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English is the international language of science, business and nearly every other industry on the planet. Whether you are flying from Madrid to Marrakech or from Bangkok to Barcelona, your pilot communicates with the command center in English. Travelling to India? Good luck mastering the country’s 122 officially recognized languages. Luckily, English can save you—it is spoken as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language by as many as 1 billion people and is the native tongue of over 3.5 million people. In this recurring column, we are going to take a look at what makes English tick.

2 de Julio de 2015

To explain some of the irregularities and inconsistencies that plague English, it is helpful to take a look at the language’s history. The names of some of the major players in the evolution of the language highlight the diversity of spelling and pronunciation in English: William Shakespeare (of course!),  Geoffrey Chaucer and Æthelred the Unready (the combination A/E letter, æ in lowercase, is called “ash” and it was part of the Old English language, but has since fallen out of the English alphabet; its sound, however, still exists and can be problematic for English learners).

While what can be considered Modern English is only about 600 years old, the earliest remnants of what can be considered English date back to 450 CE. English was highly influenced by Old Norse and Norman French during its early years, but it is classified as a Germanic language by linguists, people who study languages. (Interestingly, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a linguist first as “a person accomplished in languages; especially: one who speaks several languages,” though linguists would reject that definition). A major event in history of English occurred in 1066, when the Norman French invaded England, bringing with them, among other things, their language. This is one of the main reasons that English has multiple words for many concepts—why we eat «beef» from «cows» and can either «answer» or «respond» to an email, for example—. Often one version is a Germanic word and the other is a Romance word.

You are likely aware of word pairs like pants/trousers, apartment/flat, elevator/lift, and so on, but the distinction between British and American English started after the American Revolution (late 18th century) and was largely the work of a dictionary maker named Noah Webster, who sought to simplify the language. While he had some ideas that did not stick, some of his changes can explain the «u» in British «colour» and «neighbour» or why the British «memorise», and write «cheques». Language reform was quite popular at that time, and fellow Founding Father of the United States and famous inventor, Benjamin Franklin created a new alphabet to further simplify the language, but it also did not catch on. As the United States grew into a cultural world power and with the help of globalization, the English language continued to spread and is now the international linga franca.

Now that we have finished our brief history lesson, let’s take a look at how English looks and sounds, specifically when compared to Spanish. Spanish and English differ in their spelling, or orthography, in one very important way: Spanish has what linguists define as a «shallow orthography». Letters have a one-to-one correspondence with their pronunciations, making reading, writing, and pronunciation in Spanish transparent and relatively effortless. As anyone who has tried to say the words «colonel», «suit», or «choir» knows, English is a bit more complicated. Spelling in English is so difficult and full of exceptions that English-speaking teenagers participate in spelling contests, called «spelling bees», with the aim of mastering the spelling of some of the strangest and most obscure words in the language like «cymotrichous—having wavy hair» or «elucubrate—to compose by lamplight».

As ugly and unruly as spelling in English can be, pronunciation can often be even more difficult. To begin, English has twice as many vowel sounds as Spanish—one of the main differences between the two languages and a constant thorn in the side of English learners. While all of the Spanish natural vowels (a, e, i, o, u —¡el burro sabe más que tú!) and diphthongs (two vowel sounds made without a consonant between them like in claustro), there are also novel sounds, most of which require you to move your mouth and tongue much more than when producing Spanish vowels. We will look more closely at sounds in the future.

One of the most difficult and nuanced vowels for Spanish speakers to learn in English is one that is not ever written. In spite of never being written, this vowel’s sound is the most common vowel sound in the English language. This mystery vowel is called «schwa», transcribed as ə and pronounced as «uh»—the sound you would make if you were punched in the stomach. Schwa can disguise itself as any of the 6 «natural» vowels, a combination of two vowels, or even as no letter at all as in the word «rhythm» (the word is pronounced in two syllables, but the second syllable, –thm, doesn’t have a written vowel). Mastering this sound is one of the keys to improve your English (note: not pronounced «Eengleesh»), especially when it comes to pronunciation.

Schwa is a product of the accent rules of English. You certainly remember learning the rules for esdrújulas, llanas, and agudas, but those terms exist only because Spanish is a syllable-timed language—each word carries specific rules for stress and intonation. English, in contrast, is a stress-timed language, allowing stress rules to be more fluid. English allows for one strongly stressed syllable (and, in some cases a second, minor stressed syllable) per word. All non-stressed vowels in a word are then pronounced as schwa, thus explaining its status as the most common sound in the English language. Try identifying the stress in multi-syllabic English words in this article; then, pronounce all non-stressed syllables with an «uh» sound, avoiding the temptation to give them their Spanish voicings.

Check back soon for the next installation of Inglés Con-(s)ciencia We will continue to explore the ins and outs of the English language. In the meantime, check out this list of impossible spelling bee words and practice your schwa pronunciation. 

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