I didn’t really study languages at school. French for a bit, but I was constantly being told off for ‘thinking in English’, which blew my mind. So, they expected me to go to school for five years and then they wanted to control how I thought too? I quit French as soon as I was able.
I don’t know how it is in other countries, but certainly in the UK students have the chance to study ‘modern languages’ at secondary school level. Not that most of us know much beyond ‘zwei Bier bitte’/ ‘dos cervezas por favor’ / ‘deux bieres s’il vous plait’ etc.
Generally, you’re only taught ancient languages like Latin and Greek if you go to a private school (also called a Public School, just to confuse those of us who never went). But then, at some private schools (well, Eton) the pupils still have to wear tail coats and bow ties which is frankly just bizarre. Though they no longer wear top hats which is probably someone’s idea of daringly modern.
Much as I loved studying Ancient History with the OU, I’m not sure my brain would’ve coped with studying Latin. It was tough enough learning the abbreviations to decipher tombstones – for example if you see DM it doesn’t mean the deceased had a penchant for heavy black boots, it meant dis minibus, to the spirits of the departed. And the three part Roman name system – praenomen, nomen, cognomen – still confuses me to this day.
So despite the enjoyment I derive from monkeying around with words, I’m no linguist. But English is no push over.
You see the thing is, we’re all taught mnemonics at school which are supposed to help with words and letter systems which are hard to remember ‒ ‘i before except after c’, ‘big elephants can always understand small elephants,’ and ‘always remember your P.E. kit or the teacher will make you do star jumps in your pants.’ No, that last one won’t help you to spell, but it will save you from trauma induced nightmares and therapist’s bills.
Of course, the thing with English is it reflects the inhabitants of this daft little island: messy, contradictory, a mish-mash of cultural influences and (if our dilly-dallying with the European Union is any guide) bloody-minded.
What else can explain why we have so many – Wednesday Word Tangle coming up ‒ SILENT LETTERS in words. Yes, we’ve inherited the spellings from invading forces both aggressive and passive, hence silent ‘s’ and ‘t’ words such as bourgeois and ricochet – for those, blame the French.
But we also have words where the pronunciation has altered over time such as – funnily enough – Wednesday.
Now any school kid knows it’s named after the Norse god Odin/ Wodin, because clearly midweek is when you most feel like hanging from the World Tree whilst keeping your one eye open for Fenrir the wolf in case he creeps up and tears your throat out whilst you’re speaking to some dead guy you’ve reanimated. Or not.
So somehow, the ‘o’ in Wodin’s Day became and ‘e’ and we squished the whole lot into one word, and decided we couldn’t be bothered to pronounce one of the ‘d’s. All fine. Except, we couldn’t be bothered to change the spelling either, which leaves generations of dyslexics trying to spell the midweek hanging/ one eyed/ wolf commemoration Wenzday, which is really just cruel when you think about it.
If we were sensible, we’d rejig the whole lot. We could follow our American cousins and drop silent ‘u’s and ‘l’s and double vowels and replace ‘s’s with ‘z’s just because that’s how they’re pronounced. We could, but …
I like our stupid, silent letters. I suppose it makes us backward-looking (which we undoubtedly are) but I like that our history is there in our language, that we carry defeats and victories, even imperialism and triumphalism in the words we speak, because that, with all our faults, helps make us Us.
Do you have a favourite silent letter word? If you studied English as a foreign language, did you find the silent letters the hardest aspect to learn?
Thanks to Kittykat-bitsandbobs for kickstarting the whole W4W thang.