English Doesn't Make Sense, But It Sure Is Funny
© 2009 by Daniel Carter. All rights reserved. Copying or reproducing any portion of this article without permission is illegal and will be prosecuted.
I grew up in the sage brush of Idaho. I guess we are considered a "plain English" area. From what I can tell, it's considered a midwestern or average American sound. There are some little idiomatic things that we do say. My Grandfather used to say "eench" for "inch" but I'm not sure that's an Idaho thing. I think that was just him. Sometimes I hear "warsh" for "wash". And I heard one married couple argue about paint color for the living room. "I'm not puttin' the color of calf scours on those walls, not no way, not no how!" But none of these things is like what I've heard traveling to the southern states and Great Britain.
The UK. Cradle of our mother tongue. The Queen's English is quite a bit different from other dialects that I've heard. I think it's the dialects of the English language that frighten non-English speakers most. That, and picky things like spelling "rough" and "through," and "threw" and "stuff," and a million other things.
An English teacher corrected me in class once after I was confused and said to her, "I don't know what you're talking about."
She replied, "Never end a sentence with a preposition. Say it again, but this time put the word 'about' in its proper place."
I stammered through these words, "I don't know about what you're talking [perplexed pause] about."
Apparently, the rule is that the most unnatural way to say these things is the correct way.
When I was in England in the 70's, I met some wonderful, colorful people from the east end of London. I became temporarily fluent in cockney. One of the first things I learned was, "Woy don't ewe lot speek proppuh inglish loyk wo'eye doz?" Which, translated is simply, "Your English isn't very good."
Cockney is a beautiful poetic dialect. Rhymin' Slang is amazing. It takes a typical, everyday word and gives it a poetic rhyme. Here are a few examples:
"whistle and flute" means "suit"
"apples and pears" means "stairs"
"trouble and strife" means "wife"
But here's the ingenious part: you don't say both words to say the word you mean. You only say the word that doesn't rhyme.
So it comes out something like this: "Co', mait, ow'z yer trouble, 'en?"
Which, tranlsated, means: "Hi, friend, how is your wife?"
Another example: "Oy! Where'd ya get that whistle? Musta' knocked off a Barclay's tuh come up wif enuff quid fer 'at!"
Translated: "What a beautiful suit! It must have cost a lot of money!"
But, I can also think of an example of how we are so consumed by our own language idioms that we can barely fathom those of any other language. Following is an example. It's supposedly a true story. Whether it is or not, it's wickedly funny to me.
My brother was in Thailand about the time I was in England. He tells a story of one young man traveling with him who was asked to stand and say a few words to an audience. Mind you, he just set foot on Thai soil, and his Thai was, well..."shy."
Thai is a tonal language, meaning that any given syllable can be said on a high, mid or low tone, and can have a completely different meaning, depending on which tone is used. The young man stood to speak and meant to say that since his fluency of the language was minimal, he begged for them to excuse him. However, because he used a wrong tone on a wrong syllable, he instead begged them to fart. Instantly the whole place collapsed in laughter in front of the bewildered speaker. But even more bewildering to him was that his address prompted every adolescent (and probably many adults) to break wind for the rest of the meeting.
Speaking of tonal languages, I think southern states dialects are particularly musical. I think the deeper south you go, the more sing-songier they get. (My English teacher would not be proud of my use of adjectives here.)
I was at a family reunion when I was about 17 years old. The reunion took place in Hydro, Oklahoma, from which my mother's family comes [perplexed pause] from. I was conversing with some cousins. However, my normal manner of speaking changed a little, as my voice became more locally stylized, and included words like "ya'all." My great uncle Cecil took note of this. He called me over as he looked at me with furrowed brow.
"Danny, where ya'all from?" he asked.
"Well, you know, uncle Cecil, from Idaho." I said.
"Do ya'all say 'ya'all' in Idaho?" he continued to ask.
"Uh, no sir, not usually," I said sheepishly.
"Uh huh, I see. Well, ya see it's like this, Danny. I figgered ya'all was from Idaho, but just cain't figger out why all ya'all's fam'ly is sayin' 'ya'all' when you don't say 'ya'all' anyhoo. Do ya folluh?" He inquired.
"Uh...." I stammered as my eyes rolled to the side to try to solve this math story problem in my head.
"Well, let me 'splain some more. In Miss'ippie they send their kids to 'skewl', but in Texez they send their kids to 'skool'. So it's like this: ya'all's got a drawl but it ain't from nowhere. It ain't from Miss'ippie, Loozianna, ner Texez, ner nowhere. It's jist a drawl that don't have a home. Now wouldn't all ya'all rather jist toke Idaho?" he winked and chuckled.
"Um, it's funner to have a drawl, uncle Cecil," I said grinning.
"Then I 'spoze you can be from here, if ya hafta," he said, wryly.
And off I went.
Now some may think that I mock these dialects, but truly I do not. By pedigree I am English/English. And those English ancestors came to the US about the time of the Revolutionary War, fought for the fledgling 13 Colonies, and then eventually settled in the southern states. Another side of the family went further west. I'm simply deeply fascinated by my own heritage, and the colorful ways we manage to communicate and bend basic rules of English so far out into the known universe that speaking the way we do should seem incomprehensible, but yet we still manage to communicate clearly with such relative ease. (That was a run-on sentence. But, see, I made my point!)
Here is another for-instance: take the word "Coke." In most places Coke is a Coke is a Coke. But in the south, a "coke" is just any ole' soft drink. (Note when I capitalize this word. When it's not capitalized, it's the generic "coke" indicating any ole' soft drink. When it is capitalized, it means the actual drink.) So the northern patron orders a "Coke" from the southern waitress who asks the patron "What kind?" To which the northern patron becomes confused. The waitress, seeing the confusion says, "We have Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Mr. Pibb. What kind of coke would you like?" The patron responds, "I'll have a Diet." The waitress responds, "What kind of diet? Would you like Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb?" The patron, still confused, says, "Can I have a Diet Coke?" The waitress, clearly trying to be as absolutely friendly, and helpful as possible responds, "I'm sorry, sir, we don't have Diet Coke. Can I get you a Diet Sprite, Diet Pepsi, Diet Dr. Pepper, or Diet Mr. Pibb?"
I could make this worse and go on, but you get my drift. But I think the point here is that we don't talk in capitalizations, so we can't really tell if it's generic or the real thing. It makes it all the funnier to me to write it out and see what's really going on.
I was in southern Utah once. There is a unique dialect there as well. It's the only place on the planet you can see Luke Skywalker in the movie "Store Wahrs." It's where they have "plars ta cut the wahr" and when the plug won't reach the outlet you need an "extinshun card." Oh, but it just keeps going. No matter where you go, there is a dialect, and no matter where you're from, they will most likely think you talk funny and you will most likely think the same of you. And folks, this is just the English language. Surely it just compounds exponentially from language to language.
There are some sublime confusions, as well. In posh British English, one must keep a "shedjule" as opposed to a "schedule," but we all send our children to "school" instead of "shul," unless of course, we are Jewish. (???)
We all agree about how to pronouce "potato" which is supposed to rhyme with "tomato" (even in British poetry), except in Britain it's pronounced "tomahto."
And of course, there are the spelling nightmares like "pneumonia" and keeping straight the spelling of "tough" and "dough" even though they are pronounced so differently. Imagine saying, "Wow!! He is such a 'toe' guy!" Or, "I like chocolate covered 'duff'-nuts best." I'm thinking "Hooked on Phonics" isn't that helpful.
There are other dialects of the English language as well. Pigeon-English, Ebonix and even made up languages like pig-latin. Not to mention eastern seaboard of the US, Australian, South African and New Zealand. That's not even the complete list, I don't think. And I don't have any legitimate experience with any of the aforementioned dialects except for pig-latin. Oh, but did you know there is such a thing as turkey-latin? Here's a little Mother Goose rhyme for you in that dialect:
Mobberobby hobbad obba lobbittobble lobbamb whobbose flobbeece wobbas whobbite obbas snobbow, Obband obbevobberobby whobbere thobbat Mobberobby wobbent thobbe lobbamb wobbas shobbure tobbo gobbo.
That, my friends, is turkey-latin. Although I have been given to writing nonsense poems and limericks, I've never gone quite as far as all this. You put "obb" in front of every vowel. In the spirit of simple consistency, turkey-latin seems to work very well. Although I'd vote against it as a national language. It would take a day and half to get through initial salutations and gossip so that one could finally make the original point intended.
Maybe if we didn't alter the language any more than just create consistent spelling it might improve things. I'll play devil's advocate and go for losing the letter "F" and just replace it with "PH." Here we go:
"What are you doing that phor?"
Actually, from what I was taught by my English teacher, that's wrong. It should be:
"Phor what are you doing that [perplexed pause] phor?"
After a little consideration, I don't think you can win this consistency/simplicity thing with English. However, I'm glad to have the opportunity to poke fun at the way I speak—and everyone else.
So the next time you or your kids are in fits over a spelling list or syntax or grammar assignments, just know I feel for you. (Now that's a weird phrase for telling someone you feel sympathetic, don't you think?)
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