Why I Love the English Language

A couple of people stand in front of the British museum, hidden by huge Union Jack umbrellas.

by Emma Bates

English, despite not being the most-spoken language in the world by some margin, has become an almost universally accepted lingua franca, and the language of choice for students to learn if they want to get ahead in life.

Yet most of the reasons for this don’t have very much to do with what a wonderful language it is. It’s the language of business and finance, mostly thanks to the economic dominance of Britain in the 19th century and the USA in the 20th. It’s the predominant language of film and music, but with lyrics like, ‘All I wanted was to break your walls/ All you ever did was wreck me’ appearing in number 1 slots worldwide, it’s hard to claim that the linguistic beauty of the English language is responsible. The endurance of the myth that English only beat German by a single vote to become the official language of the USA sums up the general attitude to the English language; it has gained global popularity by chance, not by merit.

All the same, it is a wonderful language. Anyone who has ever studied Wilfred Owen, made their own dress or studied cinematography (bear with me here) will understand the loveliness of things that, when examined and dissected, don’t lose their charm but in fact gain something in the greater understanding, like opening up the back of a pocket watch to see the intricate mechanism inside. That’s what the English language is like; that’s one of the many reasons it’s so worth studying. What’s on the surface is pretty enough, but dive in and you’ll see that there’s so much more going on underneath.

Synonyms galore

It’s a cliché, and an inaccurate one at that, to say that English has more words than any other language. Certainly, English has a lot of words, and a friend of mine once won a case of champagne betting that it had more words than German (which, given that German can get away with magnificent compound nouns like the famous Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätshauptbetriebswerksbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, is really saying something). What’s lovely about English, though, is that its huge lexical richness follows certain deeply satisfying patterns. Unlike other European languages that are essentially just variations on Latin – which does, admittedly, give them an aural prettiness that English could be said to be lacking – English has had multiple waves of influences that makes it something of a mongrel tongue. And as dog breeders know, mongrels may not be the prettiest, but they are certainly hardier than their purebred relatives. Unlike other languages, where a loanword often entirely replaces its predecessor (does anyone in France still say ‘fin de semaine’?) English has a habit of adding extra words, until the language is suffused with synonyms.
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Better still, it does so in a particularly elegant way, relating to the three (ish) main sources of words. Anglo-Saxon words are still, in the main, read as simple, easy to understand, or even crude. French words are somewhat more sophisticated. Those who’d like others to know about their level of education but can’t quite bring themselves to wear their degree classification on a t-shirt will favour words derived from Latin. Occasionally and delightfully, these three sources will each provide one word for the same thing, as occurs with ‘kingly’ (as said by the peasant), ‘royal’ (as said by the courtier) and ‘regal’ (as said by the scholar). Eight hundred years ago, each of these people would be speaking a different language; now, they use a different vocabulary that nonetheless maps on to almost exactly the same social distinctions. English history is encoded on the English language, and though it doesn’t say much for social mobility, there’s still something pleasing in how it plays out in the language today.
The tendency of the English language to borrow aggressively from other languages didn’t stop with the Norman invasion. Renaissance scholars added the bulk of the Latin and Greek words in use today, and the expansion of British trade and the British Empire led to a hugely varied assortment of words joining the language in subsequent centuries, so that we now have splendid-sounding words like kiosk, kayak and kangaroo seasoning the broth as well.

One result of having so much vocabulary with so many origins is that English is utterly fantastic for puns. An American lecturer of mine once referred to Terry Pratchett “sharing the English delusion that puns are funny”; perhaps this ‘delusion’ exists simply because English is such a versatile and fun language in which to pun. Get four English speakers in a pub, make a comment about fish and see what happens – one of them will be “floundering”, another “cod do batter” and a third will be “feeling koi” and not join in. Suggest cheese and they won’t be able to “camembert it” and the whole cycle will start over again. From the cringe-worthy examples above to the elegant winner of the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe’s funniest joke – “why can’t hedgehogs just share?” – the sheer range of homophones and near-homophones in English makes wordplay a delight. There’s a certain irreverence to all of this; despite its primary modern use as the language of business, English is at heart a language to have fun with.

A truly democratic language?

The main reason it’s impossible to say that English has more words than any other language is that no one knows exactly how many words it actually has. We can count the number of words in various major dictionaries easily enough, but no dictionary is definitive. Where other languages have regulators, like the Académie française or the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, English has no such thing. No central body. No one to fix dubious spelling patterns, arbitrate on the acceptability of the singular “they” or defend the subjunctive – but no one, either, to bar new and useful loanwords from entering the language, or to prevent English from evolving organically, according to the needs of English speakers. There is no body of Dumbledoresque old men to control where the language goes and how it should be spoken – and if anyone tried to institute one, it seems likely that the vast majority of the world’s 1.5 billion English speakers would ignore its pronouncements anyway.

The consequence of this is that English is more-or-less democratic. Change to the language happens by consensus, not by decree. And yes, it does mean that we’re stuck with ridiculousness like “i before e except after c” (and also just about every other letter in the alphabet), but it also means that as an English speaker, I have just about as much influence over the direction of the language as you do, or as the Merton Professors of English in Oxford do, or even, potentially, as someone who is only just learning their first few words of English does. The only effective way to influence the language is to be good at using it – and that’s why Shakespeare gets the credit for inventing 1,700 English words. If not truly democratic, English is certainly more meritocratic than many other languages in the world.
This is all the more worthy of note because any time anyone has succeeded in forcing ‘improvements’ on the English language in an authoritarian, imposed sort of way, it’s almost always made things worse. Think about the utterly unnecessary introduction of the letter ‘b’ into words like ‘debt’ and ‘doubt’, not added to give English teachers extra words to add on spelling tests (though it may seem that way) but in order to give the English words a closer resemblance to their Latin roots. The desire to make English resemble Latin – a language with which it does not have all that much in common grammatically – also gives us the commandment not to split infinitives, which, if obeyed, would have ruined the opening of Star Trek. Like Einstein’s comment on genius – “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” – English has often suffered for not being Latin.

Another dismal failure of English language intervention is Noah Webster’s spelling reforms. Some have been readily accepted (we no longer listen to musick), some never caught on (we don’t suffer a headake) but the most confusing are the middle ground of changes, accepted on one side of the Atlantic but not the other. So we’re stuck with traveler and traveller,color and colour, center and centre, a source of annoyance for editors everywhere.
This resistance of English to central control is not just one of the reasons it’s such a widely-spoken language today; it’s also central to its development. Received wisdom holds that the clearly Germanic language of Old English evolved into the hybrid Middle English as a result of the Norman invasion and the resulting influence of Norman French. That is certainly true, but it’s also only half of the story. The three-part division in the language that I spoke about earlier – the peasantry speaking English, the nobility speaking French and the intelligentsia speaking Latin – came about at this time, superceding Anglo-Saxon efforts to make the use of English universal among the different social classes.

That meant that what had previously been a language spoken, written and taught by the most educated in society as well as the least educated was then handed over almost entirely to the peasantry. English didn’t re-emerge as a language that could acceptably be used by people of status at least until the Alliterative Revival of the 14th century, and arguably until Chaucer (for which he earns the title of ‘The Father of English Literature’). For around 300 years it was free from interference by the sorts of people who would seek to preserve its more archaic and clunky structures, and therefore evolved naturally. I adore Old English, but it’s a language that’s full of redundancies and unnecessary grammatical complication, such as a strict case system and relatively strict rules on word order – one or the other will do; you don’t need both. Those 300 years of French influence and intellectual neglect stripped English of most of its case system and most of its grammatical gender, as well as simplifying verb endings and making many strong verbs weak, a process that continues to this day. Like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a challenge to the English language that could have resulted in its annihilation instead just made it stronger.
It’s arguable that something similar is happening to English today. The majority of conversations in English happen without a native speaker present; the rise of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) means that use of English internationally is increasingly about finding the most expedient method of communication rather than any concern about linguistic showiness. English is still shedding redundancies: the subjunctive really only survives in fossilised forms like ‘God save the Queen’, the possessive apostrophe is looking sickly and some experts are predicting that the third person singular ‘-s’ verb ending (e.g. she runs) could be on the way out too. This is where the lack of a centralised authority is vital to survival. Current English speakers may cringe at the thought of saying “he study hard” or similar, but English speakers 400 years ago would probably have mourned the loss of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, an egalitarian change to the language that most English speakers nowadays appreciate. Trying to hold back the organic evolution of language is reminiscent of a primordial fish clinging to the nascent stub of a tetrapod’s foot and saying, “you know, it’s a bad idea to go up on land…” What’s great about English is that for most of its history, such attempts have failed.

The most beautiful language in the world

There’s a joke that goes like this: there’s an English speaker, a French speaker, a Spanish speaker and a German speaker, and they’re having a conversation about language. “English is beautiful,” the English speaker sighs. “Listen to this: butterfly!” The French speaker nods and says, “yes, French is beautiful too: papillon!” The Spanish speaker smiles and says, “and Spanish as well: mariposa!” The German speaker huffs and frowns, and eventually says, “look, what is your problem with Schmetterling?”
I mention this joke not because it’s particularly funny (unless you’re telling it in a large group with several Germans, in which case it’s hilarious), but because it’s one of the few instances I can think of where English is grouped with the ‘beautiful’ languages instead of the ‘ugly’ ones. It’s an accepted truth that French is better for romance and Italian is better for music. It isn’t just a Germanic/Romance distinction, though: Icelandic is very pretty. English seldom gets this kind of praise, and the accents that make it sound more euphonious often do so because they’re picking up the rhythms and inflection of a different language and applying it to English, as with Irish pronunciations of words like ‘thirty’ and ‘film’.

I think that’s OK. Many languages that sound beautiful do so because of their consistency – Icelandic, for instance, hasn’t changed all that much in a thousand years, whereas one of the key elements that makes English so wonderful is, as I’ve discussed, its sheer mongrel variety. English doesn’t have the beauty of a Chippendale wardrobe; it’s more the linguistic equivalent of an Ikea Billy bookcase. It’s not superficially attractive, but it’s also accessible to pretty much anyone, and there are no restrictions on what you do with it once you’ve got it. Versatile, rich and democratic, the nature of English allows any speaker to express themselves more or less any way they want – and if that isn’t beautiful, I don’t know what is.