Why is English so Weird?

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI really love working with advanced learners because we can delve into the history of English. In fact,  for many of the questions that arise, especially surrounding English vocab, I find I usually have no choice but to explain  things in light of history; otherwise, lots of aspects of modern standard English would seem quite random.

A while back I developed a two-hour workshops for advanced learners of EAP on the history of English (and I asked for your help doing it!). I wanted to create a workshop that explained aspects of modern-day English that could seem really strange to learners in light of the history of the language, to show that they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The “OMG English makes no sense!” discourse is quite rampant (here and here are some examples..there are lots more!), even among English language teachers. I wanted us, as teachers, to go beyond the “That’s just the way it is!” response to students’ questions to be able to give them a more informed answer.

The first time I did it it was titled simply “The History of English”. Sounds dry, I know. 🙂 As it was part of a drop-in series of language workshops, the title really has an influence on the attendance, and well, let’s say that there were only a few people who came to the workshop the first time. I changed the title to “Why is English so Weird?”, which is essentially the question that guided the creation of the workshop. More people showed up each time it was offered with that title.

Here are my slides from that presentation. (As with many presentations, the slides may seem a bit sparse without the commentary and accompanying activities, but anyway… 🙂 We talk about and do some activities on language change and old, middle and modern English, Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate vocabulary after the Norman conquest, spelling and spelling reformers such as Noah Webster, loanwords from other languages into English, the Great Vowel Shift and sound to spelling correlations in modern English. I end the session talking about singular ‘they’ as an example of the evolution of language that is taking place right now.

What inspired me to write this blog post is that I recently came across this Wikipedia page on English word with dual Anglo-Saxon and French/Norman variants. This particular aspect of English vocabulary is so important for EAP, as that Latinate/French-origin vocabulary makes up so much of English’s general academic vocabulary as well as much disciplinary vocab. Learners of English whose first language non-European often don’t have a sense of  which words have a Latinate origin and which don’t, so awareness raising around this issue can help them develop a better sense of register and informal/formal vocabulary.

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