English Isn’t Crazy!

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“English Isn’t Crazy! The Elements Of Our Language and How to Teach Them” is a neat little book by US author Diana Hanbury King, who’s been working with struggling readers and spellers since before most of us were born.

It’s written for teachers who want to know more about the English language.

The book gives a thumbnail sketch of how the English we speak today has changed over the centuries, from Proto-Indo-European, through the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Old English, the Normans, Middle English, the Classical Revival, Modern English and American English. It’s not as hilarious as the UK Open University’s History of English in 10 Minutes, but is more consistently factual.

A very easy read

I especially appreciated its simplicity and readability, having waded through David Crystal’s dense, 584 page The Stories of English, an authoritative enough tome to have its own Wikipedia entry (since our Environment Minister researched the link between climate change and bushfires on Wikipedia, we Aussies are making more Wikipedia jokes).

“English Isn’t Crazy” is 120 pages long, including seven appendices and a bibliography, and it’s a very easy read. I got through it in a couple of hours. Perfect for teachers easing back from holidays, and parents wanting to help kids understand English spelling complexity.

Our old, very frequent words are less regular

King writes that English has about 650,000 words, thanks to its capacity to absorb words from other languages, though only 200,000 of them are in common use. However, the most common words are very old, Anglo-Saxon words, and their spellings have gotten pretty mangled down the ages, relative to how we pronounce them today. The more numerous Latin and Greek-origin words are less frequently-used but more phonetically regular.

This means that literacy-teaching approaches which initially focus on the most frequent words (e.g. using “Dolch words” or “Magic words”) present some of the most difficult spellings in the language to absolute beginners.

From spells and pillaging to Shakespeare and Dr Johnson

The book contains lots of juicy historical stories. Kentish King Aethelbert received St Augustine “sitting at his tent door lest they should cast spells on him”, but Augustine managed to convert him and become the first Archbishop of Canterbury. All property was inherited by Scandinavian elder sons, so the landless younger sons turned Viking and went a-pillaging. French king Charles the Simple gave Viking Hrolf der Ganger Normandy, in exchange for not pillaging Paris. If you can’t get kids interested in the history of our language with this sort of stuff, you’re not really trying.

There is also plenty of interesting stuff about the evolution of the language itself. Old Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon were highly inflected, and verb tense tended to change by changing the vowel (not just tacking on an “ed”), which is where we get irregular verbs like drink-drank and speak-spoke. As in modern German and English, new words were often made by compounding: the word for astronomy was tungolcraeft, an astronomer was tungol-witega and arithmetic was rimcraeft.

There are snippets from Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Chaucer, and Malory, and explanations about Old English inflections like plural “en” as in “children” and “oxen”, and third person “eth” as in the biblical “goeth” and “cometh”. There’s Caxton and his printing press, the Great Vowel Shift, the Tyndale Bible and William Tyndale’s gruesome, Church-supervised death, and of course Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster.

Word origin and tone/register

King points out that Latin and Greek words provide many synonyms for older, Germanic words (e.g. Germanic “earthly”, Latin “terrestrial” and Greek “geophysical”), but the words have a different impact/tone, as George Orwell showed when he rewrote Ecclesiastes 9:11:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account”.

The original, King James Bible version goes like this:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all”.

Scholarly meddling

King explains how scholars have done a lot of meddling with English over the ages, with examples.

The “gh” in “light” and “night” was once pronounced like the “ch” in “loch”.

The “l” sound in “would” and “should” used to be pronounced (as it is in “will” and “shall”) as well as written, so scholars whacked an “l” in “could” and made it a hat trick (OK she doesn’t really say “hat trick”. I must have watched that Open University video once too often).

Not one language, but four

The last bit of the subtitle of this book (the “How to Teach Them” part) over-promises and under-delivers. Don’t expect to read this book and know how to teach English, if you don’t know already. But it’s a great source of information to help make learning how to read and spell in English more interesting, and explain why it’s complex.

As King writes in her introduction, “When we teach English, we are not teaching one but at least four languages”.

I got my copy from Pro-Ed in the US for US$33.60 (currently about AUD$37.70) including postage.