The English language is a derivative of Anglo-Saxon, which was one of the Germanic tongues, with an admixture of Norman French. And the Normans who brought their version of French to England were only a couple of centuries away from having been Scandinavian themselves.
It took awhile for the English as we begin to see it moving out of what was considered a lower-class dialect. King Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377, preferred to speak French. He understood English as it was spoken back then, but considered it an uncouth tongue, not fit for polite conversation.
But by the end of his reign some official records — not all, but at least some of them — were being written in English. And it was during Edward’s time that Chaucer developed, blossoming through the succeeding reign, when English became generally accepted in any rank of society.
The casual way it developed gave it the insistencies that often baffle foreigners who are trying to learn it. The past tense of the word “spell,” for instance is “spelled” and sometimes “spelt.” But the past tense of the word “sell” is “sold.” If you told someone “He selled me my car,” or “He spold that word wrong,” you’d either get some strange stares or some laughter.
Then there’s the past tense of the word “feel,” which is “felt.” But the past of the verb “peel” is not “pelt,” except by a very roundabout process, which is that when “pelt” is a noun it means the fur or hide which has been peeled away from a body.
The variations in pronunciation of “ough” words are well known.
Imagine spelling the following: The reign in Speign stays meignly in the pleign. Or this: The rein in Spein steiys meinly in the plein.
People from some foreign countries have a hard time with the soft “the” pronunciation, as in “the” or “them.” They often substitute with a “z” or “d.” As in: Ze end of da world is come.” I’ve never seen any explanation of why that particular combination and pronunciation are so difficult, except that it doesn’t appear in other languages in just that form and sound.
And of course this discussion has not taken up the various dialects that English has developed into, which foreigners are not at first aware of. I once knew a girl in Germany who was totally unaware that a soldier she was talking to from Boston had a different accent from the solder next to him, who was from Louisiana. It was all the same flattened pronunciation to her.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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