English is a very special language, formed over thousands of years of adaptation and influence from Germanic and Nordic languages, in addition to French and other languages. The result is a kind of hybrid language that is often frustrating due to the seemingly inconsistent grammar rules, strange vocabuluary and pronunciation.
This week we have compiled for you a few interesting facts about the English language, and some fun exercises that will surely have your head spinning!
To begin, here is an example of how English has evolved over the years. We got this fascinating list of word origins from Listverse:
What it means now: Completely lacking in subtlety; very obvious.
What it used to mean: A thousand-tongued beast from hell.
What it means now: An unfashionable or socially inept person, or someone with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest (a computer geek).
What it used to mean: A circus sideshow freak.
What it means now: A danger or risk.
What it used to mean: A gambling game played with dice.
What it means now: To exclude someone from a society or group.
What it used to mean: A government procedure to literally ban someone from Athens for ten years.
What it means now: Poisonous
What it used to mean: Greek archery.
What it means now: A person guilty or capable of a crime or wickedness.
What it used to mean: A farm worker.
What it means now: An angry argument or disagreement.
What it used to mean: A square-headed crossbow bolt.
What it means now: The symbol of the Nazi Party and the Third Reich.
What it used to mean: Well-being and good luck.
What it means now: Deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct.
What it used to mean: To walk noisily wearing wooden shoes.
Aren’t those interesting? You may have also noticed that English tends to NOT share common words with the rest of the world. Here is one great example: the pineapple! The word for pineapple is almost exactly the same throughout the world and in dozens of the most commonly spoken languages…except in English of course!
Or what about the many different meanings one word or sentence can have in English? Take, for example, this famous phrase with no less than 11 different possible meanings:
“Time flies like an arrow”
How many different meanings can you come up with? Here are the official ones:
1. Time flies the same way as an arrow flies
2. Time escapes/ flees like an arrow
3. Time flies (a species of fly) enjoy a particular arrow
4. Time flies (a species of fly) generally like an arrow
5. Time flies (a species of fly) prefer an arrow (e.g. Fruit flies like a bullet, but time-flies like an arrow)
6. The time flies which are similar to an arrow…
7. Get a timer, and time the flies that resemble an arrow
8. Get a timer, and time flies like you would time an arrow
9. Get a timer, and time flies like you’re an arrow/ like an arrow would time flies
10. Get a timer, and time flies quickly (as fast as an arrow)
11. Time magazine flies like an arrow would fly
12. Time (magazine company) is fleeing like an arrow
And finally, if that one wasn’t confusing enough for you, what about the different pronunciations of words that are spelled exactly the same? Homonyms—words that look the same but have different meanings—are one of the biggest complaints of students who are studying English! Have a look at these sentences and see if you can decipher their meaning, and also pronounce the two homonyms with the correct syllable stress:
- The bandage was wound around the wound.
- The farm was used to produce produce.
- The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
- We must polish the Polish furniture.
- He could lead if he would get the lead out.
- The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
- Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
- At the Army base, a bass was painted on the head of a bass drum.
- When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
- I did not object to the object.
- The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
- There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
- They were too close to the door to close it.
- The buck does funny things when the does are present.
- A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
- To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
- The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
- After a number of Novocain injections, my jaw got number.
- Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
- I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
- How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
- I spent last evening evening out a pile of dirt.
These fun facts and exercises are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the quirky things about the English language. So if you are trying to learn, don’t worry! You are indeed learning a very special language that is still evolving very quickly—in fact there is a new English word invented every 98 minutes , so don’t worry if you don’t know them all!
Do you know any other interesting facts about English?
Have you been frustrated by homonyms or strange grammar rules?
How did you fare with the above exercises?