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210

The Illogicality of The English Language

Nov 12, 2021
Language Learning
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21
minutes
Language learning
History of language
English writing
Vocabulary
Great Britain
Weird history

There is a lot about the English language that makes very little sense at all.

In this episode we look at some of these illogicalities, paying close attention to homonyms, homographs, homophones, and even something called lonely negatives.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Illogicality of The English Language.

[00:00:30] If you are listening to this show, you are probably learning English, or perhaps I should say you are engaged in a life-long battle with the English language.

[00:00:41] If you are like many English learners, you have a love-hate relationship with English. 

[00:00:47] There are some parts of English that are so easy - no complicated verb tenses, no tones, a relatively easy grammatical structure.

[00:00:58] So it’s not so difficult to get to an intermediate level.

[00:01:03] But the more you learn, the more you encounter weird rules, illogicalities of the English language, and these will be the focus of today’s episode.

[00:01:15] First, we’ll talk about some of the reasons why English is so weird, because there is a certain logic, or at least reason, to the chaos.

[00:01:25] Then we’ll talk about some of the most confusing elements of the language: homophones, homonyms, homographs and confusing spellings. And finally we’ll talk about something I bet you have never heard of: lonely negatives.

[00:01:41] You might find a few idioms in this episode, but you will be thankful that there will be no mention of phrasal verbs, or at least, that will be the only mention.

[00:01:52] OK then, let’s talk about English.

[00:01:57] Where should we start? Well, perhaps it will make you feel better if I congratulated you for taking on the difficult task of learning English. 

[00:02:08] Why? 

[00:02:09] Well, firstly, this curious language has so many words in its vocabulary. 

[00:02:15] If you include all the scientific words, the total number of words in English amounts to over 1 million, says Global Language Monitor. Even the number in the Oxford English Dictionary is a massive 170,000. 

[00:02:33] Native speakers might know around 40,000 words, although they are likely only to use about half that number. 

[00:02:41] Even 20,000 is quite a challenge. My task is to help you understand a little bit more about why the English language is as strange as it is, and to do that let’s start with an explanation of why English is such a strange language, and how it has changed.

[00:03:01] This will be a little bit of a whistlestop tour, a quick trip through the history of the English Language. If you are interested in exploring this further, I would recommend listening to Episode 134, which goes into this in much greater detail.

[00:03:21] Many of the reasons behind both the complexity and the richness of English can be found in the hybrid or mongrel nature of the language’s development. 

[00:03:34] Like a person with a big and undiscerning or undiscriminating appetite, English has consumed or eaten anything that came its way. 

[00:03:46] No matter if it might already have a perfectly good word for something – like, say, man or farm or cow – it will quickly borrow or take on another word from another language. “Mmm, thank you very much!” it says, and gobbles or swallows the new word. 

[00:04:05] This process means that English is constantly adopting new words and abandoning words which fall out of use. 

[00:04:14] To return to the eating or culinary image, it is voracious - it will eat up anything. 

[00:04:22] And interestingly, unlike languages such as French or Spanish, with L’Académie française, and La Real Academia Española, there is no central body that governs the English language. Like a rampaging bull, or a mutating virus, it is free to do whatever it wants.

[00:04:44] So, to our quick historical tour. 

[00:04:47] The basis of the language comes from the invasion of Britain by the Northern European tribes, known as the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century. 

[00:04:57] The collection of words was then developed further, about 400 years later by a further invasion from even further north, by the Vikings. 

[00:05:09] In addition to these two sets of people invading and then settling in England, there was the so-called Norman Invasion of 1066 which resulted in an infusion of French words, mostly words of Latin origin. 

[00:05:27] Running alongside these massive changes to the language over its early, formative years are some less well-known influences, which are particularly relevant to our story. These have to do with the way in which the language was recorded on paper. 

[00:05:47] In the era before the invention of printing, the people who copied scripts or pieces of paper by hand, known as scribes, would make changes in order to make it easier for people to read their scripts

[00:06:03] For example, in early English, the letters i, n and m were all drawn using a very similar downward stroke of the pen called a minim. This word itself, minim, which is spelled M I N I M, would have looked simply like ten identical downward strokes of the pen. 

[00:06:31] Quite confusing, I think you will agree. 

[00:06:33] So, what did our clever fourteenth century scribes do to help the situation? 

[00:06:41] Instead of changing the way that letters were written, they made some simple changes to spelling. 

[00:06:48] For example the word for the bit of flesh in our mouths, went from being spelt “tunge ” to “tongue”, tongue, so they changed the first “u” to an “o” and added a “u” at the end.

[00:07:09] The change from “u” to “o” made the word easier to read.

[00:07:14] With the arrival of printing in the 15th century, there were more changes made by the people in charge of reproducing the language; in this case, these were the people who set the type – the letters which were used in the early printing press. 

[00:07:32] They made all sorts of changes. 

[00:07:34] For example, the old spelling for a female monarch, “queen”, Q U E E N, the old spelling was “cwen”. 

[00:07:49] These typesetters changed the word to a spelling more in keeping with the higher status language of the relatively recent invaders, the French, resulting in the spelling we know now – “queen”, Q U double E N. A similar thing happened with certain softer French sounds coming into the language, for example, with the soft “ch” sound at the start of “church”. 

[00:08:21] Even now, if you travel North in the British Isles, you will find that in Scotland, this soft “ch-“ sound is not used to describe a place of Christian worship. 

[00:08:34] The Scots, especially in the far north of the country, refer to it as the kirk, with the hard C. 

[00:08:43] The further north you go, the harsher, the more Germanic are the consonants

[00:08:49] Bizarrely, because many of the type setters – the printers – were from the modern day Netherlands, words were spelt using elements of Dutch. 

[00:09:00] For example, an “h” was put into various words, resulting in the modern day spellings of ghost, ghastly and gherkin [which is a small, pickled cucumber that you sometimes find sliced in a hamburger, by the way]. 

[00:09:18] Snobbery, or arrogance, played a part too. With the Renaissance fashion for claiming classical ancestry for words, that's Latin or Greek ancestry for words, certain words were given additional letters in order to show their classical pedigree or origin. 

[00:09:40] For example, the old English word “people” used to be spelt “peple”, without an “o”.

[00:09:50] The word for money that you owe to someone was “det”, but it was thought good to show its Latin origins so a silent “b” was added, hence debt. 

[00:10:05] And the other main historical factor that has added to the confusion of English is that there are simply so many people from so many different countries that speak it, leading to differences in word use and pronunciation.

[00:10:21] OK, that's enough history for now. 

[00:10:24] Let’s dive into our first confusing category of English illogicality, homophones

[00:10:31] If you aren’t familiar with the term, homophone, you will probably be familiar with the concept: a homophone is when two words have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings.

[00:10:45] Now, homophones aren't unique to English, most languages have them, but the sheer volume that exists in English makes it even more confusing, and funny at the same time.

[00:10:59] For example, the number “eight” and the past tense of the verb “to eat” sound exactly the same: “eight” and “ate”. 

[00:11:09] “I ate eight hamburgers”.

[00:11:11] Homophones get even more confusing when you add connected speech in there, and offer a lot of room for misinterpretation, even with native speakers.

[00:11:23] Here's a famous clip from two comedians called The Two Ronnies:

[00:11:27] fork handles

[00:11:33] four candles. Well, there you are, four candles, no fork handles, handles for forks. 

[00:11:57] So, to explain what was going on there, the first guy asked for “fork handles”. The shop assistant heard it as “four”, the number 4, “candles”, but the customer actually wanted handles for forks.

[00:12:15] Moving on, our next category is homonyms, or words that are spelled and pronounced in exactly the same way but can mean two or more completely different things.

[00:12:28] Again, English isn’t the only language where these exist, but it does have more homonyms than most other languages. 

[00:12:37] Some examples might already be coming to mind, but here are a few for you, some which probably will be familiar, others might not be. 

[00:12:48] So, a bat is a small animal that flies in the night, but you can also hit a cricket ball with a bat.

[00:12:57] On the subject of cricket, you might play in a cricket match and you can also light a candle with a match.

[00:13:06] The list goes on, and homonyms in particular offer excellent possibilities for jokes.

[00:13:13] Our third confusing category also begins with “homo”, and it is the homograph. Again, you have probably encountered these, even if you don’t know the word.

[00:13:25] Homographs are two words that are written in the same way, but have two different pronunciations and meanings.

[00:13:34] For example the word that is written “S O W” means “to put seeds into the ground” when it is pronounced “sow” and “a female pig” when it is pronounced “sow”. So... Sow and sow. 

[00:13:53] With this example things get even more confusing when the word “sew”, as in to “sew a dress” is pronounced “sew”, in exactly the same way as the word “so”, but that is a topic for another day.

[00:14:11] English has, unfortunately, tonnes of homographs.

[00:14:16] “B a s s” can be pronounced bass, and it means a type of fish, and bass and it’s a type of musical instrument.

[00:14:28] “T E A R” is pronounced “tear” when it is something that comes out of your eye when you cry, but if you pronounce it “tear” it means to pull something apart by force. And tear rhymes with pair, “p a i r”, meaning two of something AND pear “p e a r”, that delicious fruit AND “P A R E”, pare, which is a slightly strange word meaning to cut away the outside of something.

[00:15:02] OK, if you are feeling a little bit ill and uncomfortable now, I certainly wouldn’t blame you.

[00:15:08] It is complicated!

[00:15:10] You can take heart, you can console yourself in the knowledge that many native speakers get these wrong.

[00:15:19] Our final category of unusual words or illogicalities is something called Lonely Negatives.

[00:15:28] Although this sounds like something from a bad dating site, it is in fact yet more interesting. 

[00:15:36] It refers to words in English where there is only a negative word and the positive version either has never existed or has simply died or disappeared through lack of use

[00:15:49] Remember, in general when you add “dis”, “non”, “un” or “im” to the start of the word, or you add “less” to the end, it normally has the effect of meaning the opposite of the root word.

[00:16:05] For example, approve and disapprove, resident and nonresident, equal and unequal, plausible and implausible, useful and useless. Adding these prefixes or suffixes completely changes the meaning of the word, but in the case of Lonely Negatives, the word exists only in the negative. 

[00:16:31] Listen to this sentence: “The dishevelled man walked nonchalantly forward, holding an unwieldy club. He said: ‘I may look unkempt and disgruntled, but believe me, my manners are impeccable and my will to win ruthless.” 

[00:16:55] So, the words to listen out for there, were dishevelled, nonchalantly, unwieldy, unkempt, disgruntled, impeccable and ruthless.

[00:17:07] What these words have in common is that they do not have an equivalent positive word; for example, taking the first one from my sentence, dishevelled, there is no word in English which means its opposite. 

[00:17:22] It is tempting to think that the word “chevelled” exists and means neat or well turned out, but no it doesn’t. 

[00:17:32] Likewise with “unkempt”, which means untidy or messy, and comes from Old English by the way, there is no longer a word “kempt” meaning neat or literally well-combed

[00:17:46] Just to add an additional annoyance, in the case of the seventh word, “disgruntled,” there was originally a word “gruntled” meaning bad-tempered or grumpy. The prefix “dis-“ is actually an intensifier — in other words it means very grumpy or annoyed

[00:18:07] But, just to save you embarrassment, the word “gruntled” is no longer used. 

[00:18:13] Confusing, right? Well, yes it is.

[00:18:17] There is no getting around the fact that mastering all of these complications is very tricky. Many native speakers have trouble doing it, and given that we all now write by hand significantly less than in the past, and we have become reliant on spell checks and technology to correct us where our brain fails it is going to be even harder for people to know how to spell words correctly, when all they might know is their pronunciation.

[00:18:48] Native speakers always mess up the difference between your “your”, as in this is “your house”, and “y o u ‘ r e”, you're as in “you’re going home”. 

[00:19:03] There is much to love about the English language, and much to well, I won’t say hate, but I’ll say be frustrated by.

[00:19:12] My only advice to you is to take heart, to take comfort, in the fact that you’re certainly not alone, and the native and non-native English speaking population is there struggling with you.

[00:19:26] So next time you pronounce a silent “b”, or you look at the words cough, hiccough, rough, plough, lough, though and through and ask yourself how it is possible that they all end with the same last four letters and are pronounced completely differently, instead of getting worked up and annoyed, just embrace the chaos, and remember that English is a language that really doesn’t make much sense at all.

[00:19:58] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Illogicality of The English Language.

[00:20:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it has given you some comfort about this weird and wonderful language you are learning.

[00:20:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:19] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:30] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Illogicality of The English Language.

[00:00:30] If you are listening to this show, you are probably learning English, or perhaps I should say you are engaged in a life-long battle with the English language.

[00:00:41] If you are like many English learners, you have a love-hate relationship with English. 

[00:00:47] There are some parts of English that are so easy - no complicated verb tenses, no tones, a relatively easy grammatical structure.

[00:00:58] So it’s not so difficult to get to an intermediate level.

[00:01:03] But the more you learn, the more you encounter weird rules, illogicalities of the English language, and these will be the focus of today’s episode.

[00:01:15] First, we’ll talk about some of the reasons why English is so weird, because there is a certain logic, or at least reason, to the chaos.

[00:01:25] Then we’ll talk about some of the most confusing elements of the language: homophones, homonyms, homographs and confusing spellings. And finally we’ll talk about something I bet you have never heard of: lonely negatives.

[00:01:41] You might find a few idioms in this episode, but you will be thankful that there will be no mention of phrasal verbs, or at least, that will be the only mention.

[00:01:52] OK then, let’s talk about English.

[00:01:57] Where should we start? Well, perhaps it will make you feel better if I congratulated you for taking on the difficult task of learning English. 

[00:02:08] Why? 

[00:02:09] Well, firstly, this curious language has so many words in its vocabulary. 

[00:02:15] If you include all the scientific words, the total number of words in English amounts to over 1 million, says Global Language Monitor. Even the number in the Oxford English Dictionary is a massive 170,000. 

[00:02:33] Native speakers might know around 40,000 words, although they are likely only to use about half that number. 

[00:02:41] Even 20,000 is quite a challenge. My task is to help you understand a little bit more about why the English language is as strange as it is, and to do that let’s start with an explanation of why English is such a strange language, and how it has changed.

[00:03:01] This will be a little bit of a whistlestop tour, a quick trip through the history of the English Language. If you are interested in exploring this further, I would recommend listening to Episode 134, which goes into this in much greater detail.

[00:03:21] Many of the reasons behind both the complexity and the richness of English can be found in the hybrid or mongrel nature of the language’s development. 

[00:03:34] Like a person with a big and undiscerning or undiscriminating appetite, English has consumed or eaten anything that came its way. 

[00:03:46] No matter if it might already have a perfectly good word for something – like, say, man or farm or cow – it will quickly borrow or take on another word from another language. “Mmm, thank you very much!” it says, and gobbles or swallows the new word. 

[00:04:05] This process means that English is constantly adopting new words and abandoning words which fall out of use. 

[00:04:14] To return to the eating or culinary image, it is voracious - it will eat up anything. 

[00:04:22] And interestingly, unlike languages such as French or Spanish, with L’Académie française, and La Real Academia Española, there is no central body that governs the English language. Like a rampaging bull, or a mutating virus, it is free to do whatever it wants.

[00:04:44] So, to our quick historical tour. 

[00:04:47] The basis of the language comes from the invasion of Britain by the Northern European tribes, known as the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century. 

[00:04:57] The collection of words was then developed further, about 400 years later by a further invasion from even further north, by the Vikings. 

[00:05:09] In addition to these two sets of people invading and then settling in England, there was the so-called Norman Invasion of 1066 which resulted in an infusion of French words, mostly words of Latin origin. 

[00:05:27] Running alongside these massive changes to the language over its early, formative years are some less well-known influences, which are particularly relevant to our story. These have to do with the way in which the language was recorded on paper. 

[00:05:47] In the era before the invention of printing, the people who copied scripts or pieces of paper by hand, known as scribes, would make changes in order to make it easier for people to read their scripts

[00:06:03] For example, in early English, the letters i, n and m were all drawn using a very similar downward stroke of the pen called a minim. This word itself, minim, which is spelled M I N I M, would have looked simply like ten identical downward strokes of the pen. 

[00:06:31] Quite confusing, I think you will agree. 

[00:06:33] So, what did our clever fourteenth century scribes do to help the situation? 

[00:06:41] Instead of changing the way that letters were written, they made some simple changes to spelling. 

[00:06:48] For example the word for the bit of flesh in our mouths, went from being spelt “tunge ” to “tongue”, tongue, so they changed the first “u” to an “o” and added a “u” at the end.

[00:07:09] The change from “u” to “o” made the word easier to read.

[00:07:14] With the arrival of printing in the 15th century, there were more changes made by the people in charge of reproducing the language; in this case, these were the people who set the type – the letters which were used in the early printing press. 

[00:07:32] They made all sorts of changes. 

[00:07:34] For example, the old spelling for a female monarch, “queen”, Q U E E N, the old spelling was “cwen”. 

[00:07:49] These typesetters changed the word to a spelling more in keeping with the higher status language of the relatively recent invaders, the French, resulting in the spelling we know now – “queen”, Q U double E N. A similar thing happened with certain softer French sounds coming into the language, for example, with the soft “ch” sound at the start of “church”. 

[00:08:21] Even now, if you travel North in the British Isles, you will find that in Scotland, this soft “ch-“ sound is not used to describe a place of Christian worship. 

[00:08:34] The Scots, especially in the far north of the country, refer to it as the kirk, with the hard C. 

[00:08:43] The further north you go, the harsher, the more Germanic are the consonants

[00:08:49] Bizarrely, because many of the type setters – the printers – were from the modern day Netherlands, words were spelt using elements of Dutch. 

[00:09:00] For example, an “h” was put into various words, resulting in the modern day spellings of ghost, ghastly and gherkin [which is a small, pickled cucumber that you sometimes find sliced in a hamburger, by the way]. 

[00:09:18] Snobbery, or arrogance, played a part too. With the Renaissance fashion for claiming classical ancestry for words, that's Latin or Greek ancestry for words, certain words were given additional letters in order to show their classical pedigree or origin. 

[00:09:40] For example, the old English word “people” used to be spelt “peple”, without an “o”.

[00:09:50] The word for money that you owe to someone was “det”, but it was thought good to show its Latin origins so a silent “b” was added, hence debt. 

[00:10:05] And the other main historical factor that has added to the confusion of English is that there are simply so many people from so many different countries that speak it, leading to differences in word use and pronunciation.

[00:10:21] OK, that's enough history for now. 

[00:10:24] Let’s dive into our first confusing category of English illogicality, homophones

[00:10:31] If you aren’t familiar with the term, homophone, you will probably be familiar with the concept: a homophone is when two words have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings.

[00:10:45] Now, homophones aren't unique to English, most languages have them, but the sheer volume that exists in English makes it even more confusing, and funny at the same time.

[00:10:59] For example, the number “eight” and the past tense of the verb “to eat” sound exactly the same: “eight” and “ate”. 

[00:11:09] “I ate eight hamburgers”.

[00:11:11] Homophones get even more confusing when you add connected speech in there, and offer a lot of room for misinterpretation, even with native speakers.

[00:11:23] Here's a famous clip from two comedians called The Two Ronnies:

[00:11:27] fork handles

[00:11:33] four candles. Well, there you are, four candles, no fork handles, handles for forks. 

[00:11:57] So, to explain what was going on there, the first guy asked for “fork handles”. The shop assistant heard it as “four”, the number 4, “candles”, but the customer actually wanted handles for forks.

[00:12:15] Moving on, our next category is homonyms, or words that are spelled and pronounced in exactly the same way but can mean two or more completely different things.

[00:12:28] Again, English isn’t the only language where these exist, but it does have more homonyms than most other languages. 

[00:12:37] Some examples might already be coming to mind, but here are a few for you, some which probably will be familiar, others might not be. 

[00:12:48] So, a bat is a small animal that flies in the night, but you can also hit a cricket ball with a bat.

[00:12:57] On the subject of cricket, you might play in a cricket match and you can also light a candle with a match.

[00:13:06] The list goes on, and homonyms in particular offer excellent possibilities for jokes.

[00:13:13] Our third confusing category also begins with “homo”, and it is the homograph. Again, you have probably encountered these, even if you don’t know the word.

[00:13:25] Homographs are two words that are written in the same way, but have two different pronunciations and meanings.

[00:13:34] For example the word that is written “S O W” means “to put seeds into the ground” when it is pronounced “sow” and “a female pig” when it is pronounced “sow”. So... Sow and sow. 

[00:13:53] With this example things get even more confusing when the word “sew”, as in to “sew a dress” is pronounced “sew”, in exactly the same way as the word “so”, but that is a topic for another day.

[00:14:11] English has, unfortunately, tonnes of homographs.

[00:14:16] “B a s s” can be pronounced bass, and it means a type of fish, and bass and it’s a type of musical instrument.

[00:14:28] “T E A R” is pronounced “tear” when it is something that comes out of your eye when you cry, but if you pronounce it “tear” it means to pull something apart by force. And tear rhymes with pair, “p a i r”, meaning two of something AND pear “p e a r”, that delicious fruit AND “P A R E”, pare, which is a slightly strange word meaning to cut away the outside of something.

[00:15:02] OK, if you are feeling a little bit ill and uncomfortable now, I certainly wouldn’t blame you.

[00:15:08] It is complicated!

[00:15:10] You can take heart, you can console yourself in the knowledge that many native speakers get these wrong.

[00:15:19] Our final category of unusual words or illogicalities is something called Lonely Negatives.

[00:15:28] Although this sounds like something from a bad dating site, it is in fact yet more interesting. 

[00:15:36] It refers to words in English where there is only a negative word and the positive version either has never existed or has simply died or disappeared through lack of use

[00:15:49] Remember, in general when you add “dis”, “non”, “un” or “im” to the start of the word, or you add “less” to the end, it normally has the effect of meaning the opposite of the root word.

[00:16:05] For example, approve and disapprove, resident and nonresident, equal and unequal, plausible and implausible, useful and useless. Adding these prefixes or suffixes completely changes the meaning of the word, but in the case of Lonely Negatives, the word exists only in the negative. 

[00:16:31] Listen to this sentence: “The dishevelled man walked nonchalantly forward, holding an unwieldy club. He said: ‘I may look unkempt and disgruntled, but believe me, my manners are impeccable and my will to win ruthless.” 

[00:16:55] So, the words to listen out for there, were dishevelled, nonchalantly, unwieldy, unkempt, disgruntled, impeccable and ruthless.

[00:17:07] What these words have in common is that they do not have an equivalent positive word; for example, taking the first one from my sentence, dishevelled, there is no word in English which means its opposite. 

[00:17:22] It is tempting to think that the word “chevelled” exists and means neat or well turned out, but no it doesn’t. 

[00:17:32] Likewise with “unkempt”, which means untidy or messy, and comes from Old English by the way, there is no longer a word “kempt” meaning neat or literally well-combed

[00:17:46] Just to add an additional annoyance, in the case of the seventh word, “disgruntled,” there was originally a word “gruntled” meaning bad-tempered or grumpy. The prefix “dis-“ is actually an intensifier — in other words it means very grumpy or annoyed

[00:18:07] But, just to save you embarrassment, the word “gruntled” is no longer used. 

[00:18:13] Confusing, right? Well, yes it is.

[00:18:17] There is no getting around the fact that mastering all of these complications is very tricky. Many native speakers have trouble doing it, and given that we all now write by hand significantly less than in the past, and we have become reliant on spell checks and technology to correct us where our brain fails it is going to be even harder for people to know how to spell words correctly, when all they might know is their pronunciation.

[00:18:48] Native speakers always mess up the difference between your “your”, as in this is “your house”, and “y o u ‘ r e”, you're as in “you’re going home”. 

[00:19:03] There is much to love about the English language, and much to well, I won’t say hate, but I’ll say be frustrated by.

[00:19:12] My only advice to you is to take heart, to take comfort, in the fact that you’re certainly not alone, and the native and non-native English speaking population is there struggling with you.

[00:19:26] So next time you pronounce a silent “b”, or you look at the words cough, hiccough, rough, plough, lough, though and through and ask yourself how it is possible that they all end with the same last four letters and are pronounced completely differently, instead of getting worked up and annoyed, just embrace the chaos, and remember that English is a language that really doesn’t make much sense at all.

[00:19:58] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Illogicality of The English Language.

[00:20:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it has given you some comfort about this weird and wonderful language you are learning.

[00:20:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:19] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:30] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Illogicality of The English Language.

[00:00:30] If you are listening to this show, you are probably learning English, or perhaps I should say you are engaged in a life-long battle with the English language.

[00:00:41] If you are like many English learners, you have a love-hate relationship with English. 

[00:00:47] There are some parts of English that are so easy - no complicated verb tenses, no tones, a relatively easy grammatical structure.

[00:00:58] So it’s not so difficult to get to an intermediate level.

[00:01:03] But the more you learn, the more you encounter weird rules, illogicalities of the English language, and these will be the focus of today’s episode.

[00:01:15] First, we’ll talk about some of the reasons why English is so weird, because there is a certain logic, or at least reason, to the chaos.

[00:01:25] Then we’ll talk about some of the most confusing elements of the language: homophones, homonyms, homographs and confusing spellings. And finally we’ll talk about something I bet you have never heard of: lonely negatives.

[00:01:41] You might find a few idioms in this episode, but you will be thankful that there will be no mention of phrasal verbs, or at least, that will be the only mention.

[00:01:52] OK then, let’s talk about English.

[00:01:57] Where should we start? Well, perhaps it will make you feel better if I congratulated you for taking on the difficult task of learning English. 

[00:02:08] Why? 

[00:02:09] Well, firstly, this curious language has so many words in its vocabulary. 

[00:02:15] If you include all the scientific words, the total number of words in English amounts to over 1 million, says Global Language Monitor. Even the number in the Oxford English Dictionary is a massive 170,000. 

[00:02:33] Native speakers might know around 40,000 words, although they are likely only to use about half that number. 

[00:02:41] Even 20,000 is quite a challenge. My task is to help you understand a little bit more about why the English language is as strange as it is, and to do that let’s start with an explanation of why English is such a strange language, and how it has changed.

[00:03:01] This will be a little bit of a whistlestop tour, a quick trip through the history of the English Language. If you are interested in exploring this further, I would recommend listening to Episode 134, which goes into this in much greater detail.

[00:03:21] Many of the reasons behind both the complexity and the richness of English can be found in the hybrid or mongrel nature of the language’s development. 

[00:03:34] Like a person with a big and undiscerning or undiscriminating appetite, English has consumed or eaten anything that came its way. 

[00:03:46] No matter if it might already have a perfectly good word for something – like, say, man or farm or cow – it will quickly borrow or take on another word from another language. “Mmm, thank you very much!” it says, and gobbles or swallows the new word. 

[00:04:05] This process means that English is constantly adopting new words and abandoning words which fall out of use. 

[00:04:14] To return to the eating or culinary image, it is voracious - it will eat up anything. 

[00:04:22] And interestingly, unlike languages such as French or Spanish, with L’Académie française, and La Real Academia Española, there is no central body that governs the English language. Like a rampaging bull, or a mutating virus, it is free to do whatever it wants.

[00:04:44] So, to our quick historical tour. 

[00:04:47] The basis of the language comes from the invasion of Britain by the Northern European tribes, known as the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century. 

[00:04:57] The collection of words was then developed further, about 400 years later by a further invasion from even further north, by the Vikings. 

[00:05:09] In addition to these two sets of people invading and then settling in England, there was the so-called Norman Invasion of 1066 which resulted in an infusion of French words, mostly words of Latin origin. 

[00:05:27] Running alongside these massive changes to the language over its early, formative years are some less well-known influences, which are particularly relevant to our story. These have to do with the way in which the language was recorded on paper. 

[00:05:47] In the era before the invention of printing, the people who copied scripts or pieces of paper by hand, known as scribes, would make changes in order to make it easier for people to read their scripts

[00:06:03] For example, in early English, the letters i, n and m were all drawn using a very similar downward stroke of the pen called a minim. This word itself, minim, which is spelled M I N I M, would have looked simply like ten identical downward strokes of the pen. 

[00:06:31] Quite confusing, I think you will agree. 

[00:06:33] So, what did our clever fourteenth century scribes do to help the situation? 

[00:06:41] Instead of changing the way that letters were written, they made some simple changes to spelling. 

[00:06:48] For example the word for the bit of flesh in our mouths, went from being spelt “tunge ” to “tongue”, tongue, so they changed the first “u” to an “o” and added a “u” at the end.

[00:07:09] The change from “u” to “o” made the word easier to read.

[00:07:14] With the arrival of printing in the 15th century, there were more changes made by the people in charge of reproducing the language; in this case, these were the people who set the type – the letters which were used in the early printing press. 

[00:07:32] They made all sorts of changes. 

[00:07:34] For example, the old spelling for a female monarch, “queen”, Q U E E N, the old spelling was “cwen”. 

[00:07:49] These typesetters changed the word to a spelling more in keeping with the higher status language of the relatively recent invaders, the French, resulting in the spelling we know now – “queen”, Q U double E N. A similar thing happened with certain softer French sounds coming into the language, for example, with the soft “ch” sound at the start of “church”. 

[00:08:21] Even now, if you travel North in the British Isles, you will find that in Scotland, this soft “ch-“ sound is not used to describe a place of Christian worship. 

[00:08:34] The Scots, especially in the far north of the country, refer to it as the kirk, with the hard C. 

[00:08:43] The further north you go, the harsher, the more Germanic are the consonants

[00:08:49] Bizarrely, because many of the type setters – the printers – were from the modern day Netherlands, words were spelt using elements of Dutch. 

[00:09:00] For example, an “h” was put into various words, resulting in the modern day spellings of ghost, ghastly and gherkin [which is a small, pickled cucumber that you sometimes find sliced in a hamburger, by the way]. 

[00:09:18] Snobbery, or arrogance, played a part too. With the Renaissance fashion for claiming classical ancestry for words, that's Latin or Greek ancestry for words, certain words were given additional letters in order to show their classical pedigree or origin. 

[00:09:40] For example, the old English word “people” used to be spelt “peple”, without an “o”.

[00:09:50] The word for money that you owe to someone was “det”, but it was thought good to show its Latin origins so a silent “b” was added, hence debt. 

[00:10:05] And the other main historical factor that has added to the confusion of English is that there are simply so many people from so many different countries that speak it, leading to differences in word use and pronunciation.

[00:10:21] OK, that's enough history for now. 

[00:10:24] Let’s dive into our first confusing category of English illogicality, homophones

[00:10:31] If you aren’t familiar with the term, homophone, you will probably be familiar with the concept: a homophone is when two words have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings.

[00:10:45] Now, homophones aren't unique to English, most languages have them, but the sheer volume that exists in English makes it even more confusing, and funny at the same time.

[00:10:59] For example, the number “eight” and the past tense of the verb “to eat” sound exactly the same: “eight” and “ate”. 

[00:11:09] “I ate eight hamburgers”.

[00:11:11] Homophones get even more confusing when you add connected speech in there, and offer a lot of room for misinterpretation, even with native speakers.

[00:11:23] Here's a famous clip from two comedians called The Two Ronnies:

[00:11:27] fork handles

[00:11:33] four candles. Well, there you are, four candles, no fork handles, handles for forks. 

[00:11:57] So, to explain what was going on there, the first guy asked for “fork handles”. The shop assistant heard it as “four”, the number 4, “candles”, but the customer actually wanted handles for forks.

[00:12:15] Moving on, our next category is homonyms, or words that are spelled and pronounced in exactly the same way but can mean two or more completely different things.

[00:12:28] Again, English isn’t the only language where these exist, but it does have more homonyms than most other languages. 

[00:12:37] Some examples might already be coming to mind, but here are a few for you, some which probably will be familiar, others might not be. 

[00:12:48] So, a bat is a small animal that flies in the night, but you can also hit a cricket ball with a bat.

[00:12:57] On the subject of cricket, you might play in a cricket match and you can also light a candle with a match.

[00:13:06] The list goes on, and homonyms in particular offer excellent possibilities for jokes.

[00:13:13] Our third confusing category also begins with “homo”, and it is the homograph. Again, you have probably encountered these, even if you don’t know the word.

[00:13:25] Homographs are two words that are written in the same way, but have two different pronunciations and meanings.

[00:13:34] For example the word that is written “S O W” means “to put seeds into the ground” when it is pronounced “sow” and “a female pig” when it is pronounced “sow”. So... Sow and sow. 

[00:13:53] With this example things get even more confusing when the word “sew”, as in to “sew a dress” is pronounced “sew”, in exactly the same way as the word “so”, but that is a topic for another day.

[00:14:11] English has, unfortunately, tonnes of homographs.

[00:14:16] “B a s s” can be pronounced bass, and it means a type of fish, and bass and it’s a type of musical instrument.

[00:14:28] “T E A R” is pronounced “tear” when it is something that comes out of your eye when you cry, but if you pronounce it “tear” it means to pull something apart by force. And tear rhymes with pair, “p a i r”, meaning two of something AND pear “p e a r”, that delicious fruit AND “P A R E”, pare, which is a slightly strange word meaning to cut away the outside of something.

[00:15:02] OK, if you are feeling a little bit ill and uncomfortable now, I certainly wouldn’t blame you.

[00:15:08] It is complicated!

[00:15:10] You can take heart, you can console yourself in the knowledge that many native speakers get these wrong.

[00:15:19] Our final category of unusual words or illogicalities is something called Lonely Negatives.

[00:15:28] Although this sounds like something from a bad dating site, it is in fact yet more interesting. 

[00:15:36] It refers to words in English where there is only a negative word and the positive version either has never existed or has simply died or disappeared through lack of use

[00:15:49] Remember, in general when you add “dis”, “non”, “un” or “im” to the start of the word, or you add “less” to the end, it normally has the effect of meaning the opposite of the root word.

[00:16:05] For example, approve and disapprove, resident and nonresident, equal and unequal, plausible and implausible, useful and useless. Adding these prefixes or suffixes completely changes the meaning of the word, but in the case of Lonely Negatives, the word exists only in the negative. 

[00:16:31] Listen to this sentence: “The dishevelled man walked nonchalantly forward, holding an unwieldy club. He said: ‘I may look unkempt and disgruntled, but believe me, my manners are impeccable and my will to win ruthless.” 

[00:16:55] So, the words to listen out for there, were dishevelled, nonchalantly, unwieldy, unkempt, disgruntled, impeccable and ruthless.

[00:17:07] What these words have in common is that they do not have an equivalent positive word; for example, taking the first one from my sentence, dishevelled, there is no word in English which means its opposite. 

[00:17:22] It is tempting to think that the word “chevelled” exists and means neat or well turned out, but no it doesn’t. 

[00:17:32] Likewise with “unkempt”, which means untidy or messy, and comes from Old English by the way, there is no longer a word “kempt” meaning neat or literally well-combed

[00:17:46] Just to add an additional annoyance, in the case of the seventh word, “disgruntled,” there was originally a word “gruntled” meaning bad-tempered or grumpy. The prefix “dis-“ is actually an intensifier — in other words it means very grumpy or annoyed

[00:18:07] But, just to save you embarrassment, the word “gruntled” is no longer used. 

[00:18:13] Confusing, right? Well, yes it is.

[00:18:17] There is no getting around the fact that mastering all of these complications is very tricky. Many native speakers have trouble doing it, and given that we all now write by hand significantly less than in the past, and we have become reliant on spell checks and technology to correct us where our brain fails it is going to be even harder for people to know how to spell words correctly, when all they might know is their pronunciation.

[00:18:48] Native speakers always mess up the difference between your “your”, as in this is “your house”, and “y o u ‘ r e”, you're as in “you’re going home”. 

[00:19:03] There is much to love about the English language, and much to well, I won’t say hate, but I’ll say be frustrated by.

[00:19:12] My only advice to you is to take heart, to take comfort, in the fact that you’re certainly not alone, and the native and non-native English speaking population is there struggling with you.

[00:19:26] So next time you pronounce a silent “b”, or you look at the words cough, hiccough, rough, plough, lough, though and through and ask yourself how it is possible that they all end with the same last four letters and are pronounced completely differently, instead of getting worked up and annoyed, just embrace the chaos, and remember that English is a language that really doesn’t make much sense at all.

[00:19:58] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Illogicality of The English Language.

[00:20:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it has given you some comfort about this weird and wonderful language you are learning.

[00:20:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:19] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:30] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.