Examining the English language

The Newcomer Compares

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

“How many languages you know, that many times you are a human being.”

I have seen this Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote at school while specializing in foreign languages. This quote was one of the reasons I decided to become a translator and devote a part of my life to languages.

As a Ukrainian, I can say that not many Ukrainians know English. It is quite a surprise, especially considering that English is actually taught at schools. But, then again, maybe everything depends on the student and their desire.

At university, I had many comparative courses where the sole purpose was to make comparisons between Ukrainian and English or study our translation language on a deeper level.

There are many elements of English that native speakers often don’t even consider. I immediately recall my lectures on the history of the English language: “Why is pineapple called so if it has nothing to do with apples and pines? Why is a guinea pig a guinea pig, if it’s definitely not a pig and doesn’t come from Guinea?’’

Learning English opened an interesting side of the language to me. In many cases, people who learn English in addition to one or more languages may see things about English that native speakers don’t notice.

English is known for a strict word order, which is quite difficult for some people to properly understand. In other languages, like Ukrainian, speakers can change the word order however they want without sacrificing the general meaning of what they want to say.

English, despite being one of the most popular languages in the world, has one of the rarest sounds: the “th” sound included in the words “think,” “through” or “thanks.” This sound’s rarity is why some people say “tink” or “sink” instead of think and “tanks” and “sanks” instead of thanks.

The concept of articles (like “a” or “the”) is also quite peculiar. Languages like Ukrainian do not have this part of speech, and it can take time to explain the function of these words to people who have never used them before.

The article “an” is actually derived from the Old English for “one.” These elements are used every day without much consideration or thought. If modern English speakers read the original text of Beowulf, for example, in Old English, they likely wouldn’t understand a word.

Yet, believe it or not, it is still the same language. This is just the version of English people used many years ago – and it’s especially interesting to think just how much this language will change in the future.

So, each and every time you think some words sound odd or different, think a bit more about them. Are they like “rainbow,” which you can break into “rain” and “bow?” What if it’s a word like “they,” which was borrowed through contact between Anglo-Saxon people and the Normans?

English has a very complex and interesting history, so treat it not only as a way of communicating, but also as a subject of research and personal interest.

Volodymyr Andreiko is a newcomer to Winnipeg from Ukraine. He is a translator and student at the University of Winnipeg interested in music, literature, philosophy and culture.

Published in Volume 78, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 2, 2023)

Related Reads