Have you ever wondered why English is the way it is?

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…” 
― Jostein Gaarder
Sophie’s World

Having graduated from college decades ago and done two Delta modules quite a while ago, I have decided to make a move into academic life once again, so to speak. As Gaarder’s words capture so well,  just like philosophers and children, we should not accept the world as a matter of course. We should always learn something new and take a fresh look at things no matter how silly or complicated our questions may be.

One of the perks of graduate studies is that inevitably we reread books and revisit concepts we learned a long time ago and we start wondering. This is precisely where my journey begins: my mission is to boldly go where I have been before — only to realize that I have actually not been there before … or was it my younger self?

Another journey begins with a simple question asked by my thirteen-year-old student: How come English has so many Latin and Greek words if it originated from the Germanic languages?

We had been discussing cognates and false cognates and the fact that they were Latinate words common to both Portuguese and English. That was when she started wondering. This is the beauty of having students. Because English language is so new to them, they cannot but wonder about its phenomena whereas English speakers in general take it for granted.

Having said that, the whole class embarked on a journey back in time to Medieval England, where Latin and Greek were the language of the law, scholarship, and religion; the vernacular was the everyday language, which obviously lacked prestige because it did not descend from Latin or Greek.

Portuguese, on the other hand, originated directly from Vulgar Latin, an everyday, spoken non-standard variety of Classical Latin, and the various dialects spoken in the Iberian Peninsula. Those also included Germanic languages brought by the so-called Barbarians. Anyone who has studied Classical Latin might have wondered at some point how on Earth people managed to speak such a complicated language with so many declensions that words could be placed anywhere in sentences.  Ancient Greek was no less complicated than Latin. Because languages are living organisms, they evolve, change, adapt, and capture the spirit of their speakers. Vernaculars were often seen as impure forms of human expression. Latin and Greek were regarded as pure forms precisely because they were already dead, embalmed languages. The written form of dead languages apparently can be tamed whereas living spoken languages are unruly and dynamic in both time and space. In other words, they are the black sheep of human expression.

The first grammars ever written in British territory were in Latin and attempted to explain the English language through the Latin system. No wonder today’s grammars still use Latin terminology such as the ‘genitive case’ for John’s book, for example.  The 18th Century Traditional Grammars’ attempts to tame such an unruly language gave rise to a series of do’s and don’t’s and dogmatic attitudes towards grammar:

ü  Don’t split the infinitive. It is wrong to say or write ‘to boldly go where no one has been before.’

ü  Two negatives destroy one another: I don’t do nothing is wrong.

ü  Don’t place prepositions at the end of sentences: It is wrong to say or write: Who are you going with? We should use With whom are you going?

These are rules we take for granted, but they were imposition rather than the result of natural evolution. No wonder these rules are bent by so many speakers. There is an anecdote attributed to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who was outraged when his secretary corrected him on the use of prepositions. “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put,” responded an angry Churchill.

Prescriptive grammar has been part of our student lives. We follow rules unaware of the fact that many of them may not make any sense simply because they are an attempt to reflect languages that bear no structural relationship with English, as it is the case of the use of  prepositions at the end of sentences. The Age of Reason’s linguistic purists hoped English would reach the realm of perfection if prepositions were used in the same way as in Latin, which did not allow the use of prepositions after the object despite its apparently random word order.

On the flip side, double negatives make so much sense to English speakers that they use them in  dialects across the UK and North America even though they are not deemed proper. They exist in  Portuguese and French, and believe it or not,  they were  used in Old and Middle English, too. So, why would they not make sense in English today when the speaker’s intention is to emphasize a negative statement?

These are a few things we should question ourselves. What exactly is a mistake? Does it not make sense for African American English speakers to say “I happy?” One of the principles of linguistics is economy, therefore omitting the verb ‘am’ is not intrinsically absurd and it does not impede communication, either.

We need to understand and wonder why language is the way it is rather than just always take it for what it is. There are times when we need to pass on this knowledge to our students.  They too need to look at language with curiosity and bewilderment so that they will never lose their faculty of wonder.

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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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