Looking at English Grades

For most of my professional life, the English language has been a tool that I used unthinkingly, subconsciously.  It’s been good to me, good for me – and now, as a retiree on the school board, I’m consciously looking at it . . . mostly because it isn’t so easy for all the kids.  I think it’s a language that is easier to use subconsciously than consciously.

I don’t know if anyone else was challenged in “diagramming a sentence.”  It’s something I missed – it included drawing lines under nouns and verbs and showing which was what.  Somehow, I didn’t need it to get the language right, but I needed it to get passing grades.  I finally got in the habit of translating the sentence into Spanish, diagramming the Spanish sentence, then moving the lines back onto the assignment page.  I genuinely feel for the kids who have problems with English.

The Philologist folks provide a lot of data that shows why the English language isn’t all that consistent.  The island had a lot of invasions over the past couple or three millenia, and those invasions and word exchanges are still providing challenges in elementary schools across the English-speaking world.  One example might be the words “shirt” and “skirt” – originally, the terms were interchangeable – “shirt” grew from the Germanic Anglo-Saxon, while skirt developed from the Norse (think Vikings) occupation.  I’ve seen estimates that we still use somewhere on the light side of a thousand words that came in from the Viking occupation.  Writing from memory, until the Vikings added the g sound to the end, there wasn’t a distinguishable difference between eye and egg.  Husband is a word from those Vikings (though wife remains stubbornly Anglo-Saxon).  Club was a Norse addition.  The Vikings gave us the term “sky.”  Our pronouns “they and them” came from old Norse, letting us pick Viking pronouns for our “preferred pronouns.”

Still only about a third of English words have Anglo-Saxon origins – about 40% were originally French (but brought in by the Norman French, with their Norse roots and accents).  Another 15% of our language comes from the Italians (Romans) who occupied the island earlier. Very little remains from the original British inhabitants, and the Gaelic of Scotland and Ireland never influenced English all that much.

Our teachers provide an alphabet of 26 letters – but (if I recall correctly) in the days before printing presses you needed about 35 letters to write English . . . phrases like “Ye Olde Public House” only came about when printers no longer had the letter for “th” and substituted a “y” for a no longer existing letter that resembled a lollipop.  It never had a Y sound . . . it was just a 2 letter way of writing “the.”  Kind of like the texting abbreviations that have grown because of text messaging on the cell phone.  When a European invention (the printing press) removed a quarter of the letters from the alphabet, it’s no wonder that standardized spelling has taken a long time to catch up – and still is hard for our schoolkids to master.  It is painful to see that students continue to pay that price of progress in D and F letter grades in Spelling.

So our classrooms teach about synonyms and homonyms – and the first real explanation I recall was when I studied Sapir’s writings on linguistics as a senior in college.  Like the kids I notice today, I just suffered with partial explanations.  I think the most frustrating thing this week is realizing that I lack the ability to explain the challenges any better than I have in this article.  Obviously, our language doesn’t stand still.

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