If you think I am about to bash those outsourced customer service agents that “don’t speak English properly”, think again. If anything I applaud anyone that attempts to learn this horribly confusing language. As far as I can tell English has only one rule that has no exceptions: all rules have exceptions!
As a native speaker I take many things for granted about English. As children we learn the proper way the language flows. Unless you are “hyperlexic” like my son. Even though I gave birth to him in an English speaking country and he has only lived in an English speaking household and the only other language he has heard is a smattering of Spanish from children’s programs, English is not his first language. At least not spoken English. His first language is written English.
He read Hop on Pop at three – not memorized recitation – but actually read. He started spelling words shortly thereafter and had an uncanny sense of phonics. Ok, maybe “Chrisms” is not the correct way to spell Christmas, but now that you look at it you can see what he was thinking. And listening to him speak is like hearing someone that is learning English as a second language. At four and a half he is still baffled by You and Me. Prepositions are often omitted or he puts them in odd places in his sentence. Etc, etc. We are working on it with him. Hence, I have become “hyper-aware” of many of the English language’s idiosyncrasies.
Let’s start with some simple numbers (another fascination with hyperlexic kids):
Try to explain that logically. He was right, it should be “fiveteen” or maybe five should be “fife”. It should be oneteen and oneth! Luckily he has sickeningly awesome powers of memorization, so I gave up trying to explain it, had him memorize the exceptions and then showed him the pattern that continues after that.
Let’s talk a bit about pronunciation shall we?
And then you have things like:
- tricycle (tri-sickle)
- bicycle (bi-sickle)
- unicycle (you -ni- sYckle)
- cycle (sy-ckle)
I guess once you start ditching the wheels you change the pronunciation.
Only in English can you pronounce ghoti as “fish”:
- gh, pronounced /f/ as in tough /tʌf/;
- o, pronounced /ɪ/ as in women /ˈwɪmɪn/; and
- ti, pronounced /ʃ/ as in nation /ˈneɪʃən/.
(side note: the above example is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but has yet to be found in his writing.)
And don’t forget “to, too, two” and “your, you’re” and “its, it’s”.
Thanks to watching Electric Company with my son I have learned a few pronunciation rules that I don’t remember ever learning, or simply don’t remember:
- “c” is soft when followed by “e”, “i” or “y” and hard when followed by any other letter
- “r” is a “bossy letter” that changes the pronunciation of vowels before it. (that episode made me chuckle)
And let’s not even get started on the difference between British English and American English. Why we in the US dropped the u in colour and humour I’ll never know. And liter verses litre. And chips, football and biscuits are all different things depending upon which side of the ocean you reside.
Slang and Advertising
Slang is always fun to decipher too. Try explaining to a 4 year old that “cool” and “hot” can actually mean the same thing, “great”.
And my personal pet peeve that makes me cringe every single time I hear i: the insistence of every football player, coach and announcer except Troy Aikman to say “break contain”. Contain is a VERB! You do not “break run” or “break cook”. You break containMENT! Right, Troy? C’mon, help me out here.
Those “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue also do their level best to screw with the language too:
- crispity crunchety
I only have one theory as to why English is now and always be a crazy conglomeration of odd pronunciations and exceptions to every rule:
Maybe the next time you are tempted to insult “one of those foreigners that can’t bother to learn the language” you will remember how difficult this language really is.