It’s Just Too Many Vowels: The Sheer Impossibility Of The English Language

By Ollie Arnold | Copy Editor in Chief and Staff Writer

6 mins read
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I may be a math major, but that does not mean that I cannot appreciate language. I love learning about the underlying mechanics of different languages—the phonetic inventories, the phonotactics, the orthographies and any number of interesting grammatical features. My original reason for studying linguistics was so that I could make up my own language, an act commonly known as conlanging. A conlang, which is used as both a noun and a verb, is a portmanteau of “constructed language.” 

During my time as an amateur conlanger, I would like to think I have at least figured out what not to do. Some languages, however, do everything wrong, and I would argue that English is one of them. If somebody presented English to me as a conlang they had created, I would punt them out of a window. 

English is commonly known as one of the hardest languages to learn, and for good reason. There are many irregularities and rules that seemingly only exist to be broken. For people who do not speak English as a first language, the irregularities and rules are befuddling. Half of the features of English seem like they were just added for a coolness factor. 

One of my least favorite things about English is its orthography, which is the spelling system of a language, or the symbols that represent each sound. For example, according to the English orthography, the symbol “p” represents the sound /p/. 

Not all letter symbols represent the sound you would expect, such as the sound /j/, which is represented in English as “y.” I have no problem with this. What I find problematic is that there are simultaneously too many and not enough letters in the alphabet to cover all of the sounds. My main issue is the letter “c.” It’s used for both the /k/ and /s/ sounds, but we already have letters for those. Every instance of the letter c could be replaced (or should I say replased) with a k or an s.

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While the letter c is one letter too many, the English alphabet is, at the same time, lacking the letters it needs to cover its overinflated vowel inventory. 

English, at first glance, appears to have five or six vowels. But that’s just how many symbols there are. English, depending on the dialect, has anywhere from 14 to 25 vowel sounds (American English leans closer to 14, thank God). Not only is each symbol responsible for at least three sounds, but there is a significant amount of overlap. For example, the schwa /ə/ (pronounced like the “uh” in “bruh”) can be written with any one of the five vowel symbols and just about any combination of two of them. 

On the flip side, the letter “a” can represent the sounds /ɑ/, /æ/, /eɪ/, /ə/ and more. Plenty of languages get along just fine with five or six vowel sounds (Spanish, Japanese, Hawaiian), and there’s even an indigenous Taiwanese language with three. The English vowel system is just rude.

My final complaint about English, at least for now, will require some background on how syllables are formed. All syllables require a nucleus, which is nearly always a vowel sound. A syllable may also have an onset, which is a leading consonant sound, and a coda, a following consonant sound.

 In most languages, codas are not required, and in some cases, they are restricted to one consonant or prohibited altogether. English, however, takes the unsavory route of allowing ridiculously long consonant blends as codas. Take the word “strengths.” The onset is “str,” the nucleus is “e” and the coda is “ngths.” This is all one syllable that, for some reason, is allowed to end in three consonant sounds (“ng” and “th” are both one sound.). Do not even get me started on “twelfths.” It’s a miracle anyone has ever managed to learn this language.

English is quickly becoming the language of choice for international commerce, but I do not think it deserves this honor. The language is overinflated with vowels and ludicrous consonant blends that make it very difficult to learn. I have not even touched on the grammar system, which I could publish an entire book series about. 

English speakers, take pity on others and learn their language. It’s probably easier for you to learn a second language than it is for them to learn English. If you are one of those people who thinks English is the superior language, stop that right now. You are wrong, and I just cannot condone that kind of behavior.
Is something out there yucking your yum? Send it over to me at oarnold@drew.edu (in your language of choice) and I’ll draft you up a letter of complaint.

Ollie Arnold is a sophomore majoring in mathematics and minoring in computer science.

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