Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




Highly Irregular

Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme,

and Other Oddities of the English Language


Arika Okrent


Illustrated by Sean O’Neill. 

Oxford: University Press,2021

Hardcover. viii+264 pages. ISBN 978-0197539408. £14.99


Reviewed by Laure Gardelle

Université Grenoble Alpes




This informative and entertaining volume, intended for the general public, is one of a number of books that focus on the quirks of English – and will no doubt easily find a broad audience. The author’s aim is to show that “English is [not] just weird. It’s weird in specific ways for specific reasons”, which find their roots in history. The title of the book is inspired by the poem “The Chaos,” used by teachers of English in a number of countries to help their students work on differences in pronunciation among words with very similar spellings.

The volume is divided into six sections (along with a general introduction and conclusion), with a total of forty short chapters which each answer one question. Issues range from phonetics, as suggested by the title, to vocabulary (e.g. Why is it sum total and not total sum? Why are there so many synonyms?), grammar (e.g. I eated all the cookies: why do we have irregular verbs? Why is it clean-shaven and not clean-shaved?) and spelling (such as Asthma, Phlegm and Diarrhoea: why all the extra letters? Pick a color / colour: can’t we get standardized / standardised?). The volume is intended as light reading: the section titles have a humorous touch (from “Blame the French” and “Blame the Printing Press” to “Blame Ourselves”), there are cartoons on at least every other page, and the style of writing is voluntarily informal at times (e.g. “What the heck is going on with this word?” [14]). Each chapter, which is never longer than seven pages, can be read independently.

Beyond this seemingly light approach, the volume is highly informative. The questions are judiciously grouped together by their cause (e.g. “Blame the Printing Press”), rather than by a linguist’s learned division into lexicon, grammar, spelling and phonetics. This both helps the reader easily identify and remember those common causes, and introduces variety in the areas of language addressed within each section.

As noted by the author, a cover-to-cover reading of the volume further offers a “deeper story, history of English” with the typical “tension between logic and habit in language development” [8]. The chapters also introduce a number of linguistic concepts, without ever being technical. For example, about the pronunciation of colonel as ‘kernel,’ the author introduces the concept of “dissimilation” – the fact that when there are very close occurrences of the same sound, such as the two [l]’s in colonel, people often change one of the instances or drop it –, and the fact that [l] and [r] often get replaced by each other (hence, at one point, coronel in French).

Among the many explanations that the book provides, readers get an insight into how competition between words can result in preferences and specialisation. One example is the adjectives large, big and great, which specialised according to their original senses (for instance, big still echoes the idea of vigour, power or intensity in you’re a big girl or a big argument). These adjectives show the additional influence of fashion at times: with the industrial revolution, manufacturers preferred large to big for the biggest size of their products, with the three formats small, medium and large [28]. The volume also gives accessible insights into the relationship between word origin and pronunciation. For example, we learn that the reason why the <g> in give does not have the same pronunciation as in gin is due to Viking influence (there was no softening of the <g> in Old Norse, contrary to the Old English pronunciation). The same chapter also gives a glimpse of the complex relationship between pronunciation and spelling over the centuries.

In another chapter, about egging someone on, the author warns against folk etymology that ignores language history: the meaning of the verb has nothing to do with eggs. The verb egg, meaning ‘incite,’ was borrowed from the Scandinavians [57]. About irregular verbs, the author shows that even though many of them are legacies from old conjugations, some verbs occasionally underwent the opposite process, such as haved and maked shifting to had and made [65]. She concludes that “Every act of language use involves a mix of enforcing old habits, applying rules to new situations, and economizing effort”.

The volume also shows the interference between general rules and competition among individual words. In particular, the chapter on fast (vs. fastly) and hard (vs. hardly) shows that despite a generalisation of -ly for adverbs that came with the advent of grammars and language advice books, the competition of fastly in the sense ‘firmly fixed’ and hardly meaning ‘with difficulty’ and then ‘barely’ eventually prevented the form -ly for fast in the sense ‘quickly’ and hard ‘with force’, after years of competition [68]. As summed up by the author, “when language changes, it’s never the whole system changing at once. It happens one piece at a time, and the pieces don’t coordinate” [244].

The volume also shows that some evolutions cannot be explained with certainty, such as the pronunciation of <gh> in some words such as furlough, a borrowing from Dutch initially spelt furlof [50]. The same string of letters reveals that evolutions do not necessarily abide by a single principle of regularisation or generalised analogy, but that some form of local regularisation principle might be at play. Gh was probably introduced in ghost (originally gast) by Flemish type-setters at the start of the printing press era in Britain. This innovation is thought to have led to <gh> being adopted in ghoul and aghast, creating a semantically related cluster of spellings (<gh> for scary elements), which could also explain why, conversely, this innovative <gh> string eventually disappeared from a number of other words, such as gherle ‘girl’ [125]. Local clusters also explain why an <l> was added to coude to form the modal could: this addition enabled could to pattern with should and would, for which the <l> originated in the present form of the verbs (shall, will, whereas there is no <l> in can) [132].

The volume will make pleasant reading to all those who are interested in the history of words and spelling in English. The fact that each question starts with an example that anchors it in everyday life is a further asset of the volume. The author makes a constant effort to side with the imagined reader – slightly too much so perhaps, at times, especially in the core of the chapters: a remark such as “The vocabulary explosion is not the only thing we can blame the French for” [87] awkwardly pursues the illusion that without the Norman conquest, English would have been a better language. Chauvinism might have been played down at times, as in “Colonel can be ‘kernel’ if we say so. That’s the stubborn defiance of English.” [18], or “It’s frankly a little unfair that we somehow got stuck with this spelling system that creates a whole extra hurdle for people” [48]. Reducing reformers or those who sought to stabilise the language to “snobs,” although this is awkwardly hedged down at one point, is probably a little disappointing in a book that seeks to share an expert’s view of language. The right amount of scientific knowledge is always difficult to establish, but sometimes a little more information might have been usefully introduced. In the chapter on phrasal verbs [226], the author never mentions that a simple reason you cannot say “go it over” (go over it) is that over is a preposition there, not an adverbial particle in a phrasal verb.

Having said that, both the general public and linguists will learn a lot from the wealth of issues addressed in the volume, and the eye-catching cartoons and fun book cover will also appeal to younger readers, which is no easy feat when dealing with language.



Cercles © 2022

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.