Thursday, March 5, 2009

Won't It Make You Lose Your Wits?

In the Language Analysis class I am helping to teach, the professor gave students the following poem, to be read aloud, to trigger some awareness and analysis about the idiosyncrasies of English pronunciation.

I copied it out for my Swedish friend and his sons who are fluent students of English. But then I thought, maybe you guys will find it interesting as well.

First is my letter to my friend with my commentary on the poem, then a tiny introduction about where the poem came from, then the poem. Definitely read the poem aloud.

My Letter and Commentary:

We had the American students read it to make them more aware of their own language and its idiosyncrasies. To be fair, even American students could not correctly pronounce all the words (like simile and anemone) and some of them are not common. (like ague and Terpsichore, for example).When in doubt about how to pronounce something, look at the word it's meant to rhyme with.

After reading this, I had to look up how to pronounce correctly: skein, groats and succor. I am surprised the word scissors doesn’t appear in this poem. As for the word loth, I have never heard of it and wonder if it is loathe?

Words like topsails and gunwale are nautical terms and were/are pronounced a certain way by seafaring people [top’sǝlz, gǝn’nǝl].

Also the poem uses British spellings (like mould, clamour, and enamour) instead of American (mold, clamor, enamor). In the USA we spell certain words more phonetically than the British do: hiccup and not hiccough, grits and not groats, mustache not moustache, plow not plough.

By the way, the reason for all this wide variation is the same as the reason for variation in pronunciation rules in Swedish: because the words are borrowed from other languages. In English, the other languages we borrow from are MANY and different from one another: Latin, French, Greek, German, and yes, even Swedish (example, kiosk, though we pronounce it key’osk. And smorgasbord, although see how we spell it?).


“Multi-national personnel at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters near Paris found English to be an easy language … until they tried to pronounce it. To help them discard an array of accents, the verses below were devised. After trying them, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months at hard labor to reading six lines aloud. Try them yourself.”


English is Tough Stuff

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, Mepomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should or 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 sleeve,

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 and loth.

Job, knob, bosom, transom, oath.

Though the differences seem little

We say actual but victual.

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.

Foeffer does, and zephyr and heifer.

Mint, pint, senate and sedate;

Dull, bull and George are 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.

Warm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,

Senator, spectator, mayor.

Tour but our, and succour, four.

Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, Korea, and area

Psalm, Maria, but malaria.

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.

Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien and 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 spiky?

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, dough or cough?

Hiccough has the sound of cup.

My advice is to give up!


Kym said...

That was fun! There were only three I didn't know Foeffer, Balmoral, and Mepomene. Foeffer, I don't even have a reference for. I'd have to look it up.

The difference between loth and loathe is loth is an unwillingness to do something and loathe is a dislike of something.

This reminds me of Dr Seuss' book, The Tough Coughed as he Ploughed the Dough!

Indie said...

Oh, thanks Kym, I will have to recommend that book to my Swedish friends too.

I love Dr. Seuss. My favorite of his stories is from the Starbellied Sneech and other stories: say in very spooky voice: "The pale green pair of pants with nobody inside them."

Kristen said...

Hi Indie :)

Well, I must admit that I was having flashbacks of squirming in my seat during English classes in college, full of both dread and desire to go deeper into the language and how we carry it. English seems to be the compulsion of my wounded ego: love to hate it; hate to love it!

With Love,

steviewren said...

Fun! I read it out loud to hear myself say it all. There were only a few words that I didn't know and probably a few I should check the pronunciation on. What the hay is foeffer and Terpsichore?

Indie said...

Foeffer is a German name. Why is it in this poem? I do not know. If you google it. you mostly get hits on this poem...

Terpsichore (rhymes with hickory)is one of the nince Greek muses, the muse of dancing.

Balmoral is a Scottish castle. I think it's cheating to put names in the poem, don't you?

Kristen, I know a lot of people with that love/hate relationship with the language. As I learn more about it, though, all I feel is delight and a gentle tolerance for its idiosyncrasies now that I know more about why they exist.

I certainly don't envy anyone trying to learn it though. Swedish is nearly impossible for me at this stage in my life, even though it has much more consistent rules.

Mepomene, I think I misspelled it and it's Melpomene, another Greek muse, of singing. Again, not fair. Even native speakers will hardly have to struggle with words like that.

Kato said...

Ah, why I love Spanish! That poem could be a graduate test for ESL students. (Kym, I'll pay you a penny a line to memorize it...)

Of course, you know G.B. Shaw's famous spelling of "fish": "ghoti", right?

suzy blah blah said...

after with the words you struggle
give your tongue a special huggle.


Indie said...

Suzy, you made me laugh aloud for the first time today!:D Thanks! I agree, your lines should be added to the poem.

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