Why do there seem to be no consistent rules to the English language?
Updated: Jun 15
English, though seemingly chaotic and random, does have rules, and lots of them!
English developed as a result of centuries of cultural mixing, conquest, and influence from external sources, each of which has contributed its own loan words, grammar, and pronunciation rules.
The earliest form of the English we know today originated from the Anglo-Frisian languages spoken by the Saxons, who invaded Britain in the mid-5th century. Old English then developed as a mixture of native Celtic and British languages, Latin brought earlier by the Roman conquest, and west Germanic languages and dialects spoken by the Saxons.
Later, in the 8th and 9th centuries, Old English and later Middle English were heavily influenced by yet another set of languages, this time from northern Germanic languages spoken by the invading Scandinavian Vikings.
In 1066, William the Conqueror and his Norman army won a decisive battle against the Saxons at Hastings and took the throne of England, ushering in a new era of the English language.
The Norman conquerors imposed their language of Anglo-Norman on the conquered, which later developed into Middle English. During this era many French and Norman loan words (as well as the grammar and spelling rules) entered the English language, especially words regarding religion, the state, and food. This period saw the rise of the system of orthography which English still uses today. However, it is important to note that later changes in pronunciation, as well as adaption of foreign spelling and loan words, contributed highly to the irregularity of Modern English spelling.
Early Modern English, the next step in the evolution of the language, developed in the late 15th century. This was the language in which Shakespeare, considered by some to be the greatest literary figure in history, wrote his plays and sonnets in. Early Modern English incorporated more loan words and their spellings from languages such as Dutch, French, Latin, Ancient Greek, and German. In this period there were significant changes in pronunciation, and during this period the Great Vowel Shift occurred, changing the qualities of most long vowel sounds.
Modern English as we speak it today has been in place since the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and is a mix of the many and diverse influences upon the language.
So, how can knowing this history help with your training in American English and Accent? As far as spelling and pronunciation go, making lists of similar words helps to reveal patterns, which in turn helps us to remember. For example, the words “rough, tough, enough” form a pattern of spelling and pronunciation, with [ough] pronounced as /ʌf/. The word “height” rhymes with “light, fight, night, right” (and others), with the [ight] pronounced as /aɪt/.
By looking for patterns, you will find them, and they can help you with your American accent and English skills.
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