As a person who is engrossed in language study everyday, I get some strange questions. More often, though, I hear some really strange statements. It's hard to correct people's misconceptions about language (especially their own language) in public; it's a douche thing to do, really. So I'll get on my soapbox and vent a bit, and hopefully along the way I'll give you all some new ways to think about the English language. I plan on making this a series, maybe pointing out a couple of things a week.
First, let's talk dirty about pronouns. Grammarians have been griping about how English speakers (commoners, as they see it) fail to use the proper pronoun when speaking of a person of an unspecified gender. To them, he stands as the default pronoun. Example:
Jim: Hey, do you want to go eat Mexican tonight?
Erica: Well, I would, but I told a friend we would hang later...
Jim: Oh, tell ___ that ____ is welcome to come along!
Grammarians would have you say "tell him that he is welcome". But do people use that? Hell no, it comes off as sexist and stuffy; in most cases, we use they. Some people use he or she (or even worse, s/he in writing), but the majority of people find that far too awkward.
Well, turns out, we've always used "they" (and by always, I mean since about the fourteenth century). Here's the bad part: guess what sexist, pig-headed piece of crap came up with this rule...
A woman! In fact, Anne Fisher, the first female grammarian.
Next on our list is the idea that English "comes from" Latin. FALSE. Actually, Latin and English are in different language families entirely (although they are both Indo-European languages). We do have a very large repertoire of words in our language that are Latin in origin (we acquired many through French... more on that tomorrow), but where your words come from does not determine your language family. English is a West Germanic language, and our grammar is far more similar to languages of the Germanic ilk than it is to the so called Romance languages.
Now, about accents. Have you ever wondered how or when Americans lost their English accents? I've met a couple of Brits who've either told me it's a shame we Americans don't talk like the British anymore, or that Americans speak a kind of English that really isn't English. Both are misguided because, in reality, Americans never talked like the British of today do. Why? Because, when the American colonies started up, the British accents were very different than they are currently; Americans we're isolated from the rest of the English-speaking world, so they retained much of the eighteenth century features longer than their European cohorts . We've actually been changing in different directions for quite some time now, but for a while there the American public spoke more like eighteenth century England than the contemporary England did!
That's it for now. Until tomorrow, when I'll talk about French's very unique influence of English.
PS: A book about the quirks and history of the English language written for the layperson that I highly recommend people pick up is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, which has quickly become a field favorite. It's easy to read, well-informed, and one of the reasons I became a linguist.