Challenge: English

Anyone who is at all familiar with me or my blog knows that I love English.  As a language, it’s just awesome.  It’s also difficult to learn as a foreign speaker (or a native speaker for that matter), however, and I have a few theories on specifically why that is.

1. English has a ton of single-syllable words.

When you’re trying to understand what someone is saying, every syllable is a new opportunity to do so.  Each one is a puzzle piece.  Some get discarded, others get mushed together until something recognizable starts to show up.   I think this might be one reason why the romance languages are so pleasing to listen to: they use so many syllables to get to where they need to go.  Then again, so does German, and that language sounds like a train being dropped onto a crowded freeway.

Back me up, Wikipedia!  “English words of more than two syllables are likely to come from French, often with modified terminations.”  English gives the audience so few chances to hear and understand each word, pattern recognition (understanding groups of sounds [phrases] rather than words, and anticipating meaning) and years of experience become necessary to become an accomplished speaker.


a google search for "sombrero fashion" does not disappoint

2. English has no single point of origin

English seems to be the mutt of languages.  Heavily drawn from French and German, English must be a bitch to learn if you weren’t a native speaker.  English vocabulary and rules of grammar don’t always have the same source.  That’s crazy!  That’s like speaking Spanish with Japanese rules of grammar (verb at the end, etc.).  Or using your fashion sense to solve a math problem.  Irrationally fabulous!

3. English class is never over

English has the largest vocabulary in the world, which is one reason why I love it so much.  We have a word for just about everything!  But as a direct result, even native speakers occasionally encounter words whose definitions escape them.  If you didn’t go to college, you will not understand at least four words in an hour-long conversation with an intelligent college graduate (unless the topic is Jersey Shore or some such nonsense).  And this doesn’t include the subtle differences between words like clock and watch (a watch is worn, a clock is mounted), shade and shadow (a shadow creates shade).  Compare to Spanish sombreroSombra is shade, so sombrero literally means “shader.”  SO SIMPLE.

4. English is a fucking quagmire

The rules only apply some of the time.  Spelling is really really important, because three different words pronounced the same way can mean three different things when spelled differently (there, their, they’re).  Use the phrase “in so far as much” in a sentence.  Properly.  Yikes.

he's pretty pissed

I wonder sometimes if I love English because it’s my native tongue, or because it’s such a challenging language and it gives me pride to know that I have, by and large, mastered it.  Even native speakers acknowledge that English is a bitch to learn and consistently speak without butchering repeatedly.  One of my favorite games, Kingdom of Loathing, won’t allow its players to chat without passing a basic English test… proctored by the ghost of the English language.  When you pass, he tells you to “avenge his death.”  Classic!

goodness, life

Endless vocabulary

James Murray of the OED

April 2, 2010: I posted this on Facebook, and quickly realized that if I was going to be this hilarious and brutally clever, I needed what any self-respecting college graduate working 12-hour days needs: a blog.

English is an amazing language. With over half a million words, it’s the largest, and best-known language on the planet, and it’s still growing. But there isn’t a word for everything.

Non Sequitur
I was watching some reality TV the other day (the hair cutting one), which mostly consists of a bunch of hair stylists being super friendly one minute, then brutally snappy the next. A couple of them were having a pointless argument which I was mindlessly enjoying when I realized that one of them was using nothing but non sequiturs to win the argument. And it was working. It went something like this:

x-You don’t know how to do a pixie cut.
o-Where did you learn to cut hair?
x-New Jersey.
o-I bet it was ghetto.
x-Your pixie cut looks like crap.
o-Your pants look like crap.

I’ve had conversations like this; they make me crazy, and I’m not ashamed to say that the last time this happened (philosophy class at USC), I snapped. I ended up completely abandoning our discussion to berate this guy on derailing the conversation just to gain the illusion of victory. I remember saying things like, “Stick to the topic, or stop talking,” and “I feel like we’re having two different conversations, and yours is dumb.”

Why isn’t there a word for this person? The English language has a word for just about everything, so why not someone who depends solely upon non sequiturs to win a discussion?

Instead of making up a whole new word, I propose that this word already exists; all we need to do is modify the definition to include those brainless shells of people who choose to free associate their way through conversations.

Though currently confined to use within the railway community, derailer is an English word for a device that intentionally takes a runaway railcar off its track. I can think of no better metaphor for people who obliterate coherent discussion with their inconsequential input on a regular basis than a device whose sole purpose is to screw up the forward progress of a strong, useful machine.

Derailer. Use it, people. Use it to shame your family, friends and coworkers into becoming more useful conversationalists, and save them from the vengeful gaze of the ghost of Productive Conversation (yes, it’s dead, you killed it).