TEC15 Day 3 | Why is English so difficult? | Talk summary

The subtitle of this talk – Empowering teachers through a better understanding of the history of the English language – was also ostensibly its objective.  This talk was also by Dr. Elaine Higgleton, who by then had become our favourite speaker at TEC15.

Elaine Higgleton TEC

She explained that her talk was drawn from the questions that were asked of her in workshops across India. English is different based on geography, generation and context and she pointed out that the language couldn’t be placed in a box for the purpose of claiming that there’s one definable entity called English.

Silent letters

  • Chaucer and Shakespeare pronounced the K in words such as knee, knight and knife, the last of which was pronounced /kni:f/ in Old English. The GH that we see in words such as rough was originally a sound from the back of the throat which became /f/ through contact with old Norse in words such as tough, and became silent in a purely native development in a word like through.

Spelling reformers 

  • These folks added letters to up the prestige quotient of words. For example, the word doubt was originally spelt ‘dout’ and pronounced /du:t/ mirroring French spelling and pronunciation where it was borrowed from. However, they added a B to make it look as if it was directly borrowed from the Latin ‘dubitum’.
  • The spelling reformers added the apostrophe to show the genitive because they felt ‘book s’ would be confused with ‘book is’ and thus added an apostrophe to fill the space in between ‘book’s’.

The great vowel shift

  • A phenomenon that affected words that were already present in English before 1400 and altered the pronunciation of long vowels. For example, /hwi:l/ in Old English become while /wɑɪl/ and /hwi:t/ became /wɑɪt/ as well as /u:/ to /ɑʊ/ as in doubt.  Interestingly, the vowel shift affected words that were a part of English before 1400 so words like ‘soup’ which were borrowed from French in the 1700s were not affected.
  • In Northern English, good and flood rhyme. In Scotland, good and food rhyme. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would have rhymed good, food and flood using /u:/ for all three.
  • Meat and meet are homophones today but in Shakespeare’s time, they were pronounced /meɪt/ and /miːt/. In the 18th century, the ea and ee words started to assimilate in pronunciation except words such as break and great due to phonesthesia (which Dr. Higgleton pointed out was somewhat controversial).
  • Similarly, yea has retained its pronunciation despite its spelling due to its association with nay (as is yea and nay in Parliament).

The Norman Conquest

  • One of the reasons English is challenging is its wide vocabulary which it borrows from other languages. English has had this acquisitive quality for yonks. In 1066, the Norman Conquest brought Norman French to England. Some French words completely replaced Old English ones such as fruit instead of wæstm. Other French words allowed English speakers to make semantic distinctions that they couldn’t make before. For example, at the table, the Norman aristocracy would ask for boef, porc and mouton and their servers who were probably English came to associate these words with the meat as opposed to the animal. So, before Norman Conquest both the animal and the meat were called cow. However, after the Conquest, the following distinctions emerged: cow-beef, pig-pork and sheep-mutton.
  • We also have many word pairs where the original English word has been retained such as begin and commence. However, the words that have come from French often have a different meaning, register or prestige. In the case of begin and commence, the former is neutral and the latter formal. With stop and arrest (from the French arreter), arrest has evolved a special meaning which is different from stop.
  • Phrasal verbs are often perceived as difficult because of the grammar that accompanies them. However, we often fail to realize that the alternative to a phrasal verb is usually a French/Latin equivalent which completely changes the register. Using ‘extinguish’ or ‘eliminate’ in place of ‘put out’ or ‘take out’ can make Ss sound inappropriately formal depending on the context.

 Residual plurals

  • Some residual plural forms go back to Old English. Boc-bec (book-books) fell out of use but we retain tooth-teeth.  Old English used mous-mys for mouse and mice where mys was pronounced very differently. This sound, i-umlaut, comes from proto-Germanic and according to Dr. Higgleton, this  /i/ back vowel in inflections caused vowels in preceding syllables to be fronted. Mys then become meece in early Middle English which ultimately transformed into mice after the vowel shift. The i-umlaut is also a contributing fact to the man-men change.


  • This is a really intriguing one.  The British English past tense of the verb dive – dived was formed through the merging of two Old English verbs: dufan (a strong verb that meant to dive) and dyfan ( a weak verb that meant to dip) with a weak verb ending (-ed). However, in American English, the past tense of dive is dove. This emerged by analogy with drive-drove and its first documented use was seen in Hiawatha (Longfellow, 1855).

An understanding of residualisms may enable teachers to talk with more confidence in the classroom. Dr. Elaine Higgleton

I learnt a lot of things that I’d never known before in this hour long talk. Whether you agree with what the speaker said about how this knowledge will make Ts more confident, the evolution of English is definitely intriguing stuff. Here are Dr. Higgleton’s suggestions for further reading:

  • Andre Martinet, Economies de changements linguistique (1955)
  • M L Samuels, Linguistic evolution with special reference to English (1973)
  • J Aitchison, Language change: progress or decay? (1986)
  • JJ Smith, An historical study of English: function, form and change (1966)
  • JJ Smith, Old English: a linguistic introduction (2009)
  • C Barber, J Beal, P Shaw, The English language: a historical introduction (2nd ed 2009)

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