‘‘English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.
Spelling is a matter of writing, of course, whereas language is fundamentally about speaking. Speaking came long before writing, we speak much more, and all but a couple of hundred of the world’s thousands of languages are rarely or never written. Yet even in its spoken form, English is weird. It’s weird in ways that are easy to miss, especially since Anglophones in the United States and Britain are not exactly rabid to learn other languages. But our monolingual tendency leaves us like the proverbial fish not knowing that it is wet. Our language feels ‘normal’ only until you get a sense of what normal really is.
There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian: if you know that tsiis is cheese and Frysk is Frisian, then it isn’t hard to figure out what this means: Brea, bûter, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk. But that sentence is a cooked one, and overall, we tend to find that Frisian seems more like German, which it is.
We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family – Indo-European – and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.
More weirdness? OK. There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s – why just that? The present‑tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult? Unless you happen to be from Wales, Ireland or the north of France, probably.
Why is our language so eccentric? Just what is this thing we’re speaking, and what happened to make it this way? …’
Source: linguist John McWhorter, in Aeon