Below are my favorite excerpts from the book, some of which I adapted slightly for brevity and/or clarity.
Why English Is So Popular
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it seems, try to. English has become the most global of languages, the standard language of business, science, education, politics, and pop music.
For the airlines of 157 nations (out of 168 in the world), it is the agreed international language of communication over the air waves.
The six member nations of the European Free Trade Association conduct all their business in English, even though not one of them is an English-speaking country.
There are more than 3,000 English newspapers in India. More students in China are learning English than there are people in the United States.
What sets English apart from all other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 615,000. But that’s only a fraction of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use today, more than in German (184,000) or French (about 100,000).
English is the only language that has, or needs, a thesaurus. Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books even exist.
English has several advantages over other languages. For example, there are no gender differences and no masculine or feminine nouns like in many other languages. Not only have we discarded problems of gender with definite and indefinite articles, we often discard the articles themselves. We say, “It’s time to go to bed.” In most European countries they must say, “It’s the time to go to the bed.”
English is more concise than many other languages. In Holland, companies commonly have names of 40 characters or more such as the (translated here) Douwe Egberts Royal Tobacco Factory-Coffee Roasters-Tea Traders Incorporated. They have to use fold-out business cards to fit it all in. English, on the other hand, favors abbreviation:
- International Business Machines = IBM
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization = NATO
- Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation = laser
Many languages burden themselves with remarkable complexities. A Welsh speaker must choose between five ways of saying “than.” Finnish has 15 case forms so every noun varies depending on whether it’s nominative, accusative, allative, inessive, comitative, or one of 10 other conditions. Imagine learning 15 ways of spelling “cat,” “dog,” or “house.” In English, “ride” has just five forms: ride, rides, rode, riding, and ridden. The same verb in German has 16.
Some languages lack even the most basic terms. The Romans had no word for “gray.” Irish Gaelic possesses no word for “yes” or “no.” They must use roundabout expressions like “I think not” or “This is so.” Italians can’t distinguish between a “niece” and a “granddaughter.” The Japanese have no articles corresponding to “a,” “an,” or “the,” don’t distinguish between singular and plural, seldom use personal pronouns, have no future tense, and more than half of their sentences contain no subject.
Why English Is So Maddening
One of the great curses of English is jargon, the exclusive language belonging to special groups, often professions, that is often unintelligible to those outside the group. A conference of sociologists once defined love as “the cognitive-affective state characterized by intrusive and obsessive fantasizing concerning reciprocity of amorant feelings by the object of the amorance.” Anyone who’s ever read a legal contract, a military definition, an insurance policy, a computer error message, or a corporate memo knows the hair-pulling frustration of this blight on our language.
If there’s one certain thing about English pronunciation it’s that there’s nothing certain about it. No other language in the world has more words spelled the same way yet pronounced differently. Here are just a few:
heard – beard
road – broad
five – give
early – dearly
steak – streak
ache – mustache
low – how
scour – four
four – tour
paid – said
We pronounce “house” with an “s” sound but say “houses” with a “z” sound. We pronounce “lives” two different ways, which can be particularly perplexing to foreigners when both pronunciations are in the same sentence: “A cat with nine lives lives next door.”
We pronounce many words in ways that are contrary to not only how they’re spelled but the way we think we’re saying them. For example, we think we say “butter” but it’s really “budder.” No one says “looked.” It’s “lookt.” It’s nearly impossible for us to distinguish between “mints” and “mince,” between “prints” and “prince.”
On the other hand, we’re pretty good at perceiving the difference between “that’s tough” and “that stuff,” between “I love you” and “isle of view,” between “gray day” and “Grade A.”
The same words sometimes have contradictory meanings: “sanction” can mean permission to do something or a measure forbidding it. Something that’s “fast” is either stuck firmly or moving quickly. A door that’s “bolted” is secure, but a horse that’s bolted has taken off. If you “wind up” a meeting, you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it. “Trying one’s best” is a good thing but “trying one’s patience” is a bad thing. A “blunt” instrument is dull, but a “blunt” remark is pointed. A person who says “I could care less” means the same as “I couldn’t care less.”
In the sentence “I’m suffering terribly,” suffering is a verb, yet in “My suffering is terrible,” it’s a noun. Both sentences use precisely the same word to express precisely the same idea.
Why can we be overwhelmed or underwhelmed but never semiwhelmed or just whelmed? Why do we say colonel as if it had an “r” in it? Why do we spell four with a “u” but forty without it? A person tells a lie but tells the truth.
English has several ways to express negation with prefixes: a-, anti-, in-, il-, im-, ir-, un-, and non-. It’s exasperating for students to have to memorize that a thing unseen isn’t “unvisible” but invisible. That something that can’t be reversed isn’t “nonpossible” or “antipossible” but impossible. They also must remember that just because a word contains a negative suffix or prefix that it’s not necessarily a negative word: “In” almost always implies negation except when it’s “invaluable.” “Less” is 99% negative except when it’s “priceless.”
Until the 18th century, it was correct to say “you was” when referring to one person. It’s incorrect today. Why? Isn’t “was” a singular verb and “were” a plural one? So why should “you” take a plural verb when the sense is singular?
“I’m hurrying, are I not?” sounds awful, but “I’m hurrying, aren’t I?” is correct even though it’s a contraction of the same words.
“Many” is almost always plural as in “Many people were there,” but not when it’s followed by “a” as in “Many a man was there.”
There’s no reason why any of these should be so.
Random Language Trivia
Estimates of the number of languages in the world usually agree on about 2,700. In many countries, there are at least two native languages and in some, as in Cameroon and Papua New Guinea, there are hundreds. India leads the world with more than 1,600 languages and dialects. The rarest language is Oubykh, once spoken by 50,000 people in the Crimea. But as of 1984, there was just one living speaker remaining, and he was 82 years old.
The Eskimos have 50 words for types of snow – crunchy snow, soft snow, fresh snow, old snow – though curiously no word for just snow. Arabs have 6,000 words for camels and camel equipment. Italians have over 500 names for different types of macaroni, some of which sound exceedingly unappetizing: vermicelli means “little worms,” strozzapreti means “strangled priests.” And what they wash down their macaroni with is equally suspect: muscatel translates to “wine with flies in it.”
What’s the most common vowel sound in English? The “o” of hot? The “a” of cat? The “e” of red? The “i” of in? The “u” of up? It’s none of these. It isn’t even a standard vowel sound. It’s the colorless murmur of “i” in animal; the “e” in enough; the middle “o” in orthodox; the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth vowels in “inspirational.” In fact, it’s at least one of the vowels in almost every multisyllabic word in the English language.
The longest word in English is the name of a chemical substance. It’s too long to write here, but it begins: “methianylglutaminyl…” continues for 1,913 letters…then ends with “alynalalanylthreonilargingylerase.” I don’t know what it’s used for, but it probably would take a hell of a lot of rubbing to get it out of the carpet.