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Complexities fill the English language

Many words have multiple meanings

“I’m glad I was born to the English language,” a woman told me once, “because it is so easy to learn.”

Really?!

Yet philologists tell us that of all the languages in the civilized world, the three hardest to learn as a second language are Chinese, Gaelic and English.

I have no experience with the first two. But let’s look at English, which is said to have one million four hundred thousand (1,400,000) words. I wonder if that includes all that ever were in the language. What an amazing number!

After the Romans had come and gone, giving us some Latin in our speech, the Angles (the source of “England”) and the Saxons, hence Anglo-Saxon, overran the island’s native people. The Normans showed up in 1066, giving us a bunch of French, and other things ever since.

Look what all this has done to our spelling:

• We write vegetable and say vechtabl.

• Wednesday and say Wensdi.

• Laughter and say lafter.

• Daughter and dawter.

• Chicago and Chicawgo.

• Comfortable and cumftabl.

• Again and agen.

• Soar and sore.

• Chute and shoot.

• Food and good.

• Weigh and way.

• The “ough” group of letters which yields the words trough, though, rough.

• Might and mite.

• Would and wood.

They come trailing extra letters from other tongues that serve no purpose now except to hint at source. And this is only the beginning of the millennia-long process of absorbing other tongues which make it exceedingly hard to spell. Things simply don’t match!

When one thinks of how much a child has to learn as he grows up, it is a marvel that they make it.

My nephew went through a spell of demanding “tell me ‘bout dat.” Sometimes he’d add, “tell me ‘bout data den.” And a patient adult would tell it again. That time it was a pan full of hamburgers.

Just now the language seems to be under assault by the various vocabularies of the sciences as the shortening of words and omission of vowels presents changes, lots of them.

How many of these will last? How many will last only briefly? The situation is very volatile, moving so quickly that it seems the adults are having to learn a new language from their children.

Let’s have another contest: To the first three people who turn in five words like those listed here in the opening paragraphs of this column, we will offer the usual prize: six months of The Chronicle; new subscriber if you are not now getting then paper, extension of subscription if you are. Call our front office at 509-826-1110 and give your entry to our staff. Happy hunting!

Elizabeth Widel is a columnist for

The Chronicle. This is the 2,841st column in a series. She may be reached at 509-826-1110.

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