English: What a strange language!

A new convert was asked why he looked worried and replied that, “I don’t want to kill m father.” On being asked to explain farther, the convert said that he had read in the bible that he should put to death the old man.

A new convert was asked why he looked worried and replied that, “I don’t want to kill m father.” On being asked to explain farther, the convert said that he had read in the bible that he should put to death the old man.

He was relieved when he was told that meant turning away from your old ways and habits. This anecdote just shows that knowledge of the English language comes at different levels - literal and figurative

What we call the English language today is a product of many centuries of growth and change. The language has changed over the years so that some phrases from a Bible written in the early Twentieth century may be unclear to readers today.

As the British Empire grew through trade and colonialism, so did the English language, adopting words from far off lands. For example, tarriff is from Arabic word that means news, safari is from Swahili word for journey; the words bungalow, bangle and verandah are from Indian.

Agronomics and agrology are from Greek while from Spanish, English has borrowed words such as alligator, barricade and mosquito.

Arsenal and balcony are from Italian while cruise, dock and freight are from Dutch. German words in English include dunk and lager. English has also borrowed many words from French such as attaché, avante garde and blonde.

Interestingly English converted military words and used them in business – especially after the Second World War. Words such as strategy, campaign and blitz were originally used in military. Today a CEO can talk of his ‘army of marketers’.

To be better in English, you need to understand the context in which a word is used. Then you can easily tell the difference between issue (a matter) and issue (to give out), exploit (make use of) and exploit (courageous act).

English can also be funny. For example the plural of tooth is teeth, yet the plural of booth is not beeth! The plural of man is men, but the plural of pan is not pen! It is only in English language that people ship by truck and send cargo by ship, and have noses that run and feet that smell.

In English, teachers taught but preacher did not praught. Consider, if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

These examples just illustrate the importance of knowing the context of a word or a sentence before you can tell its meaning. Can you tell me why a boxing ring is not round in shape but square? And the human race is not people running at all.

Some words in English make sense when you understand their origins. A freelance is someone who is self employed – and works for various clients. What is the origin of freelancer? It came from a soldier who was paid to kill –a free lance (sword!).

There’s the English language for you!

writeskill@gmail.com

Edwin Maina is a professional writer

 

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