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Why Foreign Languages Can Help Us Better Understand English

By Melanie Hargrave

It's no secret that the English language is not an easy one to learn. The crazy spelling system based more on etymology than sense, the question of which synonym to use where, the way stressing different words in a sentence changes the meaning of the phrase, and the irregular conjugation of verbs are only a few of the oddities that make English such a difficult second language. As native English speakers, we pick up on the irregularities subconsciously. We learn from an early age that the plural of "goose" is "geese," but that the plural of "moose" could never be "meese." And we're fine with it, even though we know that parts of our language don't actually make sense.

But English actually might be more logical than you think. All it takes is a look back at the origins of the language, and the pieces start to come together.

A (Very) Brief History of the English Language

English has a rich and fascinating history. It has evolved continuously from its beginnings back in the 5th century A.D. to its modern usage in blog posts, content marketing, and internet slang. It adds new words and phrases every year, changes the meaning of words to better fit modern society, and drops others altogether. When it began, it looked nothing like the language we speak today.

Old English

Old English began in its oldest form with the migration of several Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) from Europe to Britain in the 5th century. The Brits at that point spoke a Celtic language, but with the arrival of the Germanic languages, it was quickly displaced. By the Norman Conquest in 1066, Latin, Old Norse, and Anglo Saxon were all meshing together to create a whole new language made up of "borrowed words." The Conquest offered the new language French words.

Old English could have easily gone the way of other old languages. Every time kingdoms were conquered by foreign nations, the old language was quickly displaced by the conquering nation's tongue. But English did not succumb to any of its conquerors—instead, it adapted. It welcomed new words and structures, and so instead of dying out, it became stronger.

Middle English

English became Britain's national language again after the reinstatement of an English-speaking monarch, King Henry the IV, in the 14th century. Old English looked nothing like what we speak now, but many words in Middle English are recognizable. Scholars aren't decided on exact dates for this era, but most settle on approximately 1150-1500. Writers like Chaucer and John Gower wrote with Middle English, and during this time period Wycliffe translated the Bible into English for the first time. There was a plethora of local dialects, and words from other languages (such as French) were often used regularly with the Latin-based English. Spelling solidified a little in this era as well.

Modern English

Scholars estimate the beginning of Modern English to be 1500, in about the middle of the Great Vowel Shift that took place from the 15th-18th centuries. English was, of course, much different 500 years ago than the way we speak today. Works from that era like Shakespeare's plays and the King James Bible, however, are in completely recognizable English (albeit "old," although certainly not old compared to the Germanic languages of the 5th century!).

Modern English has evolved linguistically, of course. It is even often separated into an "Early Modern Period" (1500-1800) and a "Late Modern Period" (1800-Present). And the English language is constantly evolving. If you're an internet blogger, you'll write much differently than you would if you worked in Vancouver as a personal injury attorney. You'll use different slang words in the Deep South than you would if you grew up in the Northern United States. British and American English have numerous differences, and not just in the way they form their vowels.

English and Other Languages

English has borrowed words from too many languages to mention in this article, but here's an abbreviated list: Albanian, Balti, Bengali, Cantonese, Croatian, Greek, Mandarin, Punic, Swahili, Yiddish, Ukranian, and of course, French, Latin, and German.

The vast majority of English words are from Latin-based languages, however. That's why English speakers have an easier time learning Spanish or French than they do Korean or Japanese (even though English has borrowed words from them too). Conversely, Europeans find it easier to pick up English as a secondary language than do people who speak Asiatic languages.

But learning a foreign language might just be your first step to better understand why English is the way it is. You'll see similarities to English in any Latin-based language you learn, and the more you pick up on the vocabulary, structure, and grammar of other languages, the more you'll see where English got all of its crazy rules from.

After all, English isn't really its own language. It might be called "the global language" by some, and it certainly looks like it's heading that way. But it's really more a blend of the world's languages. That is, perhaps, why it's survived as long as it has when so many other languages have gone extinct over the centuries.

The plural of "moose" will never be "meese." But that doesn't mean that English doesn't make sense; you just have to go outside the language itself to find reason. By the time you've gone back in time to the 5th century and traveled around the world, English as a whole still might not make sense…but at least you'll understand where all of the pieces came from.

About the writer

Melanie Hargrave is a wife and homemaker whose family is her pride and joy. She loves studying language and history, and loves studying anything to do with English, even law from companies like Taylor and Blair. She also loves playing sports and spending time with her husband and daughters.

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