Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the English Language and its Quirks)

German has its subordinate clauses where the verb is always placed at the end. Spanish and French have the ubiquitous (and difficult!) subjunctive mood to negotiate. Plus two dyed-in-the-wool academies (Real Academia Española and l’Académie Française respectively) with very little time for modern, linguistic twists. And English? Well, the language of the Anglo-Saxons has gone Globish, a lexicon whose existence is deeply rooted in the way the role of English has been reframed in recent decades, becoming anarchic by nature in the process. From Nigeria to Malaysia, Shakespeare's language belongs to no one and to everybody. We speak English in whichever way we want to.

And yet...

There still exists within this lingua franca a trait that is enough to send the sanest of human beings to the nearest madhouse: it is the stark contrast between the spelling and the pronunciation of many words.

If you've ever felt as if you were metaphorically marooned on a deserted island because you couldn't work out how to pronounce and/or tell 'should' or 'sought' apart, then, welcome to the club, my friend. This is the 'Club of Non-Natives Who Thought English Was Easier Because Of Its Grammar, Only To Find Out That Its Pronunciation Vs Spelling Structure Was Anything But'. Long title, I know, but it truly reflects the club's large membership.

Take 'weight' [weyt] and 'height'[hahyt]. We all know what they mean and how to pronounce them. But have you ever stopped to think of what would happen if you tried to utter one of those two words using the articulation of the other? In the case of 'weight' pronounced as 'height', your audience, at best, would try to work out why you're including references to 'biped' or 'Homo Sapiens' in your conversation; at worst you'd be downright misunderstood. With 'height' the situation would be very different. Any attempt to apply the way we pronounce 'weight' to the noun that denotes 'extent or distance upward' will be met with quizzical looks. Why are you asking me what my 'hate' is? You mean my pet hate? Confusing, I know.

One of the reasons for this mess, beautiful and intriguing as it is, though, is that English is not the result of one single linguistic stream. English is the result of centuries and centuries of, sometimes small and sometimes large, geopolitical and historical events, which have brought about deep and significant changes in the way it is spoken and written today. Take Hollywood for instance. Starting in the 1920s and peaking in the '40s its presence and influence have been omnipresent, chiefly in a Europe devastated by the Second World War and in need of escapism. Thus, American English, or at least the brand exported by Tinseltown became the standard by which most countries strove to speak this Germanic language. The examples abound, 'theater' was favoured over 'theatre' and 'color' over 'colour'.

That still leaves the whole phonemes vs graphemes question unanswered. Whereas in a language like French you know that there are three kinds of 'e' sounds whose pronunciation usually matches spelling (yeux, les and chaise, for instance), in English the disparity between what you hear and what you read is abysmal. For example the grapheme [a] can be found in the following words and yet the pronunciation changes each time: hat, adorn, mate, pillage.

Attempts to simplify the spelling of words in English are being made, even if they have not proved to be successful. One reason is that there's no national or international body tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the English language for future generations. And good on English, I say! Spanish and French have long lagged behind their Germanic counterpart because the two aforementioned academies frown upon neologisms. In the language of Cervantes you have to wait for decades before a new term is admitted in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española despite the fact that it's probably already widely used by Spanish-speakers. By contrast English is dynamic and ever-changing, coining new words and phrases. If only their pronunciation/spelling combination made sense most of the time!

The other night when I began to write this column the first example that came to my head was 'laughter' [lafter] and 'slaughter' [slawter]. Just one letter ('s') separates both words and yet they couldn't be more different. On the news a few years before I'd heard that a wedding in Afghanistan had ended in a bloodbath when the crew of a US fighter jet had mistakenly thought that the shots being fired in the air were projectiles aimed at them. They were instead part of a traditional celebration. In the comfort of my London home I thought of how, through the addition or omission of one letter and a change in pronunciation, a journalist's report could move from elation to tragedy in an instant. A quirky - and dare I say, cruel - trait indeed.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 20th March at 10am (GMT)


  1. Yes, indeed, though English is spoken in many places, it is not the same language. I wonder how it will change as we all depend on this universal set of words to understand each other.

    Very interesting post, Cuban.

  2. I couldn't imagine having to learn English from another language base. I'm fortunate that I leanred English as a child, with the shadow of another language, Dutch, in the background.

    My grandson is bilingual and growing up in a home where his mother speaks to him in English and his father in German. At only three years of age he can tell the difference between the two languages and converse comfortably in both.

    If only all children had such opportunities at a young age. Then we could all diversify more.

    I find myself resenting the hegemony of the English language for all that it is my language. I would love other voices to be heard as well and more clearly. There should be room for all of us. Thanks, Cuban for a fascinating post.

  3. I have often wondered if I developed two brains while I was growing up, one that spoke in the Spanish of my home and church and the other which spoke in the English of school and the rest of the world. I don't know about the physiology of it, but navigating across these two languages must have had an effect. And you're right, English, as easy as it is to speak and write, is a bear to spell.

  4. Wow, I am truly impressed with not just your knowledge about languages but your analysis on them.

    Living in a bilingual multi-dialect world myself, my one clear unforgettable example is the way I pronounced "squirrel" -squeerrel when it should be pronounced squirl or something like that. Oh well..

  5. Many thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Yech, I've always believed that English is a twisted and difficult language and that's coming from someone who makes their living focused on it. Yes, it is ever evolving but it's so confusing. I much prefer the romance languages, no such confusion there as long as you focus...

  7. I have a recurring argument with my husband about this - he favours simplification of spelling to bring it in line with pronunciation, whereas I (trained as a linguist) know that any such alignment would be only temporary and, truly, could only represent one geographical region of many possibilities. At least the present situation has a disconnect between spelling and pronunciation for *everyone* :)

  8. Thanks for your comments. Although it might sounded as a moan, when it comes to the dichotomy of pronunciation vs spelling, I'm still the old purist. Funny that. :-)

    Greetings from London.



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