Sunday, January 31, 2010

English is a Crazy Language Part 4

English is weird.
In the rigid expressions that wear tonal grooves in the record of our language, beck can appear only with call, cranny with nook, hue with cry, main with might, fettle only with fine, aback with taken, caboodle with kit, and spic and span only with each other. Why must all shrifts be short, all lucre filthy, all bystanders innocent, and all bedfellows strange? I'm convinced that some shrifts are lengthy and that some lucre is squeaky clean, and I've certainly met guilty bystanders and perfectly normal bedfellows.

Why is it that only swoops are fell? Sure, the verbivorous William Shakespeare invented the expression "one fell swoop," but why can't strokes, swings, acts, and the like also be fell? Why are we allowed to vent our spleens but never our kidneys or livers? Why must it be only our minds that are boggled and never our eyes or our hearts? Why can't eyes and jars be ajar, as well as doors? Why must aspersions always be cast and never hurled or lobbed?

Doesn't it seem just a little wifty that we can make amends but never just one amend; that no matter how carefully we comb through the annals of history, we can never discover just one annal; that we can never pull a shenanigan, be in a doldrum, eat an egg Benedict, or get a jitter, a willy, a delirium tremen, or a heebie-jeebie; and that, sifting through the wreckage of a disaster, we can never find just one smithereen?

Indeed, this whole business of plurals that don't have matching singulars reminds me to ask this burning question, one that has puzzled scholars for decades: If you have a bunch of odds and ends and you get rid of or sell off all but one of them, what do you call that doohickey with which you're left?

What do you make of the fact that we can talk about certain things and ideas only when they are absent? Once they appear, our blessed English doesn't allow us to describe them. Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, sheveled, gruntled, chalant, plussed, ruly, gainly, maculate, pecunious, or peccable? Have you ever met a sung hero or experienced requited love? I know people who are no spring chickens, but where, pray tell, are the people who are spring chickens? Where are the people who actually would hurt a fly? All the time I meet people who are great shakes, who can cut the mustard, who can fight City Hall, who are my cup of tea, and whom I would touch with a ten-foot pole, but I can't talk about them in English -- and that is a laughing matter.

If the truth be told, all languages are a little crazy. As Walt Whitman might proclaim, they contradict themselves. That's because language is invented, not discovered, by boys and girls and men and women, not computers. As such, language reflects the creative and fearful asymmetry of the human race, which, of course, isn't really a race at all. That's why six, seven, eight, and nine change to sixty, seventy, eighty, and ninety, but two, three, four, and five do not become twoty, threety, fourty, and fivety. That's why first degree murder is more serious than third degree murder but a third degree burn is more serious than a first degree burn. That's why we can turn lights off and on but not out and in. That's why we wear a pair of pants but, except on ery cold days, not a pair of shirts. That's why we can open up the floor, climb the walls, raise the roof, pick up the house, and bring down the house.

In his essay "The Awful German Language," Mark Twain spoofs the confusion engendered by German gender by translating literally from a conversation in a German Sunday school book: "Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip? Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen. Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden? Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera." Twain continues: "A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female -- tomcats included."

Still, you have to marvel at the unique lunacy of the English language, in which your house can simultaneously burn up and burn down, in which you fill in a form by filling out a form, in which you add up a column of figures by adding them down, in which your alarm clock goes off by going on, in which you are inoculated for measles by being inoculated against measles, and in which you first chop a tree down -- and then you chop it up.

As I promised here are the comments:

Kelsey said...
I had always learned to use the phrase "I couldn't care less." That was how my parents said it, so I learned to say it in the same way. It made sense and I never really questioned it. My friend Sam and I were having a conversation one day and she happened to use the phrase "I could care less." This was not the first time I had heard someone say it in this manner but it was the first time I decided to question it. I asked her why she didn't say it the other way. I mean, didn't the other way make more sense: not being able to care less? Sam didn't understand my confusion and insisted that the phrase went the same way she had said it. We dropped the issue, but every now and then I will hear someone say "I could care less" and I still can't help but question it.

Phillip said...
So I have a freind who was born in another country. While she, being practically raised in this country, is understandable enough - her mother is another matter. While her mother is a fantastic whoman she was raised in a country where luxery was something she did not have. Therefore, whenever someone decides to go over she promptly offers them some food. This is of course completely beside the point of my blog...I do that sometimes. So to the point I bring this friend to school, and on a recent morning I decided not to go to school. So I felt that I should inform her of the fact. i therefore called up this particular individual, and her mother answered the phone. "Heyo?"
" Danny there?"
"Is Danny here? OF course she is here. It is six twenty i didn't raise a street walker.." This of course struck me off gaurd.
I quickly realized that to someone unacostomed to the english language asking if their daurghter was home at such an early hour was a ridiculous question.

Smith said...
The only incident I can think of off the top of my head is what I mentioned in class. In my family improper grammar is severely looked down upon. If someone has bad grammar then they get punched in the arm plain and simple. It has been this way ever since I can remember. And due to this trivial fact, if my friends have bad grammar I punch them and THEN explain why. When I was little it used to get me in some trouble. I didn't realize until I got older that you can't just go around punching people in the arm for mad grammar. It may seem stupid to others that I had to learn this, but when one is raised doing things one way, they don't really rationalize as to whether or not it is right! :)

Jen said...
Although I have never encountered any troubles with another person when it comes to the English language, I have embarrassed myself numerous times by mixing up words or phrases. One such incident occurred when I was very young, around the age of 3. I was a very curious child, and I often tried to repeat the things that I heard my parents say often. One day when we were driving down the road, I turned to my cousin and said, “Now remember, when you’re driving you are never supposed to cross the devil line.” Of course, we all know that the two lines that go down the road are not called “devil lines,” but “double lines.” Granted, I was very young and probably just misheard what I heard my parents say on occasion, but nonetheless, I often mix up our crazy English phrases, and embarrass myself in the process.

Harlan said...
Two years ago some foreign exchange students from Germany came to visit our high school for one day. In those few hours, I learned an incredible amount about Germany and their culture; much more than I would have studying in school. But my new found friendship was presented with some difficulties because of the English sayings and spellings. For example, she asked me why such words as "night" and "knight" sound the same but spelled differently. Until then, I never wondered about such a dilemma. I answered her by saying, "I don't know I guess English is weird like that." But that made me wonder a little bit why such problems exist in the English language, but sadly I failed to come up with an answer. This such example is probably common among people from other countries not familiar with English. Similarly to Tyler's problem, English created confusion between an English speaking individual and someone who is not familiar to the inconsistencies of the English language.

Shawn said...
I haven't really had any personal situations that I can think of. However, I have read some such things. The following is an example of several mistakes made by students combined into one series: "Ancient Egypt was inhabited by mummies, and they all wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation."

I would point out the errors... but I expect most of you should be able to find them. It's somewhat ammusing.

Tabby said...
Similarly to Shawn, I am having a difficult time coming up with an example where there was a misunderstanding because of English. I do know there have been several times that I have been talking to Mang and she has not understood what I was attempting to communicate. I belive the reason for this is because I talk too fast and slur my words together. Another reason is because she does not know what all the English words we use mean. So that does not stem from English being crazy.

Reid said...
I can only think of one instance in which I was thoroughly confused by the English language. This confusing moment occurred sophomore year in a JV basketball practice. I remember coach Scobee stopping practice and asking me a question, he said, “are you not unselfish?” Immediately I was confused and had no clue how to answer this question. The reason I was so confused was because he obviously used a double negative, just another very confusing error that can be made with the crazy language of English. I also am in the same situation that Savannah in, because bad grammar is looked down in our household. Although this is not a negative thing it has helped me to develop a somewhat decent vocabulary. Overall English is a crazy language that I am glad I am fluent in.

Boss Hoss said...
I currently can't think of any circumstances in which English's craziness has gotten me into trouble (that I can tell on this blog), but I will however discuss how English's flaws make up much of the humor we hear today. Many of the jokes and humor we use is the result of English's "double meanings". A perfect example of this is that's what she said jokes. These jokes provide a perfect example that English words can mean more than one thing and in many instances, can mean something completely different than what they are supposed to mean.

Jill said...
Abbot and Costello's "Who's on first?" is the first thing that pops in my head when I think of confusing situations that occur due to the complicated nature of the English language. The following conversation comes from the famous punny play:
Costello: Well then who is on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Who!
Costello: The guy playing first base.
Abbott: Who is on first.
Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first!
Abbott: That’s the man’s name.
Costello: That’s whose name?
Abbott: Yeah.
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: That’s who?
Abbott: Yeah.
While this example is a bit extreme and sublime it does show how confusing the English language can be when spoken rather than written.

Hrothgar Vilhelm said...
I agree with Austin in not being able to come up with a story of any times where english has confused me or gotten me into trouble, and also with the fact that part of the reason english is so fun is that innuendos and other double meanings exist. Many a good t shirt these days carries multiple meanings. For example, many popular t shirts have seemingly insignigicant statements that without having prior knowledge of their inappropriate double meanings, you would pass as merely random. I could see where this could be extremely confusing to someone who is not fluent in english or knowledgeable with slang terms. This could cause someone to wind up in a tight spot by wearing something seemingly harmless and running into the wrong people. So english words have numerous meanings many of which go untaught by teachers and can lead to trouble.

Kinz said...
Just as Jenny pointed out, many toddlers have trouble differentiating words as they begin learning our "crazy" language. I am surely not the only four year old to call our church a "terch" or a rabbit a "wabbit". One instance in my childhood when a mix up of the English language altered my reaction, however, does stand out in my memory (or perhaps it's just been imprinted in my brain from constant retelling). When I, as a three-year-old, traveled from Indiana to Montana with my grandma and mom, I was fairly ignorant of U.S. geography. So, waking up from a long nap in the back of our motor home to the sound of my mom and grandma fighting about the best route away from Cedar Rapids, I started bawling. After my mom finally calmed me down and asked the reason for my upset, I finally sobbed,"But I wanted to go See The Rabbits!"

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Graduation Open House Pictures

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