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10 July 2012
Take a letter
Native speakers are so familiar with the alphabet that we hardly give it a second thought, and are somewhat puzzled by the fact that it causes considerable difficulty to those who use other systems of writing. We shouldn't be puzzled at all. On closer examination, the English alphabet is as much a highly functional mess as the rest of the language, and for the same reason. Namely, that English is not the product of logical construction by linguists, but something that has been evolving - sometimes at high speed - and incorporating aspects of other languages for over a thousand years.

In fact our alphabet goes a lot further back than that. It was developed by Semitic peoples (probably in Egypt) adopted by the Greeks, and borrowed from the Greeks by the Etruscans who passed it to the Romans who gave it to us. Now because each of these peoples had sounds in their language which we do not have in modern English (such as the throaty 'gh' sound, as in for example, the Dutch 'hoogh' for 'high'), and because some letters once represented sounds we do make, many letters have changed shape and sound several times over the two dozen or more centuries they have been around.

As a result we have letters we do not need - for example the 'u' after 'q', which latter letter is pronounced 'qu' anyway. Come to that, we could get rid of 'q' altogether and substitute it with 'k' - 'kwik' and 'quick' have exactly the same sound; something many a commercial brand name has exploited. Whilst we are at it, we could throw 'c' overboard as well, and give its job to 'k' and 's' - konsider what would happen if we seased to use 'c'.

This brings us to another point. While we have unnecessary letters, in the alphabet, the alphabet is so short of letters that many letters have to do extra duty by being another sound as well. 'C' as a 'k' sound, and 'c' as an 's' sound is just one example. All vowels do an extra shift as a matter of course, each having a long and a short sound. Compare the long 'a' in 'mad' with the short 'a' in 'made'.

We have also dropped some useful letters such as the 'thorn', which looked like a stretched out S and was spoken as 'th'. These days when it is written the thorn looks like a 'Y' so deliberately quaint names such as 'Ye olde coffee shoppe' rather prosaically should be read aloud as 'The old coffee shop'.

Then there's the 'ph' that we perversely use for 'f' while a perfectly good letter symbol (a circle with a line through it) exists in other languages for the sound. I could go on (and on) but you get the point. There have been dozens of attempts to reform spelling over the years but only two look like sticking. One is the deliberate attempt by early Americans to create their own variety of English (e.g. 'plow' for 'plough') and the other - tho U mA h8 it - the txtspk of the younger generation.
15 May 2012
The Joy of Synonyms
The Norman conquest of England over a thousand years ago was undoubtedly unpleasant for those Englishmen who were there at the time, but it has had a beneficial effect on the English language ever since. The reason for this is that the Normans spoke French, and over time that French has combined with old English to form a uniquely rich vocabulary.

This can be seen particularly clearly with synonyms. Modern English possesses a host of 'synonym pairs' with which the language has not chosen one word or another for a particular meaning, but has simply adopted both. So we get 'speed' from Old English, and 'alacrity' from French. The Old English wanted freedom, but the French wanted liberty. These synonym pairs are here in Old English, and present in French - so why do we not eliminate one of these redundant meanings?

We don't, because no synonym has the exact meaning of the other word in the pair. So 'speed' suggests sustained swiftness, but 'alacrity' usually involves a human moving fast from a stationary start. If a bull enters a field with speed, the people picnicking there will leave with alacrity. And so on.

But there is even more to it than this. Exactly which word we choose tells us a lot more than just a description. For example, if I say 'Fred is a profound thinker' it means that he thinks about serious matters and does it thoroughly, and I approve of Fred. If I say 'Fred is a deep thinker' my choice of adjective is deliberately the simpler Old English alternative. This will prompt my listener to look for other clues in my voice or facial expression which suggest that either I do not consider myself a profound thinker as well, or that I don't really believe that Fred is particularly good at thinking, and I'm being ironic.

An Englishman might use more formal adjectives to show that he is being polite or that he is offended (and sometimes Englishmen become polite to show that they ARE offended.) So if someone says 'I'm sorry if I was rude' there is a better chance that the apology is sincere than if the same person says 'I apologize for my presumption.'

As one gets to know another person, the choice of which set of adjectives that person uses in a particular situation becomes increasingly informative. We learn not only about what the speaker is describing, but how the speaker feels about that thing. From whether and how someone we know well asks 'What?' or 'Excuse me?' or 'I beg your pardon?' we can detect anger, apathy, aggression or apology - all without even leaving the letter 'a'.

English is unique among widely-used European languages in having this two-language heritage. We should make the most of the richness and clarity this gives to our communication - but not forget that there is a reason why a very frustrated and angry person will swear in 'basic Anglo-Saxon.' Sometimes we don't need subtlety.

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