In Praise of My Native Tongue

De Clarke
4 min readOct 25, 2023


Image by author using Midjourney

English is a lot like a rambling old mansion that has been added on to ad hoc, over generations upon generations… so that every possible architectural style and material can be found somewhere. And I love it for that. I love it for its irregularities and inconsistencies and vermiform appendices… hordes of endearing anomalies and anachronisms and tacit rules.

Other languages complicate their speakers’ lives with elaborate politeness/hierarchy constructs… enormous inventories of ideographs to memorise… intonations that completely change the meaning of (to my ear) identical syllables… declensions that must march in rigid lockstep across nouns, articles, adjectives… or a plethora of highly specific tenses and modalities… English simply plays Royal Fizbin with the rules of usage and word formation. Like a frowsty old Dickensian shopkeeper it appears never to throw anything away, and to make the filing system up as it goes along.

While the language is theoretically composed of staunchly independent and distinct words, as opposed to agglutinating languages, there are curiously static phrases which apparently can’t be re-ordered. No one ever says that it’s raining dogs and cats, or that a couple having an impassioned argument are going at it tongs and hammer. No Tory ever thumps the podium and calls for order and law. (Fun party game: try to come up with as many of these “krazy-glued” phrases as possible.)

There are odd pre-Cambrian organisms still lurking in the deep pools and grottos of linguistic memory: “irregular” Anglo-Saxon plurals ending in -en (oxen, brethren)… which sometimes inspire playful glossophiles like myself to speak of cardboard boxen, paying my taxen, ruffling someone’s feathren, or playing with my sistren (not to be confused with either the sistrum or the cittern, either of which will sound beautiful with some heavy reverb when played in the cistern!).

There is a happy family of -en adjectival endings which — as far as I can tell — refer with curious precision almost entirely to materials used in the crafting of artifacts: golden, flaxen, leaden, brazen, oaken, wooden, leathern, silken, linen, hempen, woolen, earthen… and I believe if pressed I could find period references to oaten cakes and wheaten bread. Other than “heathen,” I can’t think of many examples that don’t refer to the product of human skill and labour. (Good hunting!)

By the random, glacial movements of language history, many of those adjectives have now lost their literal usage and retain only their metaphorical usage… no one today talks about leaden pipes, but we may well refer to a leaden silence; it would be thought odd to refer to your Benares plates as brazen, but the word has got itself brazed (to to speak) to “hussy.” And “linen” (made of lin, or flax, as in lin-seed oil) has found itself generalised into a noun, and pluralised at that: bed linens, table linens, fine linens.

And then one of my all-time favourites, those borrowings from (presumably) Greek which follow the -or nominal and -id adjectival pattern, as in rancor and rancid, rigor and rigid, pallor and pallid, humor and humid, valor and valid… again, have fun! The really entertaining part of this game is the missing elements in the pattern. Why sordid, but no sordor? Why morbid but no morbor? (And could the evil of Sauron be described as mordid?) Over the years I’ve built up an extensive spreadsheet of these tidbits, which gets updated whenever I happen to think of a new one… lucid, but no lucor… furor, but no furid… Ah well, it’s something to do at 3AM when sleep eludes us…

These are only a few of the fossil remains that — like Roman pottery turned up while digging in a modern garden — make English so much fun. Doubtless other languages have their own delightful idiosyncrasies — I make no claim for Anglophone exceptionalism — but it is my native language, and I revel in its eccentricities and peculiarities.

If English were consistent and based on a single rule-set, it would be so much more respectable — but far less charming. Esperanto, to speak plainly (so to speak!), is boring. Like a factory floor, all regulated and coordinated and standardised… instead of that rambling, creaking, leaking old mansion, an agglomeration of disparate architectures, alive with the memories of countless generations.

[Upgraded to a “story” from a response I made back in 2021 sometime and — on rediscovery — rather liked.]



De Clarke

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.