Monday, February 13, 2012


Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.

Stoaty Weasel, desperately attempting to avoid politics which are wretched and depressing, has posted a fascinating bit by a Dutch fellow complaining about how illogical and difficult English is to learn as a language. Here's a sample:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;

Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,

Say – said, pay – paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,

Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,

The whole poem is like that, displaying the ways words have no consistent or rational pattern of pronounciation. See, most langauges, such as Dutch, pronounce their vowels exactly the same, always. In German, for instance, E= eee and A=ah. Always. If two letters come together and make a dipthong, creating a unique sound, it always works that way, so EI=eye in German.

English doesn't work that way. You can pronounce the letter "A" in many different ways based on where it is, what comes before and after, and totally without predictability because of the word's origin. And that's because English is the result of an island nation being invaded about 80 times and each time a new language being introduced into the culture. As time went on, Saxon, Angle, Norman, Danish, Norwegian, Celtic and so on all were mixed and blended until the language was a strange granola of various influences, words, and sounds.

All languages have that to some degree. In Russian, for instance, French was the court language for a while so words such as "restaurant" are pronounced in the French manner (and spelled in Cyrillic to match it): "rest-ow-rahn." The Russian word for 40 is a Mongol word, because that was the Mongol tribute for hundreds of years: 40 pounds of silver from each city state.

But English takes this to new and fascinating levels of complexity, which is tough for even native speakers to work out. You literally have to memorize thousands of words to know how to pronounce them, and we still get it wrong on a regular basis. I had a hard time with the word "plymouth" because as a child I learned how to sound words out phonics-style. Ply-mouth, right? No, son, its "plimmoth." Huh?

So go check out the whole poem and have fun. You have to read it out loud for the full effect. Just keep in mind, read it with a cultured English accent, or some of the words (and spellings) will be confusing to Americans.


Unknown said...

love it

Jonathan Cook said...

I love this sort of thing. It reminds me of the very early Dr. Suess book The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough.

Anonymous said...

Made me think of Jeanine (awe' ree) Garafolo trying to say awry for (hopefully) the first time in her life.

- Webster Boogliodemus