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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why English is Such A Mess: Part Ten, The Americans

Mispelling has been a problem
 for Americans from the very begining.
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

Why, for heaven's sakes, can't the English use English?  The fact they spell color, "colour" is the least of it.  I do a double-take when I read about some Brit being sent to gaol or having to fix a flat tyre.  Gaol?  Tyre?  And the way they pronounce "controversy."  God, can't they hear how silly they sound?

Separate people by a few thousand miles of salt water, and some changes are bound to take place, especially since the colonists were exposed to whole new things the English didn't have words for.  Sometimes, they adapted a Native-American word: raccoon, moose, and squash - and sometimes they used an English word, only made it more specific.  In America corn refers to corn on the cob.  In England, until pretty recently, corn could be any grain.

English-speaking Americans, already using a corrupted dialect, got to mingle with the corrupted dialects of immigrants from all over Europe.  From the Cajuns - a corruption of Acadian, ie Canada, we get boocoo, (beaucoup), and levee, and bayou - and from Pennsylvania Dutch, kindergarten, stoop, and cookie (they call it a biscuit in England).  From the Spanish we get rodeo, stevedore, and barbecue.

The jury's is still out where we get the expression, "okay."  That it stood for "Old Kinderhook," seems unlikely.  It may be from Scottish - "och aye" - or Lakota - "hokaheh" - or Choctaw "okeh" - or West African, "waw key."  My favorite etymology is it comes from President Andrew Johnson who initialed papers, "OK," and when asked why, explained it stood for "Oll Korrect."

The fact is, that while we beat the British in the Revolution, they're still more than a match for us when it came to spelling.  We can barely get our heads around, "I before E except after C or sounding like A as in neighbor and weigh.  Oh, except for weird.  And their.  And Keith."  We're stumped that St. John rhymes with engine, and Wooster is pronounced Worster, and could never learn to spell "Foshay," the way they do in England, which is Featheringshaugh.

When it comes to English, let's face it, you can't beat the English. 

Take for example this little note Wellington jotted off one day:

"I see that the fire has communicated from the haystack to the roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof, or floors. After they will have fallen in, occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the House."

Pretty nifty, huh?  Did you notice how he slips in the future-perfect tense "will have fallen" not to mention the subjunctive, "if it should be possible"?  I bet you didn't even know there was a future-perfect tense.  Bear in mind, he whipped off this little missive during the heat of battle at Waterloo, when he might have been excused for forgetting the circumflex on château.

Compare that to a journal entry by George Washington written in perfectly calm reflection at his own desk in Mount Vernon: 

"Went a hunting with Jackie Custis and catched a Bitch Fox after three hours chace - founded in ye CK. by J. Soals."  

"A hunting" might be acceptable 18th-Century English, but what about chace, and founded, and catched?  Catched?

No wonder the founding fathers were so big on simplified spelling.  Noah Webster's dictionary came out about 50 years after Johnson's version across the pond.  Noah's had a couple of things Johnson didn't - for example, the letter J.  It also had center instead of centre, plow instead of plough, neighbor instead of neighbour, donut instead of doughnut, and tung instead of tongue.

Okay, the spelling of tung, didn't stick.  But next time you and your neighbor pull off the thruway and stop at your favorite Kwik-Mart to check your tire pressure and maybe get a donut, just be glad you're an American.

Assuming you are American.

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