Thought Leadership

English as a very foreign language

By Colin Walls

When I am traveling, both for work and pleasure, I am constantly delighted by the English language skills of so many people, for whom it is the 2nd or 3rd language. It impresses me because English is so complex and idiosyncratic that learning to speak it even competently, let alone well, must be incredibly hard. On the other hand, I am often saddened by many native English speakers [Brits, Americans etc.] who use the language so appallingly. English does have a lot of pitfalls …

In many ways, the way certain English words work makes it look as if the language were designed by someone with a cruel sense of humor. Of course, it was not designed; it evolved. Oddities are, thus, inevitable. I would like to explore a few that have bemused me.

An easy one first. The word combustible means easy to set on fire. What does incombustible mean? Obviously, it is the opposite and means hard to set on fire. Other words are not so easy.

The word flammable means essentially the same as combustible. So, it would seem obvious that inflammable is its opposite. Not so! This word means really easy to set on fire! There is no simple opposite to these words. The word uninflammable might exist, but is not used.

Getting the hang of this now? Probably not.

Here is another word: habitable – this means a suitable place to live. We can take a couple of guesses at to what inhabitable might mean, but they would be wrong. It means exactly the same as habitable. You can say uninhabitable, but not unhabitable.

Last example [for the moment, at least]: we all know what famous means. What is the opposite? I might suggest unfamous, but that word does not exist. The word infamous would be OK, but that means “famous for a bad reason” [like a criminal]. This is annoying, as it is the waste of a good word; the word notorious already does this job. The best opposite word might be obscure, but that is not very precise. We are stuck with not famous.

Linguists [partially] explain these problems by saying that the prefix un- tends to generate opposites, but in- can also be an “intensifier”. I am not sure that this helps.

So, if you are not a native English speaker and you are struggling with my language, thank you for making the effort. Good luck with that.


2 thoughts about “English as a very foreign language
  • Colin – no, it doesn’t really help. The original of the anomalies you describe are actually not a function of English morphology but of Latin. The Romans had two /in-/ prefixes: 1. in-, meaning “in”, “into”, “towards”, etc., and 2. in-, meaning “not”, or “negative” or “opposite”, cognate with English “un-“. Both morphemes exhibit contextual allomorphy, with assimilation to adjacent consonants: in-/im-/ill-. English reflexes of the first include inject, improve, illuminate; of the second, inflammable, impossible, illogical. Slightly more distant examples come through French /en-/, as in encompass and enemy (en+ami). Unfortunately (or infelicitously), speakers of the modern language don’t necessary have access to understanding of Latin morphology and Anglosaxon philology, and so must learn the forms as they find them, frozen remnants of voracious English borrowing over the last 1000 years or so.

  • An interesting follow-on, in response to your remark about famous and infamous: quite consistently, English words coming out of Old English / Germanic take prefixes of similar origin, while those from Latin take Latin ones. That’s why it’s infamous and not *unfamous.

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