English, and how she is spoken

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

Global economy just can’t be ignored any longer, no matter how hard I try. To keep up with the times and learn at least one more language while still keeping things simple, Spanish seemed a good choice because our alphabets are the same. Besides, each Spanish word is pronounced phonetically. What you see is what you say.

On the other hand, how does anybody ever learn English? It’s mostly a combination of European languages, and it certainly is not logical.

George Bernard Shaw pretty much nailed it when he wanted to reform English spelling so that it was more logical. He joked that the word “ghoti” was a logical spelling of “fish.” What? How can “ghoti” and “fish” sound the same? Shaw explained:

  • gh = f as in rough
  • o = i as in women
  • ti = sh as in nation

ghoti = fish

Sure he invented the word “ghoti” but he made the point. How can anybody easily learn a language that uses words that look the same but are pronounced differently? Take these five words that all end in “ough.”

  • bough rhymes with cow
  • cough rhymes with off
  • rough rhymes with puff
  • though rhymes with slow
  • through rhymes with boo

That’s not bad enough? What about the words that have the same spelling but are pronounced differently if the meaning is different? (These words are called homographs.)

  • bow (noun: front of ship) rhymes with cow
  • bow (noun: fancy knot) rhymes with go
  • lead (verb: to guide) rhymes with feed
  • lead (noun: metal) rhymes with fed
  • wind (noun: airflow) rhymes with pinned
  • wind (verb: to turn) rhymes with find
  • slough (noun: cast-off skin) rhymes with fluff
  • slough (noun: swamp-like) rhymes with slew

Then we have words spelled differently, but sound the same:
(These words are called homophones.)

  • red, read
  • right, write
  • buy, bye, by
  • so, sew, sow
  • sea, see
  • for, four
  • hear, here
  • feet, feat
  • one, won
  • knight, night
  • ate, eight
  • him, hymn
  • to, too, two

And that isn’t the half of it. What about heard/beard, road/broad, break/weak, low/how, or paid/said/plaid?

I’m not even talking about English letters which are silent: lamb, debt, calm, listen, know, yacht, or my favorite, the unsung letter “g” in phlegm.

Then there’s the “ea” thing: meat, head, heart, heard, theatre, and the infamous double-o: pool, foot, blood, door, and cooperate, not to mention the plain old a: cake, mat, call, any, sofa.

It’s enough to drive a person crazy. (“Short trip,” as my mom would say.)

I can’t even figure out why we call someone up and say, “This is Maggie.” Why do we say “this is” when we’re human. Why don’t we say “I am,” as in “I’m Maggie.” What if Descartes had said, “I think, therefore this is.” Who would’ve quoted that?

Maybe I’m on the wrong track in trying to learn another language. I don’t want to be like the Frenchman visiting the U.S. who stops to ask directions of two Americans:

“Excusez-moi, parlez vous Francais?”

The Americans just stare at him.

“Entschuldigung, koennen Sie Deutsch sprechen?”

The Americans continue to stare.

“Parlare Italiano?”

No response.

“¿Hablan ustedes Español?”

Still nothing. The Frenchman walks away, disappointed, discouraged and disillusioned.

The first American turns to the second and says “Maybe we should learn a foreign language.”

“Why? That guy knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good.”

Published or Updated on: November 1, 2008 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2008
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