English is supposed to be easy but it often fails to make sense, especially the spelling. For example, Christmas is a good time to wind down, like a mechanical clock, to gradually relax and stop working. But the same word is used for the movement of air: “the wind blows”. Now there is a kind of rule in English which says that the sound of a vowel like “i” and the name of the letter “i” can change if there is an “e” following the next letter. For example, a small piece of carpet on the front door step of a home is called a mat, with the “a” pronounced as a sound and not the name. But if an “e” is added to the end, the word becomes mate, with the “a” sounding its name. Mate is a common word for friend. On this basis “wind” (as in to wind a clock), should be spelt wined, which it is when used as the past tense in the phrase “wine and dine” (drink wine and eat food”. So, we wined and dined together in a restaurant. All this goes to show that, if it is rules you need, don’t look to English.
In fact I predict that one particularly solid rule, that of “mass” or “uncountable” nouns will soon cease to exist. It is supposed to work like this: if you can count something, for example “cars” then you say that there are “fewer” cars, not “less” cars. Less is reserved for things which you cannot count, for example “water”. You can count glasses of water, litres of water and even drips or drops of water but water alone is not countable. Neither can you count “rice”, which comes in sacks, bags or grains. What brought this to the attention of the public was the sign placed on the express checkouts of Tesco supermarkets. It stated “ten items or less”. As the grammar police were quick to point out, you can count items just as you can count cars, so the phrase should be “ten items or fewer”. Tesco changed all the signs, but that could be the very last time the grammar police could claim a victory. Since that time I am acutely aware of just how often “less” and “fewer” are interchanged, without any reference to the rule. Even in the printed word of the BBC or the Guardian, the “rule” is broken, and even more frequently in the speech of experts (though clearly not grammar experts). This rule is set to disappear and only be missed by people like me.
In fact the Grammar Police (which don’t actually exist) are on shaky ground. The elderly among you may well remember the opening phrase of the first series of the TV programme Star Trek”. It states “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. The offence, if it existed, was to put the “boldly” between “to” and “go”, so called “splitting the infinitive” (with “go” being the infinitive of the irregular verb GO). Actually the rule about splitting the infinitive never existed in English. The over-educated who spoke Latin claimed it on the basis of the rule in Latin. They seem to have forgotten that in Latin, the infinitive is just one word, so couldn’t be split in any cases.
All of this leads me to the suspicion that, in order to fulfil its role as the global language, English will have to accelerate its pace of change. One way to do this would be to adopt more words from other languages. By my observation, English speakers already have an affinity to short words, and I mean short in terms of syllables. For example “zeitgeist” (two syllables) is normally used instead of the more English phrase “spirit of the time” (five syllable). Similarly “leitmotiv” (three syllables) instead of “persistent underlining theme” (eight). Possible the best example is “Schadenfreude”. This four syllable word replaces a complete phrase which has too many syllables to count (actually 16), but which means “a feeling of pleasure at seeing somebody else’s failure”. The list of these short words co-opted into English (or do I mean stolen) is long. Think “poltergeist” (three) for malevolent spirit (six) or Geisterfahre (four) for the English “person driving the wrong way on the motorway (12). Clearly English is changing faster than ever and sometimes its hard to keep up.