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English is difficult

English is notoriously a difficult language to learn because it is so horribly irregular in its spelling and pronunciation. Subjection to more than a thousand years of external influences — the forced imposition of French, shifts in pronunciation after spelling became fixed, the linguistic influence of the classical languages, and a huge importation of foreign words as a result of exploration and colonialism — has turned English into a mishmash.

A couple of poetic demonstrations of the fact have come my way, which seemed worth recording with some notes on their origin. The first is widely known today and appears in many English textbooks, under titles such as Why English is So Hard, but is always marked as by Anonymous when any attribution is given.

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then 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 whole nest of mice,
But 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?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But a bow if repeated is never called bine,
And the plural of vow is vows, never vine.

If I speak of a foot and you show me your 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?

If the singular’s this and the plural is these,
Should the plural of kiss ever be nicknamed keese?
Then one may be that and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren,
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim,

So the English, I think, you all will agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.

This goes back a lot further than you might possibly guess. A search in newspaper archives found that its first appearance in this form was in American newspapers and magazines at the end of the nineteenth century (the earliest I’ve found being in the Galveston Daily News of Iowa in 7 June 1896). Early examples also give no author, but attribute it to a magazine called The Commonwealth. It was widely reproduced in the following years and has remained popular ever since, though people have modified it from time to time to remove some of the less common or outdated words, such as kine. Whoever created it was building on earlier attempts, since variations on some of the verses are to be found in print much further back. In 1858, the Prescott Transcript of Wisconsin published various of its verses, attributed to publications such as The Comic Grammar, the Philadelphia Gazette and the Brooklyn Advertiser. Other papers later reproduced, consolidated and extended these squibs into a fuller form of which the 1896 version above is the culmination.

The other poem details the problems of pronunciation faced by those learning English as a second language. This is rather long (nearly 300 lines) and so I’ll give you an excerpt only:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).

Made has not the sound of bade,
Say — said, pay — paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From “desire”: desirable — admirable from “admire”,
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.

In this case, we know who wrote it. The poem was created by the Dutch writer and schoolteacher Gerard Nolst Trenité and first appeared, under the title of De Chaos, in his English textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent in 1920. He revised and enlarged it many times during his life (he died in 1946) and so there are many versions in existence. Like the other poem, those reproducing it have also felt free to amend it to suit their own needs.

Many versions end with a couplet that must pierce the heart of every confused and desperate student of the language:

Hiccough has the sound of sup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 May 2009

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Last modified: 2 May 2009.