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Tuesday, April 5

English Language Oddities

I’ve spent my life teaching English to kids who pretty much took their language for granted. Although most of them were able to master the basics, very few of them were able even to begin to understand all the complexities of this language of ours. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for non-native speakers to learn it. Most of the world would agree that English today is as close to a universal language as there will ever be. Sorry about that, all you Esperanto devotees.

Learning to speak it and write it are two very different animals. With a basic vocabulary of only about a thousand words, most children and most non-natives can be proficient communicators of English. It’s when one deals with written English that problems raise their ugly heads. For over two hundred years, people have tried to create a simplified spelling system, and none of them have been successful: Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and George Bernard Shaw, to name only a few, and now the proponents of Truspel. Two elements led to their failure—we’d lose too much of the etymological background; we’re too stubborn to change.

Probably the best-known example of the craziness of English spelling is attributed to Shaw, when he satirically asked how one would pronounce “ghoti.” Simple, he said. It’s “fish.” The “gh” as in “rough” gives us the “f.” the “o” as in “women” gives us the shortened vowel “i.” And the “ti” as in “nation” gives us the “sh.” Simple. It’s not “goatee.” It’s “fish.”

Then we’re also led to that old spelling conundrum involving consonant and vowel sounds: enough, rough, bought, caught, cough, through, though, trough, bough, south, slough, comb, bomb, strum, and dumb (and the list goes on from there). Also, the wonderment of all our silent letters: knight, often, half, climb, psycho, debt, honor, fasten, high, phlegm, bomb, singer. How curious that “singer” is spelled like “finger” but in the first, the “g” is soft and in the second it’s hard. The “b” in “bomb” is silent, but in “bombastic” it’s pronounced. In “limb” the “b” is silent, but in “limber” it’s pronounced.

We have many homographs to contend with (same spelling, different meaning): close (near) and close (shut), bass (the fish) and bass (the musical instrument), desert (dry place) and desert (to leave behind), wind (that blows) and wind (the clock), lead (heavy metal) and lead (to go in front), sow (a pig) and sow (to plant), excuse (to allow) and excuse (an explanation for behavior), refuse (to disallow) and refuse (garbage), root (a tuber) and root (to cheer).

Homophones are words with the same sounds but different spellings and meanings. The usual ones that drive people crazy are to, too and two; there, their, and they're. Some of the less usual but still drive-crazy: flower-flour, prey-pray, flea-flee, bear-bare, beer-bier, sight-site, higher-hire, stare-stair, bury-berry, peace-piece, seen-scene, seem-seam, meet-meat, beat-beet, dear-deer, real-reel, and birth-berth.

English spelling will probably never be regularized, but English pronunciation is coming close through our universal exposure to television newscasters and film stars who speak a standard English, thus coaxing people away from dialectic differences. Children today are being influenced more by the language they hear on the tube than on how their parents speak. Non-native speakers now have movies and television to guide them in learning English.

Part of the charm of English spellings are where and how they’re derived. We can thank the French for the craziness of “queue,” “quiche,” and “hors d’oeuvre.” The French occupation of England in the 11th and 12th centuries shows us the class differences in words relating to domestic animals (Do you eat it or care for it?): “beef” for the nobility, “cow” for the peasants; “pork” for the nobility, “pig” for the peasants; “mutton” for the nobility, “sheep” for the peasants. We borrowed many words from Latin by way of French, many of which gave us more elegant words for inelegant Anglo-Saxon activities: “shit” to “defecate,” “piss” to “urinate,” “fuck” to “copulate” and “fornicate,” “cunt” to “vagina,” “prick” to “penis.” You get the idea. The more syllables we could use, the less uncouth, the more elegant the word becomes.

And let me conclude by examining a current odd phenomenon, Donald Trump, and a number of words that seem relevant to his oddity. “Trumperies” are practices or beliefs that are superficial or appealing but have little real value or worth. The word derives from the Old French “tromper” (to deceive), and into Late Middle English denoting trickery. “Trumped-up” suggests bogus, spurious, and fake. And The Donald often uses a “trumpet” to blow his own horn.

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