John McWhorter explains that the English language has a number of unusual features which are artifacts of the language’s history involving the interaction of several different peoples.
English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isnâ€™t spoken, there is no such thing as a â€˜spelling beeâ€™ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal. …
We think itâ€™s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, itâ€™s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family â€“ Indo-European â€“ and of all of them, English is the only one that doesnâ€™t assign genders that way.
More weirdness? OK. There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the thirdâ€‘person singular. Iâ€™m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s â€“ why just that? The presentâ€‘tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult? …
when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and also Frisians) brought their language to England, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke very different tongues. Their languages were Celtic ones, today represented by Welsh, Irish and Breton across the Channel in France. The Celts were subjugated but survived, and since there were only about 250,000 Germanic invaders â€“ roughly the population of a modest burg such as Jersey City â€“ very quickly most of the people speaking Old English were Celts.
Crucially, their languages were quite unlike English. For one thing, the verb came first (came first the verb). But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. That looks familiar now because the Celts started doing it in their rendition of English. But before that, such sentences would have seemed bizarre to an English speaker â€“ as they would today in just about any language other than our own and the surviving Celtic ones. Notice how even to dwell upon this queer usage of do is to realise something odd in oneself, like being made aware that there is always a tongue in your mouth.
At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses do in just this way. Thus Englishâ€™s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. Weâ€™re still talking like them, and in ways weâ€™d never think of. When saying â€˜eeny, meeny, miny, moeâ€™, have you ever felt like you were kind of counting? Well, you are â€“ in Celtic numbers, chewed up over time but recognisably descended from the ones rural Britishers used when counting animals and playing games. â€˜Hickory, dickory, dockâ€™ â€“ what in the world do those words mean? Well, hereâ€™s a clue: hovera, dovera, dick were eight, nine and ten in that same Celtic counting list.