Burning questions about teaching English in China #3: You konw wat?

The idea for these articles came to me during this past winter holiday, as I was reflecting on beginning my tenth year teaching English in China. In that time, I’ve noticed many common mistakes made by English learners and wondered why they were so common, yet so easily corrected. In other words, I wondered how it was possible for so many university students to have acquired the same bad habits, regardless of where they went to school or what their major was.

So, I decided to write a series of (mostly) short articles highlighted each of these puzzling errors, in the hope that students – and their teachers – can somehow explain why they occur and how best to stop students from making these mistakes in the future. I will post them in my Qzone, on Steemit.com, and on my blog.

Readers who are not familiar with English education in China need to understand that all university students have had English as a Foreign Language (EFL) instruction since middle school, and many from grade 3 in primary school. Additionally, all university majors need to take two years of English instruction and pass two national English-proficiency exams. Despite all these years of EFL instruction, many university students – even English majors – still make the same basic mistakes in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, orthography, and syntax. And I am at a loss to explain why.

From left: YouDao dictionary app, Baidu search, default XiaoMi phone search

Puzzle #3: Konw wat?

Hot on the heels of last week’s article about students (and others) misspelling “true,” here’s another common error: the word “know” spelled as “konw.”

And wouldn’t you know it, I checked online and yes, this word is also misspelled on several websites and apps, including YouDao dictionary and Baidu search. So, no wonder students often spell this word wrong.

Here’s the puzzler: why does this misspelling persist? The word is pronounced /nou/, so the /n/ should clearly come before the /ou/, not after it. So, phonetically speaking, spelling it “konw” makes no sense.

“Neither does spelling it with a k!” you may protest. “Why is there a k if we don’t say it?”

A fair point. There are many, many English words that sound nothing like they are spelled, and this feature of English orthography (spelling) frustrates even native speakers.

So, here’s the thing. Long ago, the k in “know” WAS pronounced. It would have sounded like “ca-no” or “ca-now.” But over hundreds of years, the original pronunciation was gradually lost. So, “ca-no” (know) became “no”, “ca-night” (knight) became “night”, and so on, but the written forms remained – mostly – unchanged.

Here’s a short list of “kn” words in English: knack knap knave knead knee knell knife knight knit knob knot know knuckle. And few “gn” words: gnarled gnat gnaw. They all have two things in common: they are all very old words that have been a part of English for more than 1,500 years, and originally, the initial k’s and g’s were voiced. But by the mid-1750s they went silent.

To explain why these sounds were lost, I need to review some British history.

The original inhabitants of the British Isles spoke Celtic languages. The modern forms persist as Welsh, Irish, Scots, Cornish and (in France) Breton. Then the invaders came.

The Romans came first – around 44 BC – but for the most part their language, Latin, did not become a part of English until much, much later. The Romans spoke Latin, and the natives spoke Celtic, and there was very little mixing of the two.

After the Roman Empire fell apart in the 5th century AD, tribes from the mainland invaded Britannia (the Latin name for the Roman province) and occupied it. These were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, who all spoke closely related Germanic languages. In time, these merged to become Old English. Speakers of Old English would have pronounced the k in “know.”

The Vikings invaded in the 8th century, and they also would have pronounced the k in “know.” One of their kings was named Knut, after all.

In 1066 there was another invasion, this time by the Normans, who spoke a language closely related to Old French. In French, there is no letter combination “kn”, and “gn” only comes after vowels, never before, and even then the g is silent. (For example, Avril’s family name, Lavigne /la-’vi:n/.)

At first, there were two language groups in England: the ruling classes spoke Old French and everyone else, Old English. Eventually, the two languages merged to form Middle English, which kept many Old English words but spelled and pronounced them in a more French way and added French vocabulary and grammar.

This was the language of Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote The Canterbury Tales in the 1300s. Here is a sample:

A shipman was ther, wonynge fer by weste;
For aught I woot, he was of Dertemouthe.
He rood upon a rounce, as he kouthe,
In a gowne of faldyng to the knee.

Perhaps you can recognize some words, because their spelling has not changed since Chaucer’s time, but the pronunciation would have been quite different. In particular, that last word would have been pronounced “ca-nee.”

You can hear someone read this excerpt if you visit this page by the British Library.

Modern English began to appear around the time of William Shakespeare. (Some people say it appeared because of William Shakespeare.) Some people would still voice the k in “know” and “knight,” but by 1750 or so, those initial sounds had disappeared. As those sounds do not appear in either French or Latin (the language of the church), I suspect people felt it was more natural to leave them unvoiced. Or maybe they wanted to sound more posh.

English pronunciation continues to change. Even within my lifetime, the “wh” combination – it’s in my family name, so I pay attention to it – has lost its distinct pronunciation. Dictionaries used to insist it was pronounced /hw/, with a strong aspiration “huh” before the /w/. So, “where” did not sound like “wear,” “which” did not sound like “witch”, and “whale” did not sound like “wail.” But most people now do not voice the initial /h/ sound, so “where” and “wear”, and “whale” and “wail” sound alike.

We still spell them as before, though. Learners, whether they are native speakers or not, just have to remember that “where” and “wear” mean different things, and that “what” cannot be spelled “wat,” even if it sounds like it should be. You can’t “where” clothes, or ask “Wear is the museum?”

You konw?

Etymology Online
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Also published on Medium.

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