Everything wanted to know about English but were afraid to ask

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Many people have told me that the English language is the most complex and therefore most difficult language in the world to learn. But we all knew that already, right? With all of our language’s Latin, Romantic and Germanic origins, and with constant liberal doses of every other language thrown into the mix to create a complicated gumbo of more than a million words, some spelled the same as others but with different meanings and others with more than one correct spelling or pronunciation.

Is it any wonder that even the majority of native English speakers either struggle daily with the battle for proper use of the language or they’ve just simply given up on it years ago? As author Gena K. Gorrell puts it, approximately three-quarters of English did not originate in England. No wonder it seems so foreign to so many of us.

Say What is like a big book of candy to people like me, a self-professed word nerd who gets excited when learning word origins. It’s a trip through history but that doesn’t make this a staid affair. There are plenty of fun games, fact boxes and some pretty amusing anecdotes.

I’ve spent my share of time with my nose in books of Latin and Greek but I’ve never come across Tok Pisin before. It isn’t someone’s name; it’s the name of a language or a kind of dialect, a Pidgin blend of different tongues spoken in Papua, New Guinea. With some samples provided, it sounds like a marbly Polynesian Creole. Try it with your friends for a day just for kicks during the slow season after Christmas when you’ve got nothing else to do with your day. If that doesn’t interest you then try the quizzes.

I thought I knew a lot already but still learned some new things from this book. For instance, I thought that J.R.R. Tolkien made up the entire language in his books including the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t realize that he borrowed much from Old English. An ‘orc’ is apparently a demon and an ‘ent’ is a giant. If ‘Mordor’ sounds like ‘murder’ it’s for good reason.

Gorrell is a great writer who has a lot of practice writing non-fiction for the audience. She has other titles dealing with history for young people, a not-too-easy task. If this one is any indication, she should never stop doing what she does. There are some pages in this book that already look dog-eared.

It’s not a large volume but it has weight as far as I’m concerned. I just didn’t want to put it down and some passages were too important to forget. It’s been a while since I even thought about what a portmanteau word is and, while it doesn’t matter to many, they provide me and my young children with some amusement. That, and palindromes. Okay, anagrams too.

This is definitely geared more toward readers starting in their teens but the lessons are still valid and interesting for everybody. I’m not ashamed to say that I thought it was fantastic. Honestly, I wish that more of us had a stronger commitment to upholding the integrity of our language by at least learning more about how it came to be so vast and labyrinthine.

My only complaint is how small Say What is. However, I maintain hope that Gorrell continues on with this work and produces a sequel in the future. How could she not? I could read nothing but these types of books and still want more. Besides, with the constant evolution of the English language, she could probably have enough material for a new book each and every day.

Say What? The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language

By Gena K. Gorrell
96 pages
$12.99
Tundra Books

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.