Idiosyncrasies of the English language


John Keogh/ Creative Commons

English has been called one of the most difficult languages to learn from scratch, for numerous reasons.

Daniel Bethke, Perspectives Editor

While I’m no expert by any means, I do consider myself someone who enjoys learning about various languages and their idiosyncrasies. As such, I have come to the conclusion that English is probably one of the least consistent and most difficult languages to learn from scratch. Below is a sampling but in no way the whole of the myriad English inconsistencies that have pained learners, editors and more for years, all of which provide insight into how unique our language really is.

1- “Ough”

There are at least 10 ways to pronounce this, and these are best exemplified by the following sentence: “I thought it would be rough to plough through the slough, though it was falling into the lough that left me thoroughly coughing and hiccoughing.” While, admittedly, many of those spellings are archaic, the varied pronunciations still require an explanation. Of course, English is not unique in having varied-pronunciation sounds like “ough,” but the sheer magnitude of pronunciations is enough to perplex and astonish anyone.

2- Pronunciation changes

Rebels tend to rebel, but what they do not tend to do is be consistent. When compared to the corresponding noun, the verb form of the noun “rebel” is pronounced with an emphasis on the opposite part of the word! You can feel the inconsistency yourself if you switch around the pronunciations: “Re-BELs RE-bel.” Why the verb and noun form grew apart (in many cases, not just this one) is a mystery whose answer I do not know.

3- Verbs and nouns with the same spelling

It is one thing if the verb and noun versions mean roughly the same thing; it is a whole other degree of ridiculous if the verb and noun forms are completely different in meaning and yet completely identical in spelling (yet different in pronunciation! Can you sense the frustration?). “There’s no time like the present to present her with a wrapped present” is one of the more egregious examples, but one can also look to “I wound the bandage around the wound.” While this feature is non-unique to English, it is once again the magnitude that makes English difficult. For another similar quirk of English, take this sentence: “The alarm went off, so I turned it off.” There, “off” means both “activate” and “deactivate,” a most confusing dichotomy. A bonus bonus example comes from the verb “to burn.” A building can both burn down and burn up. And that raises another question; why do we assign directions to the verb to begin with?

4- Plural inconsistencies

English has a love-hate relationship with “ee.” On the one hand, English adores pluralizing “goose” and “tooth” to “geese” and “teeth,” but on the other hand, “moose” does not become “meese and “booth” does not become “beeth.” Virtually every language has multiple forms of plurals, but you would think English would follow patterns it purports to establish. That brings us to item 5.

5- Unfollowed rules

“I” before “E,” except after “C,” right? Hardly. When it comes to neighbors, scientists, theists, freight, weird things, forfeitures, heights, weights and glaciers, this rule is amended to Merriam-Webster’s 102 word version. English frequently establishes spelling rules like these, but they are seldom phonetically consistent or followed. One might claim that most languages have confusing phonetic rules, but most languages are in fact quite phonetic (German, for instance, actually pronounces an “e” at the end of a word). It is due to this disparity between English and other languages that, by some estimates, 25% of all English words are phonetically “contrarian.” Why create or perpetuate “rules” to which we do not adhere?

That said, all of the items above are not to disregard English or some of its nicer features. At least English lacks tones and gendered nouns. Still, regardless of one’s personal views on the matter, it is clear that English is one of the most unique and interesting languages, which always makes it a joy to read.