Sep 11, 2008

Something Rich and Strange

Why is there "C?" Seriously. Why? Three steps into the ABCs, one gets to an artifact of English that is seemingly odd and nonsensical. Three steps into the basics of English, absurdity abounds.

C doesn't do anything. The hard C sound like in "cat" can be duplicated by K, and the soft C sound like in "secession" can be duplicated by S. The only unique sound that C makes is "ch," and, really, that should be it's own unique phonetic symbol, given that it really has nothing to do with either the C or H sounds. (Someone a while ago did point out that C can affect word stress- that the stress on sounds in "school" is slightly different than in "skool," but this is a fairly minor advantage to be gained from this mostly vestigial letter.)

I know it's too much to ask for a language to be regular and logical. Languages evolve over time time, come from a variety of sources, etc., etc. But, I've been teaching myself Hangeul (the Korean script) in preparation for a trip to Korea next week. It's amazingly logical and easy. I was sort of surprised by how non-difficult it is to read. Granted, I still have to slowly sound things out a-la a kindergartener, but I know that there's no way one could read the Roman alphabet in the same way.

When I teach my kids phonics, or when I'm dealing with adults who aren't so hot at reading, I sometimes feel sorry for them. There's no good reason why "hyperbole" is pronounced with a long "e" at the end, and "cough," "enough," and "through" seem designed specifically to confuse learners. The list goes on.

Phonics is just the beginning. As others have pointed out, how can you be "disgruntled" but not "gruntled?" People can be "ruthless" but not really "ruth." What the hell?

But it's a beautiful mess. Aesthetically, I absolutely love the chaos that is English. I love the irregular verbs, weird spellings, and unregulated grammar, given that we mercifully do not have an academy. I love the regional irregularities and even the pervasive jargon. I love that there's a bunch of stuff that makes no sense and we use it every day. From all of this we can get some real gems of linguistic niftiness- two of my favorite exploitations of English are the stand up of George Carlin and the quirky dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both use the ideosyncracies of the language to wonderful effect, creating something rich and strange. I'm also reading Ulysses right now, and while it's plotlessness is sort of hard to put up with, it's dizzingly wonderful as an aesthetic object simply because of its use of language (it's still overrated, though). I pity any translator who would try to tackle Joyce- so much of his art and humor comes from linguistic oddness and the bending and folding of English.

In contrast, every past tense verb in Japanese (and therefore every sentence in the past tense) ends in "ta." How regular. I'm sure there's weirdness aplenty in Japanese, but I'm not there yet in terms of study. There have been plenty of movements to simplify English spelling, and I'm glad that they've consistently failed. In my heart of hearts, in what I truly, fundamentally, want and love, I choose the panoply of disorder and all of its accompanying beauty.

And yet...

I can understand that my students have very real difficulties and frustrations with the material at times. I wish that the connections were more explicit for them, the path better marked. I can understand (even as I disagree with) why someone would advocate linguistic simplification, or an easily understood and regular language like Esperanto. A pernicious and weird part of me does long for order and regularity, would love to see modes of expression as a beautiful machine. But we'd lose too much.

It seems cruel and selfish, but my students' frustration, difficulties, and confusion is all worth it. It's worth it because even though the system of English is disorderly, it is still a system. It's worth it because we, as native speakers, can indulge in something gloriously odd and complicated. We have an awesomely privileged, entertaining, and nifty position, and even though it causes my students to knit their brows in consternation, I wouldn't have it any other way. Ours is a fantastically labyrinthine means of communication, and we're lucky to have such complexity.

Of course, maybe the Japanese feel the same way about all those kanji...


Beau said...

I agree, english is pretty nifty.

As a side note, I feel I should point out that originally one could indeed be gruntled as well as disgruntled. However, in that case the "dis" prefix was an intensifier, so one who was disgruntled was simply more gruntled. With the fluid nature of the English language, I would actually expect gruntled to soon mean the opposite of "disgruntled" given the relatively sparse occurrence of "dis" as an intensifying pre-fix. (And somehow, I beat the linguist to that!)

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

When I was in second grade my teacher said that "c" was a thief and stole it's sound from 'k' and 's'. As a result, my 7 year old self felt ashamed my name started with a C. This lingering shame, along with other equally ridiculous and juvenile reasons, is why when I shortened Corinna to Kori, I change it to K.

me and 'c' have some issues too.

English is certainly more irregular than Japanese, even at a high level (or intermediate level seeking to move to "pre-advanced...) but English is also richer than most languages--arguably. Often where Japanese has one word, English will have 3. Sometimes the opposite is true, but not so often. English, depending on where you are from, is so rich in idioms, metaphors and similes too. While they exist in Japanese they aren't used to the same extent.

... kind of disappointing. The lack of good curse words is very disappointing.

I can't wait till my Spanish gets good again.

Sydney said...

And good for you, Beau! I need to work on my History of English: I did not know that about "gruntled." You should check out Mother Tongue Annoyances. It's all about the quirks of English and it's pretty fun.

English is a lexically conservative language (in that we conserve what seems like most of our lexical items). We just don't discard words. Conservative estimates suggest that English has no fewer than 450,000 words and possibly as many as 1,000,000. And this is pretty interesting, about the average functional vocabulary of a native speaker. (David Crystal(who is referenced in that last link) is a famous linguist, although I can't think of what I've read of his. I want to say it was in the Pidgins and Creoles class I took, but I honestly can't remember. Anyway, he's posted a bibliography of his work on English itself and I bet that's all very interesting.) But I think the magic of English is that combination of number of words AND the incredible functional vocabulary of its speakers. But I can't seem to find a count on how many words there are in Japanese. If I had to guess, I'd assume this has something to do with defining which words to count. Do they have to be words everyone says? (Isn't there like a women's language and then a formal men's language?) Are they only approved words? I bet it's also hard because of how fluid Japanese is, adopting loan-words willy-nilly from any language with which its speakers have contact. (Here is your People Magazine moment for the week: Japanese is the Angelina Jolie of languages.) But to put English in perspective, German and French are usually touted as the next most lexically populous languages, both of which are estimated to have less than 200,000 words. Now, is this because of the academie francais or whatever Germany has (does it have anything? It doesn't look like it.) or because their people discard words over time, I don't know. Actually, maybe the better question is: what's up, English? Why are you such a pack rat? Why can't you throw anything away? Do we really need "beleap"? I mean, is anyone using that anymore? I know someone is using "ratiocinative" because I had to look it up (thank you, Colin Dexter, for that gem). On the other hand, thank you for "castigate" and "chastise," "approbation" and "approval." Those are subtle, useful little distinctions. (Oh, wait; approbation is defined as just a synonym for approval. But it seems like it has a different meaning!)