English, the craziest language in the world

english1I work with quite a few people who did not grow up speaking English.  I study with a teacher born and raised in China, who then moved to Paris for a number of years before coming to the United States.  When her “Chinglish” doesn’t get her point across, she tries French before resorting to telepathy, charades and suggestions from her class.

To all of you non-native speakers, I salute you for trying to communicate in the most difficult and convoluted language in the world.  I don’t know this absolutely, but I love languages and have dabbled in Spanish, German, Russian, Latin, Greek and now Mandarin Chinese.  I can easily tell you that English is nasty compared to the others.  You have taken on quite a challenge, and I applaud you.

Years ago I copied this content from a website whose URL has been long forgotten.  If it’s from your site, please let me know and I will gladly credit you.  I pass this along as proof of the complexity (and inanity) of English, and the difficulty in learning it:

A Poem About Plurals
We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes;
but the plural of ox became oxen not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice;
yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
If I spoke of my foot and show you my feet,
and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
Then one may be that, and three would be those,
yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
and the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
but though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
but imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim.

Taken from the introduction to Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Language, by Richard Lederer:

English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every 7 humans can speak it. More than half of the world’s books and 3 quarters of international mail is in English. Of all the languages,it has the largest vocabulary – perhaps as many as 2 MILLION words. Nonetheless, let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb thru annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.

So to all of you, my suffering sisters and brothers, know that I understand.  Please believe me when I say that I am making fun of the language of my birth, and not of you.  Congratulations for taking it on, for giving it a go, for wallowing through this silly language of ours.  We feel your pain!

Chris also contributes to the new food blog Three’s Cooking, learning to cook from the heart, for the soul.

25 thoughts on “English, the craziest language in the world

  1. Hi, I have to admit, I’m not a native English speaker, yet I loved learning it from the very beginning. I know some of the non-native speakers struggle with it, but I found German to be the most difficult language I’ve studied so far, and so did most of my classmates at the time 🙂 . But the real fun began when I tried teaching another language to some native English speakers… it was a challenge, both for me and for them. I guess learning a new language is never as easy as it might seem, no matter what nationality one is or what they’re trying to assimilate. But it’s always a fun process, both to undergo and to observe :-).

    • In terms of grammar, Mandarin is the easiest and most sensible thing I’ve learned, but I’m really struggling with the tones. The same word can have quite a different meaning, depending on the tone. I thought my ear was pretty good, but I guess I was wrong.

  2. You’re so right that we take what we know for granted. Because English is my mother tongue and easy for me, I assume that it’s easy for everybody else to learn, which is not always the case. When I taught English to children who spoke another language, they always seemed to learn quickly; adults were a bit slower. I would have to agreed with Ana Linden that German is ‘most difficult’. Having learned (and forgotten) French, Japanese, Spanish, and Mandarin, I find it extremely difficult to learn German now. Or perhaps it’s because I’m getting too old.

  3. My second language is British Sign Language; a beautiful visual based language that incorporates all the features of English using the whole body. For Deaf people, English is particularly difficult. The syntax is entirely different, and grammatical structuring is a challenge. Sometimes things are lost in translation and some English phrases, or worse yet, metaphors do not have a direct translation.

    I enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing

  4. What an interesting post, and I agree that for every rule in English, there are a thousand exceptions. My non-English languages include Spanish (learnt in high school, but have since forgotten most of it), and Hebrew (somewhat of an ongoing project). Both of these seem fairly easy for non-native speakers to begin to learn.

  5. Oh, Lederer … what a brain! And I agree with everything you write, Chris: having qualified as a teacher of English as a Second Language (no idea what they call this these days), I was up against it at the coalface, too. Nice post!

  6. Loved it. The course that I’m currently studying insist that English is a difficult language for non-native speakers to learn and your post just cemented that for me. Omg, What a crazy language, and i also found the post very hilarious 🙂 I’m gonna share it with my class.

  7. Reading your posts has been such fun! I am a native Argentinian (speak Spanish with the Porteno twang) but when I go to Argentina, or speak with my friends, they tell me that I speak something else 🙂 I use to speak French fluently. It can be revived, and I really like French, and yes, English and Spanglish. The latter I use with my sisters. Thank you for liking my post. I got to read this gem!

  8. Love your post. Languages are one of my secret passions… okay, not so secret, and I adore English and the history of English (which explains many of the paradoxes). I used to tell my students this, which I read somewhere:

    “English does not *borrow* from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, hits them over the head, then searches through their pockets for loose grammar.”

    But it’s a fun language and World Englishes are fun to study since it is, as of this moment, the trade language and the English that is spoken in my country (the USA) is not the same English spoken in India, China, Africa, or even its mother country of England. Can you tell this was something I studied? ^_^

    If I were physically able, I’d teach English again. Again, I enjoyed your post. BTW, this is my favorite poem about English pronunciation: http://www.mipmip.org/tidbits/pronunciation.shtml

    • I’m currently studying World Englishes in my Masters degree and it really is fascinating to see how it has spread and changed and been adopted (or adapted) into other languages. I agree with you, it is such a fun language to study, even as a native speaker! Thank you for sharing the link to that poem. I’ve read it before but I enjoyed reading it again. It’s always nice to come across fellow English Language enthusiasts online!

  9. Pingback: [M.M.X.I.V. 25] Recommendations | Never A Worry

  10. I taught English as a Second Language. Often, the students would speak from their hearts in a ways that native speakers do not. Since they did not have the words to beat around the bush, they spoke directly. It was so refreshing.

  11. I am always amazed to find English-speaking people everywhere I travel. And not just a few simple words– most people seem nearly fluent. It always makes me ashamed, but so grateful. I love being able to converse with people when I travel and appreciate all the hard work they’ve put into learning English.

  12. Hi Chris, just to let you know that i nominated this post for the BlogHer’s 2014 Voices or Photos of the Year under the category VOTY – Humor: Laugh at it. please check it out at the BlogHer website, vote and ask your friends to vote and also vote for my posts too. toodles.

  13. I’m an English Language Masters student because a BA just wasn’t enough! I love studying my native language with all its weird, wonderful, and wacky ways. Hence my interest in this post. Anything with “English” and/or “Language” in the title grabs my attention immediately. Thanks for posting!

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