What are some amazing facts about the English language?
Just a few out of thousands of candidates:
- Everyone knows that there are 2 indefinite articles: a before a consonant sound (a book), an before a vowel (an author). But did you know that there are two forms of the? We say ‘thuh’ before a consonant (the book) and ‘thee’ before a vowel (the author) or a pause.
- There are 3 ways of pronouncing the -ed past tense endings: t as in ‘liked’, d as in ‘loved’ and id as in ‘wanted’.
- Similarly with the -s endings: s as in ‘cats’, z as in ‘dogs’ and iz as in ‘horses’. It all depends on the characteristics of the final sound - all English speakers subconsciously know this, applying the rule effortlessly to new words.
- Sounds appear in, and between words, without our noticing. For example when aw is followed by a vowel sound, a small r is usually inserted: drawring, law rand order.
- When oo is followed by a vowel sound a small w appears: who (w) are, you (w) all (remember Basil Fawlty mentioning the war?)
- The h sound (at the beginning of a word) isn’t a separate sound (as it looks in the spelling), but is a puff of air said at the same time as the following vowel.
- What’s the difference between photograph and photographer? Just that er, right? But in speech, this also happens:
- the rhythm (stress) changes: PHO-to-GRAPH pho-TO-graph-er
- EVERY vowel changes
The same thing happens to many words when they change their grammatical class: biology-biological, super-superfluous, a rebel - to rebel. This feature is a very good reason why, if English spelling were to be changed so that it exactly represented the sounds, we would end up with more complication and confusion .
8. Stress is used (far more than most other languages) to change meaning. Compare how you would say ‘a black BIRDcage’ and ‘a BLACKbird cage’ (no, it’s not about the gaps between the words. There are no gaps.)
9. Making a question is very complicated (although also completely logical). To put this statement into a question She worked in London, you have to carry out the following operations:
- Add an auxiliary verb do
- Make it agree with she: She does worked in London
- Remove the past tense marker (-ed) in the main verb, and put the auxiliary in the past tense: She did work in London
- Swap the auxiliary and the subject: Did she work in London?
10. While many languages have only one or two past tenses, English uses at least 8 verb forms to talk about the past, all with their own shade of meaning:
- I ate
- I have eaten
- I had eaten
- I was eating
- I have been eating
- I had been eating
- I used to eat
- I would eat (as in ‘When I was 10 I would eat ice cream every day’)
10. We can also use past tenses to talk about the present or even the future:
- I wish you were here with me now.
- If only I was rich.
- If I won a million pounds, I would give it all to you.
11. (Although this is not particular to English) The human brain cleverly ignores what is not useful to us, which means that most of the goings-on of language operates outside of our awareness, even when (as in the above examples) the evidence is right there hiding in open sight, literally under our noses. That is the joy of learning about language. Most comedy that is language or pun-based exploits this: the realisation of a language feature that is both hitherto unknown, but suddenly completely obvious, make us laugh.
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