A precocious young student raises her hand. She is squirming in her seat. She has a question and it’s ready to pop. Finally, the TEFL teacher notices her. The girl lets out a deep sigh of relief.
“Why do meet, m-e-e-t and meat, m-e-a-t, sound the same?” she asks.
The TEFL teacher takes a quizzical glance at the ceiling, shrugs his shoulders and says, “Pfffft. English is weird.”
NO! NO! NO! NO!
Don’t ever do that!
English is not weird. English is wonderful. English is the story of a conquered land that went on to conquer. It is an amalgamation of aristocracy and poverty. It is social upheaval and global assimilation. English was never fixed and it never will be. English is changing as we speak. It is changing the way we speak.
And you, dear TEFL teachers, are the torchbearers.
So don’t you dare “Pffft? English is weird.” your students.
Know your history. When you know the history of the English language there are no unanswerable questions.
To be shamefully brief…
Beowulf, the first long-form Old English poem, was composed around 700 CE. Old, yes. English, sort of.
The Isles hadn’t had an easy go of it. The Romans invaded and forced Latin into the local dialects by sword and shield. Then they took off and left their words behind. Into that vacuum stepped the Anglo-Saxons who were, as every school kid knows, pretty insistent about their Germanic ways.
A couple of hundred years later, when Beowulf was composed, there was no such thing a unified language. Beowulf was told in a West Saxon dialect which was a Germanic offshoot featuring heavy Latin and Celtic influences.
The term Old English came along much later. At the time people were just waiting for the next wave of change. And they didn’t have to wait long.
In 793, the Viking raids began and so did the influence of Old Norse. The Vikings gifted us words you would expect like slaughter and ransack. And words you would never expect like meek and trust.
On the heels of the Northmen came Norman the Conquerer. Norman had no interest in learning the local language. He insisted on French. And for the next couple hundred years, the English aristocracy was almost entirely French-speaking. A lot of well-born children didn’t even learn English as a second language. It was only toward the end of that era that people began to rebel by speaking their native language, which was, of course, a mash-up of Germanic, Celtic, Latin and Norse influences.
During that period in history, more than 10,000 French words entered the English lexicon. And the effects of social conditioning via the language exchange are still evident today. It is why you think that the Germanic-derived house is less elegant than the French-derived mansion. And it is why you start something pedestrian and commence something important.
Which brings us to the MEET and MEAT of the story. In Old English, words were pronounced as they are in the Romance Languages, which is to say, every letter correlates to a specific sound. If you understand the sounds letters make in Spanish, French or Italian, you can correctly pronounce any word by sounding it out. Thus, in Old English, MEET and MEAT would have sounded very distinct. They would have been pronounced the way they are spelt.
And then came The Great Vowel Shift.
From the 15th to the 17th century, pronunciation changed significantly, especially in regards to long vowels. Read Chaucer, Shakespeare and Defoe. You can trace the changes from middle to modern English.
So why didn’t spelling evolve to match the changes in pronunciation?
The answer falls somewhere between the printing press and world domination.
The Age of Exploration had a massive impact on the English language. The number of words available to English speakers nearly doubled between 1500 and 1650. Words were being borrowed and incorporated from near and far. And thanks to Gutenberg and his printing press everything from announcements to literature was being made available to the public.
Attempts were made throughout the 17th century to standardize spelling but they weren’t serious linguistic endeavours. The early dictionaries borrowed from a variety of even earlier sources. They used pre-vowel shift spellings. And those spellings were canonized, printed and shipped to every corner of the British Empire. Adaptations in spelling might have been possible in an older more isolated world. But in those heady days of expansion and cultural exchange, when the whole world was being shaken and reset, something had to remain the same and so spelling did. Mostly.
In one corner of the empire, a man named Noah Webster decided to make a few changes. Webster was a fiery patriot who has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education.” Webster felt that the British spelling of certain words was indicative of the aristocratic and classical excesses of the empire. He wanted to create a future-forward, no-frills, American English. In 1828, he published An American Dictionary of the English Language. And the colour became colour forevermore.
Are you, dear TEFL teacher, going to explain all of this to the little girl with her hand held high? Of course not. But give her hope.
Explain that MEET and MEAT used to be pronounced differently. Explain that their pronunciation could change once again. Because with a billion people currently learning English, and raising their hands, and asking smart questions, English is already changing for the better.
“Pffft. English is weird.”
No no no.
English has a weird family tree. But English is magic.
And that is what you should be teaching your students.