What You Might Not Know About English
In no particular order, some very miscellaneous, quirky facts about our beloved language (or tongue, the Latin word for which is lingua, which eventually morphed into the English word language). The numbers correspond to their footnotes, for further reading.

1. Despite its noble pedigree, ain't, an old contraction for "am I not," is still not a properly accepted word (see #19), but early in the17th century, amn't was. Later that same century, people dropped the m, disliking the nose buzz from the m-n combination, leaving the word an't. When an't began to be pronounced with a long-(so as not to be confused with the insect?), an i was inserted to aid in pronunciation, giving us the familiar ain't. Charles Dickens, by the way, used both an't and ain't in the same chapter of his novel Little Dorrit. In the 1800s, middle class British--though not the upper and lower classes--began the fight against contractions, especially the "vulgar" ain't. To quote the late Fats Domino, "Ain't that a shame?"

2. You probably already know that fan is a shortened form of fanatic, and maybe even that piano is short for pianoforte. But how about these: bus<--omnibus, cello<--violincello, van<--caravan, and mob<--mobile vulgus ("unstable crowd"). How long before our descendants will not know phone<--telephone and even plane<--airplane?

3. While we are speaking, our brain is planning what we're going to say next. That's why 40-50% of each sentence is made up of pauses, including our um's, er's, and y'know's.

4. Dropping the -g in -ing almost never happens with nouns and adjectives. Most dropped g's are at the ends of verbs. We might say "Grandma is movin' to Florida next month," but not "The President gave a very movin' speech to the nation." And unless you're doing a Desi Arnaz impression, it's unlikely you would look up at a strange bug and ask, "What is that thin' there on the ceilin'?"

5. Over time, some letters stay in a word, but disappear in pronunciation, as in knee,
sword, and bright. Not so many hundred years ago, our ancestors would have pronounced them ka-nee, soo-ward and, trying not to spew saliva, brihgckt. Words gain silent letters when speakers get tired of collisions between the syllables and words which follow. Try saying these without omitting the silents:
  • handkerchief--> hand...ker..cheef
  • Mice like to climb up and gnaw on the cupboard-->
    Mice like to cly...bup and guh-naw on the cup board.
  • The coach gave a tough speech to his team at halftime.
    -->The co-atch ga-vuh a towg-hah speech to his tee-am
    at halllfff ty-muh.
  • Use George Bernard Shaw's observation on this topic by asking your friends, family members, or students how to pronounce the nonsense word ghoti. Using the gh in tough, the o in women, and the ti in nation, ghoti becomes  . . .  fish!

6. Speaking of tough (as in stuff), here are five more ways to pronounce that -ough-  spelling: 
  • though, as in snow
  • bought, as in taut
  • bough, as in cow
  • through, as in stew
  • cough, as in off 

  • 7.    You might also have to explain to your grandchildren why your own parents still call a refrigerator an ice box. But even the oldest among us might not know that, in some rural parts of the Northern U.S., a frying pan used to be called a spider. Why? Because they had spidery little legs to keep the pan out of the fire while cooking.

    8.  According to the "continuity" theory of language development, all babies all around the world can make all the sounds of any language. (The "discontinuity" theory disagrees.) American infants can babble the clicks and whoops of exotic native languages thousands of miles away . . . until they learn to speak English. Many Japanese have trouble pronouncing "our" R's, leading to such hilarity (and stereotyping) as ordering "flied lice" from the menu.

    9. Normally, there are only six consonants which may combine with the letter L in an English word: b(leed),
    c(lamp), f(ly), g(lue), p(lay), and s(lim).
    What are the abnormal examples? See the footnote, if they don't come to mind.

    10. The word "SWIMS," when capitalized, is the same backwards and upside-down, which is appropriate, because people too can swim backwards and upside-down. ("NOON" works too, but I can't think of anything else to add.)

    11. Quick: How do you say the word misled?  I was a confident finalist in a high school pronunciation bee, when I stunned my teacher and classmates with, "M-I-S-L-E-D . . . MY-zelled."

    12. If you ever doubted that the language part of your brain is connected to other parts of your body, think of the word bubble and you'll feel a little impulse in your throat. Even thinking of a picture of a bubble does it, though not as strongly.

    13. Not all Greek is Greek to us. It's easy to see how the triangular letter "delta" became our capital D. And we're familiar every December with "Xmas," including the Greek letter chi which eases the burden of our spelling of "Christmas."

          Look at this Egyptian hieroglyph of an ox,   
    those horizontal extensions the ears, the short diagonal sticks the horns, and the rest the face and mouth. It would reappear as the ancient Hebrew pictographic word for ox, namely alep, suspiciously close to the Greek alpha, the first letter of their alphabet (alpha beta, man). Turn the glyph upside down, and it's a capital A!

    14. Der Tank, German for "the tank," as in "water tank," was used as a fake-out word to hide that country's World War I secret development of the cannon-shooting, armored military vehicle. Worried that workers, many of them slave laborers, might wonder what they were building, the foremen said that it was just a wagon for hauling tanks of water to the troops. Once the secret was out, the Germans began calling the military vehicle der Panzer, but we got stuck with tank in English.

    The homophones two, too, and to are almost all related to one another. 
    • Two, of course, has to do with the number 2. (It was once pronounced with the -w-, as we still do in the related words twin and twice.) 
    • The preposition to meant  "in the direction of" before it meant "against." One object pressing up against another makes two, but that's just a coincidence.
    • Too, meaning "also," adds another person, place or thing to the first, adding up to two (another coincidence). Now we use it for any quantity which gains another member: Jake and I like bluegrass music; Chrissy does too. Even more confusing, until the 16th century, too and to were spelled the same.

    16. Other surprising "relatives" are

    • assassin and hashish
    • ball/ballot/balloon/ballad/ballet/bullet,
    • cage/cave/cabinet/decoy/jail
    • car/career/carry, caricature/carriage/charge/

    And that's just a sampling, barely into the C's!

    17. Not counting therein, can you list the 10 words which can be spelled, in order, using the word therein?  If not, see the footnote. 

    18. Contractions were not always completely contracted.
    I noticed the choppy spacing in some H.G. Wells stories of the late 19th Century: has n't, would 've, were n't, and
    even I 'm.

    19. And never forget . . .

    • Avoid cliches like the plague!
    • Prepositions are words you never end sentences with.
    • And Ain't ain't a word.


    1. "What Is a Language?" by Neil Smith and Deirdre Wilson. From Modern Linguistics: The Results of Chomsky's Revolution. Indiana University Press, 1979.

    2. "Word-Making: Some Sources of New Words" by W. Nelson Francis, from The English Language: An Introduction by W. Nelson Francis, W.W. Norton Co., 1963, 1969.

    3. "How Do We Plan and Produce Speech?" by Jean Aitchison. New York: Universe Books, 1976, 1979.

    4. " Researcher's Guide to the Sociolinguistic Variable (ING)" by Benji Wald and Timothy Shopen in Language: Introductory Readings. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

    5. Joe Kowalski

    6. JK

    7. "Dialects: How They Differ" by Roger W. Shuy from Discovering American Dialect. National Council of Teachers of English, 1967

    8. "The Acquisition of Language" by B.A. Moskowitz, Scientific American, 1978.
    "Social Feedback to Infants' Babbling Facilitates Rapid Phonological Learning" by Michael H. Goldstein and Jennifer A. Schwade in Psychological Science, 2008.

    9. Phonetics by Edward Calary, 1981. Abnormals: Proper names, such as Colonel K(link), and Spanish-sourced words such as the animal l(lama).
    English Teachers Network - Israel (ETNI), 1997.

    10. www.etni.org.it/farside/riddleanswers.htm.

    11. JK

    12. JK

    13. "Languages and Writing" by John P. Hughes from The Science of Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Random House, 1962.

    14. Englund, Peter. The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

    15. Ayto, John. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990.

    16. Ayto

    17. ETNI (and my classmate Francis Dobrzenski). Answers: the, there, re, ere, he, her, here, rein, in, and herein.

    18. University of Wisconsin linguist Anja Wanner points out, however, that the first edition of 1847's Wuthering Heights does not have mid-word spaces in its contractions. She suspects it may just have been the preferences of certain editors or publishers.

    19. Cliches: William Safire in his "On Language" column in The New York Times, Nov. 4, 1979.  Prepositions: Smith and Wilson.  Ain't: Every mildly amusing English teacher you ever had.

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