Tough Plough Through Dough: Reacquainting Myself with the Lunacy of the English Language

The other day our youngest daughter, 10 years old, asked me an intriguing question:

“Why does nonfiction mean something that’s real, and fiction mean something that’s not real? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

I gave her my stock answer when it comes to these types of questions about the English language: “Because that’s just the way they decided to do it. Don’t try to look at it logically.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I decided she had a point. Looked at objectively, “nonfiction” is a silly word. When you begin a word with “non,” it signifies that it’s “not” something. “Nonsmoker” means someone who is not a smoker. In the case of “nonfiction,” it essentially means something that is not not real. That’s a pretty GD clumsy way of saying something is real. It would have been much easier to use “fiction” as the word that means real, and nonfiction as the word that means not real.

But that would make too much sense for the English language.

Anyone who raises children in an English-speaking country has probably had to explain why the English language is so nonsensical – a word that itself is nonsensical, because it means “not” sensical, and there is no such word as “sensical.” Check your dictionary, see if you find it.

English is the linguistic equivalent of an infected computer that just starts spitting out random nonsense. The rules are chaotic – or would be if there were any rules, which there aren’t.

Yes, English can be a beautiful language when you toss out clunkers like “phlegm,” “honk” and “bunion.” But it makes no sense at all.

Here are just a few examples, pulled off the top of my head:

  • You buy and bought; you try and tried; you fly and flew
  • You make and made; you bake and baked
  • You peek and peeked; you seek and sought
  • Fowl and bowl do not rhyme, but fowl and bowel and foul do rhyme, but foul and ghoul do not rhyme
  • Ration and nation do not rhyme, but ration and fashion and passion do rhyme.
  • Read and lead rhyme, and read and lead rhyme, but read and lead don’t rhyme, and read and lead don’t rhyme, and read and read don’t rhyme, and lead and lead don’t rhyme
  • Corpse and corps do not rhyme, and neither do horse and worse, and neither do weight and height
  • Tough, dough, plough, through – four different sounds with the same ending
  • i before e except after c, except for efficiency and science and sufficient and conscience and deficiency and proficient and omniscient and currencies and iciest and dicier and on and on and on and on.

Here’s another example, stolen from a poem on the internet:

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?

Then one may be that, and three would be those, yet hat in the plural would never be hose

We could go on, but let’s knot. I mean naught. I mean not.

The confusion gets ratcheted up when your kids spend their first half-dozen or so years in America, and the next for years (I mean fore years, I mean four years) in England. This is when you get into the whole flavor vs. flavour, curb vs. kerb, and specialize vs. specialise thing. Not to mention the differences in singular and plural: the Brits would say Man United are playing, while the Yanks would say Man United is playing.

Our daughters are curious kids, and often wonder why the English language is so weird. I usually put on my Wise Dad face, summon my decades as a professional writer who makes a living with words, and say:

“Beats the hell out of me. Stupid, ain’t it?”

Nah, I tell them it’s because English is comprised of many different languages. It started out as a member of the Germanic family of languages – in its case, Anglo-Saxon, which combined elements of Latin and Celtic words to create Olde English. Then came the Norse/Danish influence, which arrived during the 9th century. Following the Norman conquest, elements of French/Norman slipped in. Then came British colonization, which introduced even more linguistic flavors from around the world.

What you end up with is a language that can’t make up its mind what it wants to be, so it just tries to be everything.

Like most Americans – indeed, like most people who come from English-speaking countries – I am not multilingual, or even really bilingual. I took a few years of Spanish in high school and college (“college” is actually what they call high school over here in the UK, but never mind).

I know enough Spanish to stumble my way through should I ever get stuck in a Spanish-speaking country, but the people I’m talking to have a hard time understanding me. They always look on the verge of either slapping me or laughing their asses off.

Here’s the thing, though: I really don’t need to learn another language, because everyone everywhere seems to speak English. Since moving to London we have visited 10 countries whose primary language is not English: Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Holland, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Denmark, and Sweden. In every one of those countries, you could get by fine with English. The Dutch and Danish speak better English than the English.

English has become the world’s unofficial second language. I’m guessing there are two main reasons for this: the British empire that colonized much of the world, and the United States economy that colonized whatever was left.

How pervasive is the English language? I’ll give you an example.

I am a big fan of tennis, which is a major global sport. Ranked tennis players come from just about every country you can name – and all of them speak English. When you decide to become a professional tennis player, your first job is to master the sport, and your second job is to learn English.

I might be watching a doubles match that takes place in Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking country. There might be one player from China, one from Croatia, one from Zimbabwe, and one from Mexico. Maybe the chair umpire is from Kazakhstan, and the court supervisor is from Finland. Six different people, six different languages. And the language they converse in on court is always English, every time. Because that’s the only language they have in common.

(Tennis is the perfect sport for this, by the way, because its scoring system is as illogical as English. No other scoring system even comes close. The first point in tennis is 15-love. Then 30-love. Then 40-love – which not only makes no sense from a scoring standpoint, but from a math one. Shouldn’t it be 45-love? Then you get into deuces and ads and…oh forget it).

I make my living from English, so it has been very, very good to me.  If I were a writer who grew up in Bulgaria, for example, I would either have to learn to write in other languages or hire a translator. Otherwise, my writing wouldn’t make it outside of Bulgaria.

So yeah, English and I, we’re a team. I’m still not sure what the past tense of “dive” is (dived? dove?). I can never remember whether to use “a” or “an” before words that begin with an “h,” which can be a/an harrowing experience when you are running up against deadline.

But I’ve learned to live with it, and so will our kids. English is a messy, stupid, beautiful, and illogical language. Perfect for the world we live in.

2 Comments

  1. Dove is correct – but pronounced with an ‘oh’ sound, not like the bird. I’m always curious as to why Americans don’t say spit -> spat (past tense), and the like.

    And why stupid is stoopid, but care is always taken with John Cusack’s surname…

    Thanks for pointing out why English is so mixed up. It actually makes sense now, and it still amazes me that we just memorise these nuances from childhood (mostly).

    I realised on Hajj a decade ago that even though English may be the most widely spoken language, it still isn’t the most spoken language. In that environment, with people from all over the world (mostly non-Western), I learnt that English, and Western ideals of behaviour, is actually not as ubiquitous as we think (living in the West).

    Anyway…it gets even more interesting when local languages and cultural ones mix. Here in Cape Town, for example, it’s not uncommon to hear Muslims speak a mixture of English, Afrikaans, and Arabic. Xhosa or Zulu bits chucked in at times too.

    Such is the wonder of human diversity 🤓.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand what you mean, but put it this way: Mandarin (of course) is the most spoken language in the world in terms of the most native speakers. Then comes Spanish, then English, then Hindi. then Bengali. They are the languages with at least 300 million native speakers, and No. 6 ( Portuguese) is not really that close.

      Now, if you were to visit India or Peru or Thailand or Ghana, would you be more likely to find people who can speak Mandarin or English? If you were to visit Pakistan, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia, would you be more likely to find people who speak English or Spanish? If you were to visit South America, would the second-most spoken language be English, Mandarin, Hindi or Bengali?

      When you went on the Hajj pilgrimage, of course most people there spoke languages other than English because most came from non-English countries. I would imagine most spoke Arabic or Hindi. But if you were to find them speaking a second language, what would it most likely be? Would the Arabic speakers be more likely to use Hindi, Mandarin, Spanish or English? Maybe it would be Hindi, I’m not sure. But my guess is that if it weren’t Hindi, it would be English rather than Mandarin or Spanish. Of everyone in attendance, how many would be able to also speak English vs. Mandarin or Spanish? I could be wrong, but I’m betting of those three, it would be English. Which is basically what I am trying to say — English, more than any other language, is most likely to be the second-most spoken language, no matter which part of the globe you are in, East or West. There would be some outliers, of course. I imagine in Brazil you would find more Spanish than English speakers.

      But when you look at the totality of all regions of the world, English is much more likely to be the second language than Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi or Bengali.

      Liked by 1 person

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