English spelling is ridiculous. Sew and new don’t rhyme. Kernel and colonel do. When you see an ough, you might need to read it out as ‘aw’ (thought), ‘ow’ (drought), ‘uff’ (tough), ‘off’ (cough), ‘oo’ (through), or ‘oh’ (though). The ea vowel is usually pronounced ‘ee’ (weak, please, seal, beam) but can also be ‘eh’ (bread, head, wealth, feather). Those two options cover most of it – except for a handful of cases, where it’s ‘ay’ (break, steak, great). Oh wait, one more… there’s earth. No wait, there’s also heart.
— Source: Aeon’s Arika Okrent
I’m a writer at heart, so I have an intimate relationship with language. It drives what I do, it creates worldviews and it is integrated into my work as an ecommerce professional. I’m very keen on seeing how language works in ecommerce (and all media). It has power that ascends beyond mere business; it influences, persuades and encourages the very emotions that make us human.
I volunteered for many years at Los Angeles’ Adult Literacy Program teaching a weekly writing course. It was the most humbling thing that I’ve done in my life. My students came from everywhere: Finland, North Korea, Columbia and Vietnam among others. Their intent was to learn how to write and speak English so that they could do more than order in a restaurant, but to express their narratives in a language, which, by all means, is incomprehensible. And they succeeded. Language truly is power.
No language Academy was established, no authority for oversight or intervention in the direction of the written form. English travelled and wandered and haphazardly tied pieces together. As the blogger James Nicoll put it in 1990, English ‘pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary’.
English can be a bitch to learn mostly because its a mongrel, combining and reordering other languages. It looks a lot like other languages but those are deceptive optics. It is truly an expansive, unique and changing living language that incorporates (even celebrates) the perpetual mutation and assimilation. There is a reason why computer programming codes are referred to as “languages.” They have syntax and rules and either it is correct, or it’s not. Not so much with English. Yes, syntax and rules do apply, but it’s really a clusterfuck of agreed upon terms and it changes — it changes a lot.
Writing is unquestionably a technology. It attaches to language in the way that the fork is a technology that attaches to our eating habits. Eating is undeniably a necessary part of our nature. The fork is a recent, unnecessary (no matter how useful) innovation. That analogy doesn’t go much further. There are very few things that capture the relation between language (the behaviour) and writing (the technology that represents the behaviour). It’s hard to find a good analogy. The point is that the eating happens whether we have the fork or not. Language happens whether we have writing or not.