Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Apology to a Kindergartener

As the parent of a kindergartener, I constantly find myself apologizing for English orthography. Consider the numbers from one to ten, for instance. Of these, only "six" and "ten" are spelled in a sensible way. "Five" and "nine" make a certain amount of sense once one has mastered the silent-e convention, but that convention is bizarre in itself, inconsistently applied (cf. "give" and "zine"), and only one of a dozen ways to make a vowel long. "Seven" and "three" might not seem so bad to the jaded eye -- but why not "sevven"? Shouldn't "seven" rhyme with "even"? And why make the long "e" with a double-"e"? Why not "threa" (cf. "sea") or "threy" (cf. "key") or "thre" (cf. "me") or "thry" (cf. "party")? "Two"? Why on Earth the "w"? Why the "two", "to", "too" distinction? "Four"? Same thing: "four", "for", "fore"! "One"? Same again: "one", "won", and arguably "wun". Really, "one" it starts with an "o"? My daughter thought I was kidding when I told her this, like the time I told her "dog" was spelled "jxqmpil". It's not much different from that. We're just used to it and so fail to notice. Worst of all is "eight". If English spelling were ever brought to court, it could be tried, convicted, and hung on the word "eight" alone.


Giulia said...

As a matter of fact, children don't have such difficulties when learning their mother tongue as far as spoken - as opposed to written - language is concerned.
This is also why there are methods for music teaching that apply the principle of mother tongue learning. For instance, with Suzuki method a 3 year old children can learn the fine motor abilities necessary for playing an instrument and also learn the music pieces by memory. Reading, understanding and writing musical notations comes much later.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Guilia. It's interesting to me that musical notation is so hard to master, despite its simplicity from an objective point of view. Similarly, the multiplication tables. That sort of thing seems unnatural to the human mind, even when it *does* make sense!

shane said...

This reminds me of a mark twain essay, "a plan for the improvement of english spelling"

"For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.
Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.
Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld."

Zach Barnett said...

Eric, how about the fact that English contains at least twenty distinct word endings that rhyme with "zoo."

(zoo, you, who, two, through, flew, blue, bleu, coup, ecru, ewe, lieu, bijoux, queue, sioux, debut, shoe, muumuu, ooh, Hugh?)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I love the Twain! Hadn't seen that before.

Zach: What a list!

You might also like the following sentence: "Though the tough hiccough and cough, plough me through", in which "ough" is pronounced seven different ways.

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

I don't really see the problem. You just have to explain to your child that English uses a a mixture of West and North Germanic word order forms, on top of which is layered a thick mixture of badly understood loanwords from Medieval Latin, Norman French and a smattering of Koine. Mix well and leave to stew for five hundred years.

Then, as Britain built a colonial empire, it gained loanwords from every other language with more than, say, ten thousand native speakers. The language that came out of all this comes in two major flavours/flavors. The one flavour tends towards French spelling, while the other flavor does not. But both are incredibly conservative. Therefore, there is a w in "two" because about a thousand years ago they really did say "tuhwoo".

Tough luck, kid. Next time around, try to pick parents who speak a more reasonable language, like Mandarin or italian.

Still, it could be worse. How anybody can actually relate spoken to written French is one of life's great mysteries. After years of study, I believe the rule is to swallow every second consonant and nasalise the first two of every three vowels!

P.D. Magnus said...

I was going to suggest that "eight" was, in the mists of early time, pronounced "eh igg hat". But I see that Michel has already commented, with a straight face, that "two" was once pronounced "tuhwoo". So colour me outdone.

UserGoogol said...

Well, there are plenty of words descended from the word two which pronounce the w. (Twelve, twenty, twain, twilight.)

Eddie said...


Callan S. said...

I told my son once when he was younger that all words are made up - he got this wide eyed expression as what seemed more solid than concrete and indeed the nature of things, became simply smoke. Or so I guess.

I followed that up by saying the english language is just badly made and badly designed. More like the home of a horder than anything planned. That's my apology, in that I appologize for the train wreck they run into after being birthed.

Occasionally I run into people who use the 'the dictionary says' phrase, who could have done with this lesson early on. Who treat the dictionary as if it literally defines things, rather than simply a way of two or more people to think about roughly the same things.