“English is a Rich Language”

“English is a Rich Language” December 6, 2012

…is the English-speaker’s way of warning foreigners that English makes no sense. Here’s an awesome poem celebrating that fact:

English Pronunciation by G. Nolst Trenité

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

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  • Hermann

    Very cool – and I got through reading it aloud with only 2 or 3 tripping up.

    Seems enmglish is nearer to my heart than german …


  • dpt

    My wife grew up speaking Taiwanese and then Portuguese, and there is a lot in English that just downright baffles her.

    A former colleague, originally from Korea, of mine mentioned that while in grad school (on the US east coast), he was instructed by other foreign students to tell the police, if he was ever pulled over while driving, to say, “I speak no England.”

  • ivan_the_mad

    Ha! How very clever! The inimitable Gallagher has a skit wherein he does something similar.

  • Alexander Anderson

    Hilarious! Although, I do pronounce aunt like haunt, because she is not an insect.

  • I do pronounce aunt like haunt, because she is not an insect.
    Mine is.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    I was once asked by a Chinese-Panamanian “Why does English have so many words?” She gave the example “director” and “conductor” which she said in Spanish were the same word. So I conducted her across the room, then directed her to return.
    English spelling is often notional, but then so is Castilian lisping, Russian accenting, German gender, and so on. In Choctaw, adjectives are verbs. In Latin poetry, words may appear almost anywhere in a sentence, trusting to the case endings to keep discipline. ‘Puer videt feminam’ means the same thing as ‘Feminam videt puer,’ while in English ‘The boy is seeing the woman’ differs from ‘The woman is seeing the boy.’
    One time in Vienna a student from Venezuela got in a conversation with my teaching colleague from Spain, wondering how Spaniards knew when to lisp. The answer was you just had to learn it because every rule had exceptions.
    Finnish has twenty cases for its nouns. It was hard enough in Latin to distinguish ablative from instrumental, but at least in Latin you could never make the mistake of saying “Sally flew to London.”
    Russian verbs have aspect in addition to tense, mood, et al., which make them difficult for foreigners to learn. Basically, each Russian verb is two verbs: imperfective and perfective. In some cases, three, because occasionally there is a distinct habitual aspect.
    Irish uses a different set of numbers for counting people than for counting things and has no words meaning ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And the spelling…
    The spelling is variant even in German if you are northern instead of southern. (High German for “two” is “zwei” (tsvai) but in Nord Rhein-Westpfalz it is pronounced (tzwo) which is almost how “two” would be pronounced if we followed the spelling. As for Austria…. Oy!
    Spelling problems is the price any language pays for lasting a long time. Irish, some wags have suggested, consists mostly of silent letters. (Shea is spelled Ó Seaghdha. “The aghdha is silent.”) The Late Vulgate Latin was often misspelled by classical standards because Latin was rapidly losing its case endings and some letters were changing pronunciation, so we find o written for u or b written for v, and folks began distinguishing between v and w and between i and j. Gregorius was being pronounced Grigorio long before the spelling changed. It’s why French is full of now-silent letters and has odd accents. Latin put its primary accent on the penultimate syllable. When the case endings disappeared, the accents were orphaned on the now-final syllable.

    Languages are fascinating in they ways they capture different manners of thought.