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The History of English, part 2: How this helps.

Jul 17, 2020

In my previous blog post, I talked about the history of English and just barely discussed why it may be useful information.  At first sight, something like history doesn’t seem immediately applicable: how does knowing English language history help me write a good motivation letter?  Kill my presentation delivery? Order a drink? Make friends? Well that’s what I’ll discuss in this blog, answering the question:

Why do I start every course with a history of English?

You know, there were times that I felt that maybe my students wanted to just get down to business and skip the lecture.  After all, they’re around to speak a different language, improve grammar, and not see their job opportunities disappear.  There are many areas in which I’ve found not skipping that part of my courses has helped my students:

 

Perspective

More than anything else, knowing the history of English gives English-learners a clearer view of the enemy.  It’s ‘recon’.  They’re trying to tackle a big language hurdle, but not all languages are the same. In fact, no languages are the same; knowing the unique characteristics of a language helps put things into perspective, giving students a clearer view of where the frustrating parts might be, where they might struggle, where they can excel, and how long it will take them to do it.  It gives learners a map they can use to plan their journey.

Motivation

Alongside having that road map, students generally find it interesting.  That’s not nothing.  Beginning my courses with this one theoretical or abstract bit, along with the new perspective, often generates interest in English, and, as I’ve discussed many many many times before: Motivation is the biggest factor determining language-learning success. Having a clearer perspective about the nature and uniqueness of English offers some groundwork to understand the whole project of learning, and with insight comes a certain power to set goals and tackle them.

Pronunciation

Cheese.  Machine. Architect.  Three different words; three different ch sounds.  One is /tj/, the next /sh/, the next /k/.  Why? WHAT IS IT WITH YOU ENGLISH SPEAKERS AND HAVING NO PRONUNCIATION RULES?!

There are some rules, but more than rules: there’s a reason. ‘Cheese, chicken, choose’ all have two things in common: they use /tj/, and they’re all Germanic (tsiis, kieken, kiezen).  The hard /tj/ sound comes from the language of origin.  ‘Machine, charlatan, chef’ are all French-originated; in French, ‘ch’ sounds like ‘sh’.  ‘Architect, stomach, ache’ have their origins in Greek, where the /ch/ would take on a /k/ sounds instead of /tj/ or /sh/.

That being said, there are exceptions, but sensible ones.  Take, for instance, ‘Chimney’:  chiminee (shim-ee-nay) is of French origin; why is it not an /sh/.  Well, it’s made it’s way into mainstream English, has some more ‘peasant-like’ usage, and actually is also the root of some German and Slavic words for the same thing; in short, it’s not just French — its Latin.  So, words like these generally undergo some local changes, suiting the sensibilities of the speakers using them. Just like Roman rule, Latin was a tool but not imposed radically on the English isles and didn’t ever replace Celtic or Britonnic or Anglo-Saxon languages, except in it’s French form.

So, with no pronunciation rules, history provides us clues that lead us to make a good guess, and going back to perspective: the language exceptions are not made to make it hard for you: they actually grew naturally, out of ease.

Vocabulary

This I’ve previously discussed in my other blog on history.  Generally, the more Germanic a word is, the easier it is to understand but the less refined it is; the opposite with French-rooted words, which are vague but pretty.  Consider:  Friendship (Germanic) versus Amity (French).  What does Amity even mean?  Sure, it’s ‘friendly relations’ (thanks Wiki), but… why not just say ‘friendly relations’?

French-rooted words come with class, refinement, nuance, and flair.  Germanic words come with intelligibility, clarity, frankness, and simplicity. Adding more: filial (Latin and Greek) come with ancient connections, philosophical or scientific overtones, and often have pan-european equivalents.

Knowing the origins of words help you use their qualities to your advantage and communicate messages to your audience. For instance, I’m more likely to say ‘friend’ to mean someone I know, like, and care about.  I may use ‘amity’ to talk about friendly relationships between companies, nations, institutions, and the like.  I may use ‘filial’ or even a direct Latin or Greek loan word to write about friendship to an academic audience; also, with the Latin/Greek words, I can say things like ‘family’ instead of ‘kin’ or ‘success’ instead of ‘achievement’ or ‘coming out on top’ to be more intelligible to Europeans.

Final note here: as a language teacher, knowing the historical information about English helps me know where the potential struggles for my students will be based on their first language (in the industry, this is called your L1).  Danish speakers, for instance, probably won’t struggle much with pronunciation, word order, and verbs.  Dutch speakers will have problems with using over-simplified vocabulary and voiced consonants like ‘v’ (versus ‘f).  French speakers will struggle through the beginning levels, since that vocabulary is mostly Germanic.

Grammar

Last, the dreaded Grammar question. Often, with the new perspective on English, we can see that while the Dictionary is a chimera of different languages, English grammar became pretty streamlined and simplified through all the language-switching. Word order was simplified: Subject, Verb, Object, please! We would say “I have given him the birthday money ” instead of “I have him for his birthday money given.” Why?  Well, because English had so much access to other linguistic systems, the process of evolution put out a language which naturally took the paths of least resistance:  what’s the easiest way to pronounce, organize sentences, and communicate?  As a result, too, it’s easier to find the differences between one’s L1 and English.

 

There you have it. The many ways knowing the History of English helps.  Stay tuned for future blogs, where I’ll give more tips for improving language.  You can also check out my other blogs for more.  As always, if you have a language-related problem or goal, we want to help, so contact us and we’ll see what we can do to offer solutions.

-Preston

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