English Language: Understanding the Rules and Complications

From the lecture series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

For most native English speakers, the idea that their spontaneous speech is full of errors does not exist. And this is interesting. People native to a rain forest do not think they are making any mistakes while speaking in their language. However, writing in correct English grammar becomes some sort of an obsession for many people. Why?

An image of old handwritten Roman cursive script.
In earlier times, a common misconception was that Latin and Greek were the best languages, better than English. (Image: Alatius at English Wikipedia/Public domain)

Who Made the Rules of English?

When in school we learnt a lot of English grammar rules. Many of these errors that were taught to us to be avoided were pinpointed as mistakes by two people, and that was only 200 years ago. This is a comparatively new tradition in the English language. In 1762, Robert Lowth, a bishop, wrote a book titled A Short Introduction to English Grammar. In a way, he was creating rules in English grammar, and he did it because he was considered to be an authority. And, in 1794, Lindley Murray wrote a similar book that was partly based on Lowth’s work, titled English Grammar. So Lowth and Murray were the two people whose little books were reprinted innumerable times and insight into the English language of many generations was shaped by them. These men’s influence lives on in us. To think of it, it all really traces back to just these two.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Why Do We Need Rules in English?

painting of Robert Lowth.
Robert Lowth was bishop in London. (Image: After Robert Edge Pine/Public domain)

The two men—Lowth and Murray wrote these rule books during a period when the English language had just grown from being a lowly informal everyday language spoken in a windswept island into a language that had a worldwide influence.

Thus, they had the perception that they were preparing English. It was like they were dressing Eliza in My Fair Lady before she went to the ball. The idea was that the English language should have more rules than it seemingly had. However, they were working under some illusions, about which experts may presently have a different perspective. During their lifetime, there was no such thing as a scientific study of languages. But the unfortunate thing is that the result of their illusion continues to exist in the things that are often told to us today. Just like the sort of things psychologists tell us can damage a person with a punch on the back or a look of disapproval. So, what are those assumptions?

Learn more about how the meaning of a word changes over time.

Rules of English Language

To start with, English language already had some rules. For example, let’s take articles. Let’s consider the two articles, the and a. So when one says, “Well, I went to a party that I had been invited to,” the ‘party’ means that one had already brought it up before. This is the party that is already talked about. And when one says, “Well, I saw a cat,” one brings a cat onto the scene. It’s a cat one had not seen earlier. The cat is not known. It is most probably not the speaker’s cat. It is a totally new cat. So, the is used for an object that has already been spoken of but a is about something that is new. One may not even think about it but it is instinctive.

Let’s take an example. Imagine you have a couple—Fred and Louisa—in your group of friends. Louisa is Portuguese. Then, one day, while you are sitting with your friends, one of them says, “You know, Fred seems to know a few words of Portuguese”. And you reply: “Well, of course, he would. He married a Portuguese lady.” Now notice that your friend said “a Portuguese lady” when both of you have known Louisa for many years? There are specific reasons for using a, but none of us usually thinks about them. This goes to show how complicated the English language is.

Learn more about how language changes-modern English.

Which Is Better? English, Latin, or Greek?

Portrait of Lindley Murray, the American grammatarian.
American grammarian Lindley Murray wrote a book called English Grammar. (Image: Dean, engraver, after a painting by E. Westoby/Public domain)

So, English is definitely complicated, and it has rules. But Lowth and Murray thought that English did not have sufficient rules. What was the reason behind this thinking? One misconception they had, and it was very common during the period they lived, was that Latin and Greek were the best languages. This idea was popular among those who were still being educated in the classical tradition. Latin and Greek have, what one may call in a slipshod manner, conjugated nouns. These are nouns that have long lists of case endings. Which means, the boy, to the boy, the boy used as an object, the boy used in ablative, etc. So not only there are verb conjugations like hablo, hablas, habla that one already knows from Spanish, but the nouns are also equally complicated.

Because English is a naked type of language in that way—there is not much of that—it was always felt that for some reason, Latin and Greek were better languages. That the other two languages were very developed and the English language represented some sort of decay.

However, we now know that languages without endings are very complicated. There are nine different tones in Cantonese Chinese. This, in a way, compensates for Latin and its good endings. So one can say there are many ways in which a language can be complicated. But Lowth and Murray did not have a way to know that. The study of remote or unfamiliar languages was not so advanced during that time. All they knew was that there was the Greek language, there was the Latin language, and then there was the English language and some other languages somewhat like English. And for them, Latin and Greek were right at the top.

Common Questions about English Language

Q: Is English language difficult?

English language is generally termed as the most difficult language – both for the learners and native speakers. This is mainly because of its spellings which are unpredictable and grammar which is difficult to learn.

Q: What is the origin of the English language?

Anglo Saxon migrants from what is now northwest Germany, Southern Denmark, and the Netherlands brought Anglo Frisian dialects to Britain between 5th and 7th century AD. The English language originated from this dialect only.

Q: Who takes decisions about proper English?

No individual has any authority or exclusive rights to decide what is good and what is not good for the English language or what is right for grammar. However, it doesn’t mean that there is a rule of chaos. Most people who have seriously studied English usually have a common view of the rules of grammar.

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