Oddities of English

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains:
Knatz.com / Teaching / Scholarship / English /

Oddities of English: Both Spoken and Written

My dear Catfarmer just sent me the following, apologizing that it was being forwarded-and-forwarded via email. I however had never seen it: and enjoyed it thoroughtly. Indeed, I could easily add to it: and will, below. More than that however I wish to explain a bit of English-language history that I’m afraid your average English teacher is unaware of: too damn many college English teachers too: explaining that we often have things backwards: calling regularities we are ignorant of irregularities.

Via Catfarmer: Something to show the fun in the English language!

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes;
but the plural of ox became oxen not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice;
yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

If I spoke of my foot and show you my feet,
and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,
yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
and the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
but though we say mother we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
but imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim.

Some reasons to be grateful if you grew up speaking English;

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8) At the Army base, a bass was painted on the head of a bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) After a number of Novocain injections, my jaw got number.
19) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
20) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
21) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Screwy pronunciations can mess up your mind! For example… If you have a rough cough, climbing can be tough when going through the bough on a tree!

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

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?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? 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 preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English 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? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? 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 goes off by going on.

If Dad is Pop, how come! mom isn’t Mop?

The Merciful end!

I for one have also always loved the homophonic identity between English raise and English raze: one raises the barn: building it up; and one razes the barn: tearing it down. Shakespeare turned this into a mini-oxymoron in one of his sonnets: “When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed …”: a rant against time and entropy.

My appreciation of the absurdity of authoritarian attempts at uniformity of spelling I touch on in an elder companion [link to be added] in this directory. I’ve long adored George Bernard Shaw’s mockery of English spelling and sympathize helplessly with his attempts to reform it. Did you know that he willed 90% of his considerable fortune to create an institution for that end? By the end of his life Shaw was the second richest English author ever: and, after his death, My Fair Lady, based on the GBS Pygmalion, vaulted him over W. Somerset Maugham and into a new stratosphere of literarily-derived riches. Anyway Shaw mocked English spelling by asking why we didn’t spell “fish” ghoti:

“gh” as in enough, “o” as in women, and “ti” as in nation!

Further, did you know that the other % of Shaw’s wealth was willed to the British Museum? the public reading room there being where Shaw had educated himself? Do you know what happened? The British Museum challenged Shaw’s sanity at the time of penning his will. They proved through fellow kleptocratic institution — the courts, that GBS was nuts: what he really meant was to leave 100% to the British Museum. Sure enough, the court saw it the library’s way.

Not too many reformers though have thought through the absurdity of phonetic spelling: whose pronunciation should dictate the “correct” spelling? Should we spell the way the queen speaks? Leadbelly? Christopher Walken? …

I was in graduate school before discovering that my pronunciation of the word “trough” was a regional oddity. I always said /trauθ/, same as “troth.” [Ah, I found the HTML theta, but not the “au” sound.] That’s what I heard others say too. Now I realize that they’re rhyming the word with “enough”: ending with an /f/ phoneme, not a “th.”

All that’s fun. Humor is the best remedy for total helplessness in the face of absurdity. But lots of things that seem absurd actually have a history that puts a different perspective on things.

First let me say that human beings are in large capable of pronouncing a few dozen phonemes. Our twenty-six letter alphabet in inadequate to represent them — except through the inconsistent contortions mocked above. Few cultures bother to distinguish among more than a couple of dozen of the possible phonemes anyway. Orientals typically can’t hear our distinction between /r/ and /l/: hence many jokes. But we don’t distinguish sounds that are phonemic (recognized as information: significant difference) to other cultures. The Arabs have a /k/ variant we can’t hear. Can the visitor distinguish phonemically one click from another in some of the African “click” languages? Ah, here’s one many may recognize from high school: our /u/ versus the French “u” as in “vue”: distinct from “vous.” (It’s easy once you can get yourself to jut your jaw out as you narrow your lips for the past participle for “see.”

Just a couple of dozen sounds can combine to make an enormous number of combined sounds: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. A five hundred word vocabulary can get a trader by many situations, a few thousand words does for most people. But even if your vocabulary is sixty thousand words, or one hundred thousand (there really are such people), how many more things are there to name? How many nuances are there to an action? To take a ridiculously simple example: there are now upwards of six billion humans alive. How many different names are there? (How many could you remember?) The language is always traditional, but contemporary life is routinely filled with things that tradition couldn’t imagine. Arthur Koestler has a novel about the early days in the formation of Israel with boys speaking Hebrew, an artificial language created around two and on half millennia ago, based on memories of the language the Jews had actually once spoken, but no closer to it really than Latin was to Old Italian. Anyway, here are these young trainees, trying to speak the language created to turn oral and somewhat-written tradition into written tradition, but they’re dealing with Tommy guns and bullet magazines and parts of the trigger housing. Funny. Anyway, I can only begin today what now follows but here’s

pk’s Mini-English Lesson

The humor above states:

One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese, yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

Here’s why: the people who spoke the ancestors of Modern English had geese. Geese where important to them; they’d never heard of a moose. Therefore, goose/geese, an example of grammatical umlaut, is in the core of English; moose/moose (plural) is not. “I am, you are …” is in the core of English; I talk/I talked is not. “Say” is; “talk” isn’t. “I see, I saw, I was seen …” is in the core of English. So is “I drink, I drank; I swim; we have swum … I run, I ran … I drive … I drove … I buy, I bought …” “I walk, we walked . .” is … uh … less so. “I wink, I winked” is not at all.

Core English words change their grammar internally: umlaut: just as in German, English being a relative: as is Yiddish, Dutch … Danish … Alien words, the great majority of the English vocabulary are treated differently: they’re given ending participles to make up for their having no evolved tradition of umlaut. A new very comes into the language, we want to put it in the past tense: we add “-ed.” We want to make an adjective into an adverb, we add “-ly”: sort for the old German lic, or “like.” “I walked slowly”: slow-like: slowly.

Did your English teacher ever tell you that the oldest adverbs have no “-ly”? What about “piecemeal.” “-Meal”: there’s a lost adverbial ending: surviving in only the one case.

The irony is that the English teachers, as ignorant a group as you can find, call the old regular verbs “irregular” and the recent additions “regular.” Bassackerds.

2004 09 12: Driving along the lake I thought of an analogy. I passed Sebring’s “Fifth” Avenue: it’s on the recently-added-to Sebring side of the lake. Old Sebring radiates like spokes around a spot near the railroad station. In old downtown the streets are named “Pine,” “Orange” … “Ridgeway” … Across the lake, booming from the “new” highway, the new mall, the streets are numbered. Just like Manhattan. Snug by the harbor is Wall Street, Broad Street, Whitehall Street, Broadway … Uptown, in the “new” city, it’s 34th Street, 42nd Street, 57th Street … 5th Avenue, 3rd Avenue … The 1, 2, 3 by 1, 2, 3 pattern seems “rational.” It is. Because it’s added on: artificially. The old city grew: organically: like the old language. “87th between 2nd and 3rd” is an add-on: so it’s (pseudo-)geometric; Greenwich Village, with its crazy twists and funny alleys and mews, is the real deal: natural. Old if not ancient. Anterior growth.

I also add: note the prejudicial diction applied to the experts’ errors: “strong” / “weak” … “pure” vowels … To make sure that righteousness, moral security … will confuse us further.

And speaking of adverbs, I hate how our poor language is butchered further by ignorant people trying to sound “correct” when they don’t know how, cops trying in court to sound literate … A Barnard graduate I’d hired as a salesman drove me crazy: she’s say “I feel badly …” when she meant that she felt bad, sorry … For one thing, you don’t need an adverb there: bad reflects on the subject, “I,” not on the verb, “feel.” But even if she meant an adverb: “the quality of my ability to feel is defective”: she still should have said the common, natural, “I feel bad.” “Bad” is core English. It don’t need no damn “-ly.” It’s already an adverb: ambiguous: can be either adjective or adverb.

In short, English teachers, ignorant authoritarians, go far to turn a natural language into a foreign language: foreign to its own speakers. No natural speaker of a natural language makes grammatical or usage mistakes: unless they’ve been taught to: or taught to feel uncomfortable about what should be as natural as breathing to a native. Newcomers, guy just off the boat, they can make mistakes. Of course. But the question should be: do you understand them? Unfortunately we prefer everyone to pass some initiation to some exclusive club.

An old girl friend of mine, German, asked me, the moment she learned that I ran The Free Learning Exchange, Inc., to help her with her English. What was to help? I understood most of what she said. Did I want her to sound like the girls in the neighborhood of my youth? Hell no. Why did she imagine I was going with her instead of them?

Since I’m at it at all let me also “explain” some common difficulties with English: for example, common usage confusions, such as when “I” is right in a sentence and when “me.” In early English the form of the word determined the grammar and therefore the meaning. “I” was the personal pronoun for use when one is the subject of the sentence: “I like hotdogs.” “Me” is used where one is the object: “hotdogs don’t like me.” But modern English puts a premium of position: a language of inflection (I see/I saw, goose/geese) has long been becoming a positional language. Once upon a time “Me don’t like sausage” would have meant the same as “Sausages don’t like me”: the case of me would determine the meaning: “me” is the object, wherever it appears. Nevertheless, the sentence would have been unlikely because English has also long had its positional characteristic: subject comes first, object follows. So: English likes to hear “I” at the beginning and “me” and the end: whatever the meaning. Again, it’s only people contorting sense to try to sound educated that produces such dissonances as “the difference between she and I.” No, no: the difference between her and me, whichever vintage of English you’re speaking.

Realize: the language is alive. Grammar is an estimate of what seems to be so at time m, n …; not a set of blue-prints we must follow. Because we have backbones … or appendixes today, doesn’t mean that we must have them tomorrow.

Grammar: contextual shaping Gregory Bateson

In another installment I’ll say something about the natural tendency to form neologisms and usages by analogy with existing words and usages: that is, by similitude. That has particular bearing on the humorous poem above.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in scholarship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s