You say potato, I say ghoughteighpteau!

The English language came, of course, from England, descended from the Germanic language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, the ancestors of the English people. Thanks to the British Empire the language is now spoken in many countries that were former British colonies, with Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans borrowing England's language and speaking it themselves.

Today English is the second-most spoken language in the world - after Chinese Mandarin - and is also the most widespread, being spoken as an official language in 53 countries.

As a Germanic language, English is closely related to German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic.

The most closely related language to English is Frisian, which is spoken in northern Netherlands and north west Germany.

One of the appeals of learning English is the simplicity of its gramamr. Unlike other European languages, English has no grammatical gender (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Turkish, like English, are the few that also don't have grammatical gender). English verbs only have 4 forms, whereas Italian verbs, for example have fifty.

But one thing that English-learners find difficult is English spelling, which is notoriously difficult. Learning the Italian, Spanish and French spelling systems, for example, is much easier than learning the English one, especially when you consider that it is possible, in English, to spell "fish" as "ghoti" and "potato" as "ghoughteighpteau".

You say potato, I say ghoughteighpteau!

7th October 2007
Daily Mail

About three years ago I started researching a book, This Little Britain, about the various ways in which we Brits have a history of being the exception.

In areas such as law, government, economics, agriculture and science, we've often been a uniquely British exception to a general European rule.

Ditto, in such things as men's fashion, Victorian sewers, drunken yobbishness, and - not least - in the whole area of language and literature.

Take spellings. George Bernard Shaw famously commented that English spelling would allow you to write the word 'fish' as 'ghoti' - and it would sound the same (in the latter, the sound 'f' would be from 'gh', as in 'rough'; 'i' would be from 'o' in 'women' and 'sh' as in 'ti' from 'nation').

But he couldn't have been trying all that hard, if that was the best example he came up with.

How about 'potato' as in 'ghoughbteighpteau'?

That's the sound 'p' as in hiccough, 'o' as in though, 't' as in debt, 'a' as in neighbour, 't' as in ptomaine, 'o' as in bureau. The fact is that with just 26 letters and 48 different sounds to cope with, there were always going to be problems.

Throw in other pronunciation changes and an appetite for foreign borrowings, and it's no surprise that English has some of the most dangerously unpredictable spellings in the world.

If our spellings are painful, however, our grammar has its blessedly simple side. French nouns are either masculine or feminine (German are masculine, feminine and neuter, whereas English has no grammatical gender); French verbs vary with every puff of the syntactical breeze.

But French is a pretty simple language. Italian has 50 different forms for every verb, ancient Greek more than 300, modern Turkish an eye-popping two million.

English, by contrast, has just four verb forms (bark, barks, barking, barked), two noun forms (dog, dogs), and just one adjectival form (snappy), thus making our language about the least inflected in the world.

If that's a curious fact, the reason why is perhaps odder still. Back in Alfred the Great's England, two language communities - English and Danish - intermingled.

Each community could make out the basic words of the other language.

For example, the word 'horse' is 'hors' in Old English, 'hossit' in Old Norse. But all those tricksy little word endings would have made no sense at all. So they began to vanish.

Under pressure of trade, friendship and intermarriage, our ancient ancestors did away with inflections almost completely. Confusing at the time, no doubt, but a blessing for those who need to learn the language today.

And there are plenty of people learning it, of course.

With about one-and-a-half billion non-native speakers, English has become the world's own language - one that accounts for two-thirds of internet content, and a still larger proportion of the world's scientific and technical journals.

It's sometimes suggested that English has achieved its leadership because it's the language of Shakespeare, because of its unique and beautiful literature.

That's nonsense, of course. English dominates because the British Isles exported English speakers and gunboats in the 19th century, and because America exported Hollywood, GIs and hamburgers in the 20th.

If those Mayflower settlers had chanced to speak Ubykh (a Caucasian language with 81 consonants and three vowels) or Rotokas (a Papua New Guinea language with just six consonants and five vowels), the world would most likely be speaking those fine languages today.

Such dominance has its downside, of course. There are now about 6,800 languages left in the world, compared with perhaps twice that number back at the dawn of agriculture. The remaining languages are now dying at the rate of about one a fortnight.

English is big in other ways too. If you wanted to learn all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, you'd have to deal with about 500,000 of them (ending with zyxt, a splendid last word by any standards and an archaic Kentish term for thou seest).

Having done that, you'd probably be a bit taken aback to learn the equivalent American dictionary, Webster's, offers a further 450,000 words or so, of which only about half are to be found in the OED, suggesting a pooled total word count of about 750,000.

But there are lots of words that never get in to either dictionary. Flora and fauna are mostly out. So are most acronyms, slang and dialect. Total that lot up and you'd get to a million or so. Next, you'd need to deal with scientific and technological terms, adding another million or so words.

Other languages can't keep up. The official dictionary-based word count of German is fewer than 200,000. The French wordcount is fewer than 100,000. The scale of our vocabulary is impossible to explain, except by recognising that English users are reckless adopters and inventors.

In the cultural realm, however, mere size is hardly likely to In terms of Nobel Prizes for literature, the United Kingdom trots home in the bronze medal position (beaten by goldmedallist France, and the silvergongholder, the U.S.).

If, on the other hand, you were looking at the total amount of literature produced by the British Isles then we would come in level with France, with 13 prizes.

But perhaps that's to measure things the wrong way. If you look at Nobel Prizes by language, then English wins by a country mile (26 laureates vs 13 for France).

More to the point, the Nobel Prize Committee is just that: a committee. Wouldn't it be better to let the world's reading public determine which literature it favours? Alas, there are no reliable global sales figures available.

We do, however, have an index of which authors have written the most translated books. British authors romp home in four of the top five places: Agatha Christie in first, then Enid Blyton, Shakespeare and Barbara Cartland in third to fifth. (The one interloper, Frenchman Jules Verne, is in second place.)

Looking more broadly, British authors dominate the top 40, with some 14 authors on the list,
compared with 11 for the United States, and 15 for the entire rest of the world put together.

The obvious conclusion: that we Brits have some natural affinity for words and literature, the way that the Germans 'do' music, or the French 'do' visual art.

Such things run both deep and ancient. The vernacular literature of Alfred the Great's England was the most developed in Europe. It's perhaps not surprising that the same is arguably still true today.


• HARRY BINGHAM'S This Little Britain is published by Fourth Estate at 12.99. Guardian News and Media Ltd 2007.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Oct 11th, 2007 at 11:03 AM..
English is tough stuff (external - login to view)
I am really grateful to your ancient ancestors for doing away with inflections. I had to take a course of the History of the English Language when I was a student at the University, and that was the most difficult course I ever had! We had to study all those ancient grammar rules, things like weak verbs and strong verbs, and all that complicated grammar, and after having to read Beowulf in the original and to translate it into the modern language I still see Beowulf in my nightmares. The first line goes like that - Beowulf mathelode... bla-bla-bla. We quickly changed it to "Beowulf motherf***er", and as the result no one could remember at the exam what "mathelode" meant
There's lots of ghoti in the sea.

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