Why is that Teacher? The Small Matter of the History of English.

One of the hardest questions an ESL teacher has to face in the classroom is “Why?”

Oh, the dreaded word “why,” the bane of every ESL teacher, the one question that is impossible to answer and yet ever-present in ESL classrooms around the world. It isn’t that the teachers don’t want to answer our students’ questions about why certain prepositions go after certain words or why the h is silent in one word but pronounced in another word, or why there are three different words that sound exactly the same but are spelled differently and have completely different meanings (there, their and they’re). We really would like to answer our students. The only problem is, we sometimes can’t, because there may not be an obvious answer.

The answer I always give is, “because it’s English, that’s why.” Unlike our Latin counterparts that have specific grammatical rules and conjugations that rarely if ever (as far as I know) have “exceptions to the rules,” English unfortunately has exceptions to practically every rule. So, then, why is it called a rule if there is always an exception? Well, if we could go back in time to the year 450 AD or so and follow the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe and hang out with them for a few hundred years, we might start to see how this odd language came to be.

The Germanic tribes were called the Angles, Saxons and the Jutes and they all spoke a language called Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages). This language slowly developed into what we now call Old English, which, if you were to read anything in Old English, doesn’t resemble anything even close to what we speak today. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots. The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English. Old English was spoken until around 1100 AD until the invasion of England by the Norse Tribes. Poor England. They never had a chance.

From the middle of the ninth century, large numbers of Norse invaders settled in Britain. The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on the English language and we got some very basic words such as take, they and give from this time period. However, it wouldn’t be until 1066 AD and yet another invasion of England by William the Conqueror, aka the Duke of Normandy, that English would really start to change and morph into what is called Middle English. Normandy and the Normans hailed from what is now northern France and with them they brought the French language, which was the language of the arts, government and learning. During this time period, there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French.

In the 14th century, English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added like army, apparel and logic. The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with tremendous numbers of words borrowed from French and Latin. But Middle English would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand today.

Towards the end of Middle English around 1500 AD, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (called the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century on, the English had contact with many people from around the world, which meant that many new words and phrases had entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published. These new words and phrases and changes in pronunciation led to what we call Modern English and that is the English we speak today.

English has had a long road to hoe spanning centuries and wars. But the United States of America and England aren’t the only countries that speak English, obviously. There is Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, parts of the Caribbean, parts of India and more, which means that each one of these countries has their own lexicon, slang, expressions and accents. So an ESL learner in England might learn completely different words than an ESL learner in South Africa. The basic grammar is the same for the most part. However, I have spoken to people from New Zealand and Scotland and sometimes I don’t understand much of what they’re saying. Check out Nick’s article this month on accents and differences between “American English” and “British English” for another take on the wide variety of the English language around the world. https://bridgeenglish.com/blog/2012/teacher-i-want…ematic-student/
It’s mainly the accent that is so different but each of these countries also has different words for different things. For example, here in the USA we say truck. In England they call it a lorry. We say elevator, they say lift. “How are you?” in the USA is “How ya going?” in Australia. Is that grammatically correct? In the USA, it is not but, in Australia, it probably is. It never ends.

In conclusion, throughout all of the metamorphoses English has gone through, statistics actually show that English is one of the easiest languages to learn and that Arabic is the hardest. However, who is to say what is hard or easy to learn? It all depends on the person learning it. What is simple for one person may be difficult for another. It is all subjective. But no matter how hard you may think English is to learn, no matter how confused you may become with all of the prepositions, phrasal verbs, gerunds as nouns, object pronouns or stative verbs, please bear in mind that there may not always be an easy answer. Your ESL teacher may not know either.

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