Reasons Why English is a Crazy Language

During my final year at the university, I was admitted to The Collegiate Immaculate, the University of the Immaculate Conception’s paper, as a layout artist. The role was symbolic as my part extended beyond content placement and layout direction; I also dabbled into writing feature stories that offered a distraction to the regular campus updates.

There were few articles ready for the paper’s first issue of the semester, a simple case of a slow news quarter. Apart from the conclusion of the student government election, new facilities opening up, and UIC’s debating team from Liberal Arts and Engineering departments hosting the Holy Cross of Davao College, the editorial team couldn’t dig deeper for newsworthy articles. That year’s Editor-in-Chief was Gwendoline Panes, a medical technology freshman, who was still getting around the nuances of university life, let alone get to know and manage veterans in the group.

Upon the prodding of our moderator, Ms. Febes Collado, I was assigned a pool of stories to write, but nothing was inspiring enough until I stumbled across an article that had me scratching my head while trying to regurgitate its content and add a more humorous spin fit for our campus audience: folks fresh out of high school who are learning the ropes around college life, or my homies at the Annex campus who can spend their idle time with a slap-in-the-face realization: English is a crazy language.

Thankfully, it was an idea supported by fellow contributor Ronald Andulana, and managing editors Virgo Mocam and Leah Sia. But it was more of a regurgitation of a brilliant essay than a product of my creative thinking regarding the English language.

Our subjects have been taught in English since grade school, so I didn’t ask Mrs. Casimira Santos and Mrs. Perla Umusig, my English subject teachers, a lot of questions about learning a second language. I found out later, much later that there are just a lot of contradictions and inconsistencies that you can’t easily frame words with their literal meaning or define a term by without understanding its context.

Let’s start with nouns, where there are plenty of words whose meaning doesn’t align with the terms being combined. Pineapple doesn’t consist of pine and apple, nor is eggplant made up of egg, and.. you get the gist.

It would have been simple to make a singular object plural by adding “s” at the end, so atom becomes atoms, crayon becomes crayons, and the hotel becomes hotels. But English makes it a little more interesting. Instead of tooths, it’s teeth, not foots but feet. But we can’t make multiples of booth as beeth, nor root as reet, as they revert back to the simple singular-plural transformation. Doers are often denoted with a prefix “er” so hiker hikes, batter bats, and worker work, but what exactly does a messenger, a hammer or a finger do?

We see a pattern: the plural of index is called indices, vertex as vertices, mediatrix as mediatrices, and appendix as appendices. But why we can’t apply the same thing to reflex, annex, and duplex? One Kleenex, two Kleenices? One moose, two meese?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? And if a vegetarian eats veggies, can you tell what a humanitarian eats? If look and see sounds similar, then why overlook and oversee are opposites?

Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay

Wordplay so far has been simple, but don’t get me started with the paradoxes that are never meant to be taken literally. Quicksand works slowly, a boxing ring is square, and Guinea pig doesn’t come from Guinea nor it’s a pig. In what language can we find someone recite at a play, and play at a recital? Even Microsoft Word will highlight a grammatical error if I write “the dove dove into the bushes when attacked by a hunter.”

On one hand, to overlook means monitor or inspect, but on the other hand, overlook also means failure to do so.

Then there are words that have exact same spelling but have different meanings. While it’s possible to desert someone in a desert, and refuse a refuse because it is meant for the rubbish bin, the discount sale is attractive to a person shopping but to discount a person is a degrading experience. To row our boat in unison brings us to our destination faster but when we’re involved in a row, we are not showing unity at all.

If gambling bets and weather reports are measured, how do we distinguish between slim chance and fat chance? And speaking of the weather, it can be hot as hell one day, and cold as hell on another. I don’t think I met a sung hero, run into someone who was gruntled, ruly, or peccable, and I neither experienced a requited love. Likewise, I see nothing when lights are out but I see the stars when they are out.

There’s indeed a lot of wordplay that native English speakers don’t realize until someone learning the language raises a point:

  • You can recite in a play and play in a recital. How can they call it shipment when its transported by car, but it’s called cargo when it’s transported by ship?
  • Your fingers have fingertips, but your toes don’t have toetips, yet you can tiptoe but not tipfinger. Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?
  • Jail and prison refer to the same thing, but jailer and prisoner are on the opposite side of that metal cage. Meanwhile, your nose runs but your feet smell.

Pronunciations are often shared by not just two but three or more words: to, too, two. But every letter C in Pacific Ocean is pronounced differently? And repeating the same word four times can make sense: all the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life. Also, was the letter “w” meant to be called double-v instead of double-u?

The latter reminded me of a friend in Hong Kong named Baba, who reportedly experienced a perfectly legit question on the lift: Baba, bababa ba? (Baba, is this going down?)

A bandage was wound around my wound, so I thought it was time to present the present because I had no time to present it.  Adding insult to injury, the insurance was invalid for the invalid after subjecting the subject to a series of tests.

Don’t get me started with idioms, terminologies that can blow away the beginners. Why is raining cats and dogs the same as the rain pouring hard?

Even kind words with well-intended meanings can be misunderstood. “Have a nice day” sounds encouraging, but “enjoy your next 24 hours” sounds threatening, isn’t it? You can anticipate someone who says “with all due respect”, immediately follows it up with a disrespectful line.

For learners of the English language, it might be a head-scratching experience. No wonder the thought of IELTS tests still sends shivers to some people even though they communicate English relatively well. And why not? For a language that describes a house can burn up as it burns down, lets you fill in a form by filling it out, calling a farm that produces produce a productive farm, and an alarm clock that goes off by going on makes perfect sense, there’s a level of insanity that goes with it.

Like any other language, people invented English, not machines, even though we have Google Translate, Grammarly, and Merriam-Webster to fine-tune its usage to gain greater understanding. It has evolved in the history of the human race, which, as you guessed it right is not a race like F1 or marathon at all. The wind was too strong to wind the sail, and when I wind my watch I meant to start it, but when I wind up this article, I actually end it.

So as Richard Lederer puts it succinctly, let’s face it — English is a crazy language.

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