CHARLOTTE, NC: Did you ever wonder why speaking English is so difficult to master? We are all familiar with the rules of speaking the Queens language that have exceptions but honestly, most native speakers never think about them. On the other hand, imagine what non-native speakers have to deal with when attempting to learn the way English words are used.
I before e, except after c and other rules
For example, one of the first rules we ever learn in school is “‘i’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c'”. Tell that to Albert Einstein who got it wrong twice in his last name. OK, you say, but Einstein was German. So what about this sentence:
“I” before “e” “except when your foreign neighbor Keith received eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty caffeinated weightlifters.”
Oops, point taken.
Then there are these not so simple phrases:
- The bandage was wound around the wound.
- The farm was used to produce produce.
- The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
- He could lead if he would get the lead out.
- The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
- When shot at the dove, it dove into the bushes.
- I did not object to the object.
- The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
- They were too close to the door to close it.
- Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
Now you’re getting the gist.
The evolution of speaking English
In an article written by Kory Stamper, we learn how the “silent letters” in English evolved over the centuries. As Stamper points out, English came into being as a language somewhere around 600 AD. At that time, each letter had a sound and every letter in a word was sounded.
However, England lost to the French at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 resulting in William the Conqueror of Normandy taking the English throne and bringing a strong French influence that lasted for centuries.
Later, the Dutch and Flemish, who became the primary printers of the day, added their input into the language for nearly 200 years.
As trade evolved with other parts of the world, there were additional modifications to the language. By the 1400s English gradually began losing the way in which words and letters were articulated.
The “Great Vowel Shift”
Stamper uses the term the “Great Vowel Shift” to explain how a word such as “loud”, for example, eventually morphed into something different than its spelling.
The Great Vowel Shift lasted a few hundred years, during which English spelling primarily became fixed due to the invention of the printing press and access to printed documents.
“In short,” explains Stamper, “we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.”
In the delightful 1976 movie Murder by Death by the recently deceased Neil Simon, the director spoofed mystery films by creating parodies of classic cinema detectives.
Lionel Twain, with real-life author Truman Capote in the role, regularly shouts at Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) who is a spoof on Charlie Chan.
Capote is constantly reminding Sellers to use his articles, which is a common oversight by many non-English speakers.
In one scene, Wang (Sellers) refers to “cow on wall” to which Twain (Capote) becomes infuriated and screams “THE cow. Not cow. THE cow, use YOUR articles.”
Universal, sometimes funny, difficulties with speaking English
Every nationality has difficulties with certain aspects of speaking English that is practically universal. Japanese speakers have trouble using “l” and “r” properly. Thus “rice” becomes “lice” and “letter” changes to “retter.”
Europeans have problems with “V” and “W”. “Waltz” is almost always pronounced “Valtz” and “Valley” typically become “Walley.”
In Spanish, sometimes two vowels besides each other can have disastrous results. Like the word “sheets” which is often unintentionally misused and embarrassing.
Most notably, however, is the failure to use those pesky articles It is a frequent mistake by many non-native English speakers.
Speaking English oddities:
- “Rhythms” is the longest English word without the vowels, a, e, i, o, or u.
- Only one common word in English has five vowels in a row: “queueing”
- “Almost” is the longest common word in English with all its letters in alphabetical order.
- “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick” is said to be the toughest tongue twister in English.
- “Asthma” and “isthmi” are the only six-letter words that begin and end with a vowel and have no other vowels between.
- “Underground” and “underfund” are the only words in English that begin and end with the letters “und.”
- “Dreamt” is the only English word that ends in the letters “mt”.
- The word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” (27 letters) alternates consonants and vowels.
- “Forty” is the only number which has its letters in alphabetical order while “one” is the only number with its letters in reverse alphabetical order.
- “Bookkeeper” is the only word that has three consecutive doubled letters.
- Modern English has only two common words ending in -gry; “angry” and “hungry”
Finally, we get this mind-blowing conundrum that was recently pointed out by Emily Petsko in a column for Mental Floss. The letters “ough” can be pronounced EIGHT different ways in the contemporary use of English as evidenced by this sentence:
“Though I coughed roughly and hiccoughed throughout the lecture, I still thought I could plough through the rest of it.”
Little wonder so many ESL teachers are becoming bald from tearing their hair out.
“Parlais vous Francais?”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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