English is a crazy language
by David A Wright (UK)
One of the vagaries1 of the English language is that it is not phonetic. That is to say, it is not always possible to tell how a word should be pronounced from its spelling. The main reasons for this are historical. English was not ‘invented’ logically, but has been developed over many hundreds of years, taking in words from other languages as its source material.
Much of English has derived from the so-called ‘romance’ languages; those ultimately derived from Latin, like French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian. As the words came, they tended to bring their spelling with them.
Other words derived from Germanic sources with their particular spellings. Yet more words, and particularly affixes, came directly from Latin and Ancient Greek which were the primary languages used by scholars in years gone by, and their spellings came along too.
Finally, many words were borrowed directly from other languages, especially from those countries which were formerly part of the worldwide British Empire: India, Australia, Africa, etc.
In American English, there have been moves to iron out2 many of the anomalies and to eliminate3 duplications. For instance, the British English word ‘travelling’ is spelt ‘traveling’, as the duplicate ‘l’ is thought to be redundant4 and, as we know, Americans are always in a hurry! However, in another example, The British English word ‘fulfil’ is spelt ‘fulfill’ across the Atlantic. So there is no consistency there.
British linguists will maintain that the illogical spellings are useful because they show the origins of the words, thus the ‘ae’ diphthong5 in ‘anaemic’, ‘anaesthetic’, etc, betray6 its Greek origin.
Modern students, without a background in the classics, curse7 this nostalgic pedantry8 and just want to spell words as they sound!
Another factor is that until fairly recently, with the invention of printing and mass production of books, newspapers, etc, there were no standards for spelling at all – people made it up as they thought fit. For example, William Shakespeare spelt his own name several different ways!
One final result of all this is that we have many words that are homophones – sounding the same, but spelt differently – and many others which are spelt the same way, but pronounced differently (heteronyms). Some common traps for novices include: flower/flour, hour/our, heir/hair, contest/contest, rebel/rebel etc.
While all this results in some confusion, it also gives rise to some humorous puns9 and other plays on words. Here are some familiar examples to confuse students of English as a foreign language.
1 vagary – причуда
2 to iron out – сглаживать
3 to eliminate – устранять
4 redundant – чрезмерный
5 diphthong – дифтонг (сочетание в одном слоге двух гласных звуков, не разделённых согласными)
6 to betray – выдавать
7 to curse – кощунствовать
8 pedantry – педантичность (строгость в выполнении всех требований, чрезвычайно точность и аккуратность)
9 pun – игра слов; каламбур
Can you read and understand these correctly?
1. The bandage was wound1 around the wound2.
2. The farm was used to produce3 produce4.
3. The dump5 was so full that it had to refuse6 more refuse7.
4. We must polish8 the Polish9 furniture.
5. He would lead10, but could not be led, until he died of lead11 poisoning.
6. The soldier decided to desert12 his dessert13 in the desert14.
7. Since there is no time like the present15, he thought it was time to present16 the present17.
8. A bass18 was painted on the head of the bass19 drum.
9. I did not object20 to the object21.
10. The insurance was invalid22 for the invalid23.
11. I went to see the sea and spilt tea on my tee shirt.
12. There was a row24 among the oarsmen about how to row25 and in which row26 they would sit.
13. Come here and hear what I have to say.
14. The maid made a mess of27 the housework.
15. Without its fur, a bear28 would be bare29 and could not bear30 the cold weather.
16. Come here if you want to hear.
17. An apple and a pear are not a pair.
18. She won one race!
1 wound – намотанный
2 wound – рана
3 to produce – производить
4 produce – продукты
5 dump – мусорная куча
6 to refuse – отвергать
7 refuse – мусор
8 to polish – полировать
9 Polish – польский
10 to lead – возглавлять, руководить
11 lead – свинцовый
12 to desert – оставлять
13 dessert – десерт
14 desert – пустыня
15 present – данный момент
16 to present – преподносить
17 present – подарок
18 bass – окунь
19 bass – басовый
20 to object – возражать
21 object – предмет
22 invalid – недействительный
23 invalid – больной
24 row – ссора, перебранка
25 to row – грести
26 row – ряд
27 made a mess of – напортить
28 bear – медведь
29 bare – голый
30 to bear – выносить
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