Why does English … ? Just because

As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed.

As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions — about why English is the way it is. And, unfortunately, the simple answer to many of those questions is “Because.” (In fact, many of the questions have complicated answers based on when words entered English, where they came from and when their forms were standardized, but those answers don’t fit neatly in a sentence or two, so I’m left with a choice between 10 minutes of explaining or “Because.”)

Why is the past tense of “read” “read” but the past tense of “lead” “led”?

Why is it “sing/sang/sung” and “ring/rang/rung” but not “bring/brang/brung”? (Yes, people say “brung,” but not if they are trying to communicate professionally.)

Why don’t “tough” and “trough” and “through” rhyme? And why do we still have “gh” anyway?

Spelling is probably the biggest headache in English, which is why spelling bees are a thing here but not in most other countries, whose languages have the decency to spell things the way they sound (or are completely divorced from the way they sound, in the case of pictographic languages). Spelling has been enough of a bugaboo that through the centuries, several spelling reforms have been proposed in English. Earlier ones were more successful with minor changes (though ended up giving us some doozies like the silent “B” in “debt), but the more extensive proposals never got off the ground.

A big push came in 1906, when wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded the Simplified Spelling Board, with the support of President Teddy Roosevelt, and gave it $25,000 a year. The purpose of the board was to make English more efficient, and some of its successful suggestions included using American over British spellings. The board’s first big goal seemed simple: get 50 American writers to use a new spelling for 12 words: program, catalog, decalog, prolog, demagog, pedogog, tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru and thruout. Looks like they succeeded with two — program and catalog — and a half, if you count “drive-thru.” Many of the board’s suggestions met with skepticism and even public mockery; the board disbanded in 1920.

As we look forward, significant reform is unlikely to happen in the future because although the status quo is a headache, it would be a monster of a migraine to change it all. English has a much farther reach globally, and even getting people to agree on what should be changed, much less implement the changes, is a near impossibility — language doesn’t respond well to top-down decrees.

Which leaves us with a bunch of inconsistencies in English, and the simple answer “Because.”

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One response to “Why does English … ? Just because

  1. Pingback: Comings and goings, bringings and takings | Madam Grammar