Saturday, 7 March 2009

A crazy language

While playing a word game with my wee boy this morning it struck me just how bloomin' difficult the English language is to learn! He was thinking of words beginning with the letter R and when he said "wrong" I had to correct him. Of course he questioned why a word would have a letter at the beginning that "didn't even matter" but I just couldn't think of a simple way of explaining this rule. The problem is that the English language isn't simple. Why do we have words that contain letters you don't say? There are so many rules, inconsistencies and illogical spelling rules. If the plural of tooth is teeth then why is the plural of booth not beeth? If the plural of dog is dogs then why is the plural of mouse not mouses and why is the plural of sheep still sheep?! Why, if I buy a pair of trousers do I leave the shop with just one garment? Why is phonetic not spelled phonetically and why on earth is there an 's' in lisp?! Then there are all the words which are pronounced alike but differ in spelling and meaning - Ate/Eight, Ball/Bawl, Bread/Bread, Chews/Choose, Cell/Sell - See if you can think of some more - there are hundreds!
It struck me this morning while playing this simple word game just what a mountain there is for my son to climb before he masters the English language. In fact, do we ever master it? At the age of 37 and with an abundance of qualifications under my belt, I still make mistakes for heaven's sake! I once read that it takes, on average 7 years to learn the English language but I think this must refer to speaking it fluently, not writing it. There is a huge difference.
Language is like the air we breathe. We cannot escape from it, it's all around us, crucial to our survival and yet we take it for granted. It's not until you analyse its complexities that you appreciate just how difficult and complicated it is. I think this poem is great.

"When the English tongue we speak
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it's true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe
Think of hose, dose, and lose
And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb
Doll and roll or home and some
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good
Mould is not pronounced like could
Wherefore done, but gone and lone -Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don't agree"
With the rise in text messaging, a new form of English spelling has evolved, one littered with numbers and abbreviations - "R U OK?" "C U L8R" This new style of writing has sent shockwaves through teaching staff who worry that we will end up with an entire generation who may never learn to read and write properly. At the risk of sounding like an old biddy trying to be 'cool' I really like this new text language (although I simply can't bring myself to use it - far too stuck in my old ways I'm afraid). I think it's rebellious and creative and quite frankly very clever. This "generation text" resembles English spelling but replaces the silent, redundant or excessive letters with phonetic symbols. This in turn gives a truer reflection of English pronunciation. At least the reader always knows exactly what's been written! - no superfluous silent letters that "don't matter", no misleading spellings to trip us up, no ambiguous pronunciations. What I think makes it so clever is that the text messager has two bodies of knowledge in their head: the standard spelling surface forms, learnt at school and the underlying pronunciations of our language, which were learnt as a child. In order for the reader to understand what has been written, the writer must combine both of those knowledge bases in crafting the new spelling. Their text spelling resembles English spelling but replaces the silent, redundant, or excessive letters with phonetic symbols. Way to go, youth of today!
P.S Thanks Neil for this link:

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