Library News & Notes: the Development of the English Language

O’Fallon Public Library Director, Ryan Johnson, gives us some insight into the English language from the  October 27, 2021, edition of the O’Fallon Weekly.

A recent episode of the podcast 99% Invisible had me both laughing out loud on a desolate stretch of I-64, and amazed that anyone ever becomes proficient in the English language. The episode is titled “Corpse, Corps, Horse, and Worse” and you can find it anywhere you get your podcasts.

Just looking at the title of the episode, you get a pretty good idea the subject matter. Pronounce each of those four words out loud and the absurdity of English starts to shine.

What’s more, try this exercise: Which of the following words rhymes with enough: though, through, cough, or tough?

This is just one example of the ridiculousness. I’m sure you can easily think of many more.

The fascinating part is why the language is like this. According to a new book, “Highly Irregular” by Arika Okrent, it all has to do with the arrival of the printing press to England in the 15th century and the Norman Conquest of 1066. There were a lot of repercussions following that famous conquest, one of which being that French became the official language of England for a time. All official decrees, laws, deeds, etc, were carried out in the language of the conquerors.

Normal everyday people still spoke English, but the rules became lax and regionalized during this time. When the printing press arrived much later, during the 1400s, English was once again the language of the land. It was, however, still not very formalized. There was no one set of rules you could reference to determine the spelling of anything.

Sometimes, letters even got added to the typeset for the mere purpose of straightening a margin.

If you really want to geek out on this stuff, go listen to the episode or pickup the book. There are far too many interesting details for me to relay here.

One last nugget though, because it is my favorite — The expression to “egg someone on” has nothing to do with eggs. Egg, in this case, comes from the Viking word for edge, as in to “edge someone on at the tip of a sword.” The Vikings had a lot of hard ‘G’ sounds in their language and, for whatever reason, their pronunciation of the word in this one expression lives on to this day.

This all gets me back to my original thought; how does anyone learn this language? I remember being a kid in elementary school questioning everything. Why is a tree called a tree? How did the numbers get their names? Is there water under us and the land is like one big raft floating on the ocean? And so on. But, I never recall asking any of my patient teachers why ‘enough’ and ‘cough’ don’t rhyme.

It’s probably best that I didn’t. Teachers already have too much on their plates.

With all the above being said, Thank You to all the teachers, tutors, parents, grandparents, and other people who help in the language learning process — doubly so for those helping folks learn English as a second language. It’s a daunting language, but somehow, we manage.


Happy Reading! –Ryan


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