25 July 2009

On underlying rules

A friend has just passed on this. It's not unique, because English is an easy target, but it is fun:
English Is Weird

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
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 nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Then shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my 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?

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

Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England .
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,
we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing,
grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends
and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English
should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns down,
in which you fill in a form by filling it out,
and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And, in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop?
In my usual curmudgeonly puritanical spirit of not permitting anything to be merely "fun", it strikes me that this is a fascinating exercise in exploring the seemingly nonsensical rules which govern the language. You could set it as an exercise for linguistics...

Yes, it is a pain to learn all these arbitrary expressions (and I have great respect for people using English as an Additional Language [EAL, if you are collecting acronyms]) but;
  • I'm not a great linguist, but all five languages I have tackled--I don't claim to have "learned" them--include for example tables of irregular verbs. (Sorry! Those tables are actually the product of our attempts to systematise living language in order to teach it.)

  • English is more of a mess than other languages simply because it incorporates borrowings from so many of them.

  • So it makes really good sense to look beneath the surface and consider why--for example--some words form plurals with "-s" and some with "-n" as in the first verse. To see this as totally arbitrary (as the verse implies--but why not?) is to deprive the learner of an organising device which may facilitate memorisation. Etymology does not always help (I am frequently baffled by the derivations of words at A Word A Day, which is a fascinating daily service I would commend to everyone) but it does at least suggest that there are some underlying rules to seemingly discrete results.
So what is the moral? (These posts are I fear drifting in the direction of the prescriptive and moralistic. I'll address that later.) Just that it is ultimately more productive (and even, heaven help us, "efficient") to learn the underlying rules from which specific instances are derived, than to learn those instances discretely.

Or you can just enjoy the verse. (No, it's not a poem; but that is another story...)

(Acknowledgements to the original author of the verse; if anyone can claim copyright I'll happily post acknowledgement or remove this post.)

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