The English bear that confronts newcomers to our land isn’t entirely English. And it isn’t big and brown. But it can be an unruly beast.
It’s the American strain of the English language, a sort of functional gibberish that must sound, at first, as comprehensible to the foreigner as would obscure Tagalog, Oriya, or Igbu. Our version of English is part hoary, having been carried through the ages from Old and Middle English. It’s part crass and crude and commercial, as you might expect from a rambunctious lot like us.
And a whole lot of it is borrowed — and often corrupted — from other tongues. Gumbo from Bantu. Polka from Czech. Ketchup from Cantonese. Blink from Dutch. Amen from Hebrew. Mammoth from Russian. Flannel from my Welsh ancestors. Even cooties — and yo-yos — from Tagalog.
So trust me — or rather, ask any immigrant who arrived with few or no English skills — American English is a challenge and a half. You soon learn that it has rules, but that the rules often don’t apply. Even the simplest little English word — “in” or “on,” perhaps — that you think you couldn’t possibly misuse, doesn’t always fit where it logically should. Why else would we ride in cars but on trains, buses and streetcars? Words we use all the time can mean completely opposite things, as I’ll show you in a bit.
First, though, a tangent from my own experience.
The terror that foreign-born learners of English must face reminds me of my own nightmare in high school, not with English but with German. Don’t ask me why I studied it and not one of the easier romance languages, many of whose words bear some similarity to English. It wouldn’t have taken me long, for instance, to figure out what the French magnifique or the Spanish básquetbol is all about.
I think I picked German because I was a budding (but bad) chess player at the time, had just read about Freud and Jung, and liked my mother’s sauerkraut and pork. My grandmother spoke a little German, and it sounded vaguely intellectual, even from a poor Pennsylvania farm girl.
But I soon found out that Germans do maddening things when they start sprechen sie-ing Deutsch.
They take an adjective and a noun, sometimes a LONG adjective and a LONGER noun — stick the noun BEFORE the adjective, and then combine them into a single word that seems to run across the entire page. And not always seems to. Does.
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, for instance. I defy you to say that out loud. It MEANS, I am told, “law dealing with the supervision of beef labeling,” all in one word!
But even simple words were mystifying. My teacher, Frau Meuller — as strict and starchy as the stereotype you might imagine — quickly set about terrorizing her students, except those lucky enough to be named Ludwig or Gretchen, by drilling us in gender forms. It seems that in Germany and Austria and such places, intoxicated on alpine ozone, not just men and women, boys and girls, and bulls and cows are masculine or feminine. So are inanimate things such as desks, street lights, and beer steins.
Objects take the masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das) article form. But just because something is frilly and soft doesn’t mean it’s feminine. Or because it’s big and brawny that it’s masculine. And all sorts of things, for reasons lost in Germanic horde lore out of Central Europe, are neither.
If Frau Mueller knew why, she wasn’t sharing. “Ve [she said her “we’s” mit a “v”] vill learn zem,” because she said so, quite sternly.
Take the German words for bodies of water. The really big ocean is masculine: der Ozean. A somewhat smaller one is neuter: das Meer. And if you’re talking, less precisely, about the sea, it’s feminine: die See!
Speakers of a few other languages, such as Spanish, waltzed into that German class thinking they had a leg up on such things. The Spanish also stick masculine and feminine articles on things. But the Spanish word for “sun” is masculine, and the German word is feminine. And the words for “moon” are the other way around. So the Spanish speakers were soon humbled by Frau Mueller as well.
But German and Spanish don’t borrow from as many other languages as American English does. Give us your tired, your poor words, you other cultures, and we’ll mix them together in ways that make no sense whatever.
Here are some wonderful (or ghastly, if you’re struggling to learn English) examples from an unknown author, which have been floating around the Internet in poetic form, more or less, for years and years:
We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,
We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write, but fingers don’t fing?
Grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham?
Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them,
What do you call it?
If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
While a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
In which your house can burn up as it burns down,
In which you fill in a form by filling it out,
And in which an alarm goes off by going on.
And in closing, wrote the author of this gem way back when:
If Father is Pop, how come Mother’s not Mop?
Oh, I remember drilling such tense forms, all right. “Declensions,” I think they’re called.
When I’d ask my English teacher, Miss Cunningham, why we fight today but fought — not fighted — yesterday, and bite today and bit — not bote or bited — the day before, she’d explain that this is simply the way it is and to get back to my rote memorization. On that, she was in cahoots with Frau Mueller.
My VOA friend and colleague Penelope Poulou, whose sterling movie reviews you might have seen elsewhere on this site, is Greek-born, as you might have guessed from her name. The Greeks have their own linguistic minefields. They must weave between formal and vernacular versions that bear almost no resemblance to the language of the ancient philosophers, not a word of whom many a modern Greek would understand. Or so Penelope tells me.
I asked her what gave her the worst headaches when she was learning English. She threw back her head and laughed. “GAVE me headaches? This still does.” And she explained that she and many others who learned English as a second or third or fourth language really struggle with choosing the correct, weensy preposition for each occasion.
Consider all the words we use alongside the little word “put,” for instance: We put up the curtains, put up with someone, put you up to something, and put you up for the night. But we put down someone we are insulting. We put on airs, meaning that we act superior. We put in 40 hours a week. If someone insults us, we feel put off. To fool someone, we put something past the person. But we’re careful not to inconvenience you; we wouldn’t want to put you out.
You can’t imagine how many times even brilliant foreigners who work like demons to learn English get humiliated into silence by snotty Americans simply for saying they were “putting up for a promotion,” rather than putting in for one.
English is a bear, all right: brutish, sloppy, unsophisticated, hard to pin down. If you’re just learning it, even the simplest of words can be a Wild Word!
If you have a horror story, or a humorous one, about your own struggles to learn English, please write and share it with me and my other readers.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Cooties. A derogatory or squeamish term for bugs, especially lice, as well as for imaginary critters that slovenly people are said to be carrying.
Gibberish. Unintelligible words strung together; nonsense talk.
Hoary. Aged, even ancient.
In cahoots. In an often sneaky collusion or partnership with. “Cahoots” almost never appears alone, without its “in.”
Rambunctious. Noisy, rowdy, boisterous.