Friday, March 21, 2014

Crazy English Spelling

Jew Among You has an amusing post on the irregularities of English plural noun forms, which prompted reflection on the craziness of the English language in general, and the mismatch between English spelling and pronunciation in particular. How one wonders does anyone, even the English, learn English.

The challenge of pronouncing English, pronounced "Inglish," is well exemplified in the poem Chaos by Gerald Nost Trenité.

As also by the following shorter poem by Richard Krogh (source):
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through,

Well done. And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.

And dead: It's said like bed, not bead
For goodness sake don't call it "deed".
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.

And then there's dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose;
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and work and sword

And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come I've hardly made a start! 
For those encountering English as a foreign language the frustration of it is well exemplified by Charles Battell Loomis's poem, quoted in Our Accursed Spelling, edited by E.O. Vaile." Blancke, Wilton W. (1953) (Source).
I'm taught p-l-o-u-g-h
Shall be pronounced "Plow."
"Zat's easy when you know," I say,
"Mon Anglais I'll get through."

My teacher say zat in zat case
O-u-g-h is "oo."
And zen I laugh and say to him
"Zees Anglais make me cough."

He say, "Not coo, but in zat word
O-u-g-h is `off.'"
O sacre bleu! Such varied sound
Of words make me hiccough.

He says, "Again my friend is wrong;
O-u-g-h is `uff.'"
I say, "I try to spik your words,
I can't pronounce them, though."

"In time you'll learn, but now you're wrong;
O-u-g-h is `owe'!"
"I'll try no more, I shall go mad,
I'll drown me in ze lough."
And the same source offers this:

From George Bernard Shaw's plea for spelling reform:

GH as in "rough"
O as in "women"
TI as in "nation"

GHOTI = "fish"
Which prompted someone to point out that things are actually worse than Shaw realized. Consider:
GH as in "night"
O as in "people"
T as in "bouquet"
I as in "piece"

Then, GHOTI = ""
And another spelling joke:
If GH stands for P as in Hiccough
If OUGH stands for O as in Dough
If PHTH stands for T as in Phthisis
If EIGH stands for A as in Neighbour
If TTE stands for T as in Gazette
If EAU stands for O as in Plateau

The right way to spell POTATO should be GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU!
And, the case for consigning English speakers to an asylum for the verbally insane:
Let's face it -- English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?

Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another.

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn't a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it. 
The trouble with the English language, I suspect, is a fundamental lack of gravity among the English.

Shakespeare, obviously, bears much responsibility for the chaotic state of the language, with his reckless word play, verbifying nouns, adjectivalizing substantives, and then just making up almost two thousand completely bogus words, including absurdities such as eyeball, puke, obscene, hot-blooded, epileptic, worm-hole and alligator, ill-coinages that people perversely use to this very day.

The other person to blame is Sam Johnson, who was given good money to write the first proper dictionary of the English language and who, instead of standardizing everything, decided that standardization of English was impossible and that the only thing to do was use words just about any which way one pleases, but particularly as justified by literary precedent. The result of this liberal approach is an unruly mess of one million words, of which a good few thousand are bound to trip almost anyone.

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