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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Open Letter to the English Language

Dear English Language,

First of all, let me say that I’m a huge fan.  I’ve been speaking you for most of my life and love the way that you incorporate the descriptiveness of German with the flow and beauty of French without all the vocal gymnastics of Spanish.  I love the fact that even as a native speaker of more than three decades I’m still encountering words for the first time.  I love the fact that you offer three hundred and eighty different ways to say ‘good’, each with its own miniscule variation on meaning.  On a personal level, I also really appreciate you ensuring that my name remains second only to aardvark alphabetically.

There are, however, a few issues that have been gnawing at me for years.  In the past I’ve simply assumed that you, being a language spoken by more than a billion people worldwide, know better than I the needs of communicative discourse.  The older I get, the more I come to realize that these problems might simply have been overlooked.  You have a quarter million words to keep track of, not to mention all the proper nouns, punctuation, grammatical structure and onomatopoeia.   Given all of that, it’s entirely possible that you’ve simply missed a few minor corrections that could make you a bit friendlier to new speakers.

 #1) Apostrophes

Perhaps no other punctuation is so thoroughly abused as the apostrophe.  Hand written signs all over the nation waste ink with misguided strokes forced to improperly denote pluralization.  Contractions are left unbounded, apostrophes occasionally follow words that end naturally in ‘S’ with no real reason or purpose and promising minds are thwarted by the indiscriminate way we suspend the possession rule when it comes to ‘it’.

Lord only knows why this punctuation is so maligned.  Perhaps it is too much to ask it to serve both possession and contraction.  Perhaps the fault lies with the letter ‘S’ and the ease with which a sibilant can be added to nearly any word.  Whatever the cause, the result is devastating to linguistic nit-pickers the world over.

 #2) The Semi-Colon

I mean, what’s the point of these weirdos to begin with?  Too timid to be a period, too self righteous to be a comma, the semi-colon is nothing more than a segregationist among interrelated clauses.  Who cares if the clauses are not conjoined by a coordinating conjunction?  Could they not then be two separate sentences?  Is “I went to the store to buy cereal; I was told they were out” be any harder to understand if we replace the semi-colon with a period?  Was there an ‘and’ shortage that started the whole semi-colon thing?

In addition to separating independent clauses, the semi-colon is also called upon to link clauses that contain either transitional phrases or conjunctive adverbs.  But by the merit of transitional phrases and conjunctive adverbs they are already linked.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind you the definition of either transitional or conjunctive (you are the English language, after all).

Finally, the semi-colon is brought in when listing phrases that contain internal punctuation.  In this case, the semi-colon has been reduced to a “meta-comma”.  Sure, from time to time this is needed, but it’s hardly deserving of it’s own punctuation.  We could just as easily use a mathematical approach and double up commas the way equations often double up parenthesis.

I suppose a valid argument can be made for keeping the semi-colon, though I think we should seriously rethink the rules of usage.  At the very least, you might want to consider moving it to a less prominent part of the keyboard.

 #3) All the homophones

I cannot begin to comprehend the pressure of being a language.  Keeping up with colloquial usages, emerging slang terms and liberal pronunciation must be an unending challenge.  I would not bring up the homophones except that I think it might make things easier on you as the language and us as the speakers.  Words like “to/too/two” and “they’re/their/there” seem to throw everyone for a loop now and again.

There are two ways to go about solving this problem.  The hard way would require establishing new words for separate meanings.  Not only would this entail the creation of a number of new words but it would also lead to inevitable (and potentially bloody) fights over which homophone gets to keep it’s original pronunciation.  Which version of “to” gets grandfathered in?

The other and far easier solution is to do away with the whole homophone concept altogether and switch them all to homonyms.  In context, it’s usually pretty easy to tell if someone means “he’ll”, “heel” or “heal”.  So why not adopt a uniform spelling as well?  Clearly the idea of not confusing people at all seems to go against the mission statement of English, but couldn’t we at least replace the existing confusion with a newer and more uniform confusion?

 #4) Silent Letters

This is just a stupid idea.  I know, I know, you were young and all the cool languages were doing it, but now that you’re older and more mature I’m sure you can abandon this fad with grace and dignity.  Think about the blank stares children respond with when teachers first explain that some letters are just there for no reaon but the aesthetic.  They are unpronounced, useless and there isn’t even a firm consensus on why or when the letters will be silent.

Perhaps we could come up with a single silent letter.  Instead of useless ‘K’s at the beginning of words and vestigial ‘E’s at the end we could develop a symbol that is pronounced silently.  We could replace all of the silent letters with it and then pronounce it all we want.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but in the word “Knight” only half of the letters directly affect the pronunciation.  Which brings me to my final issue:

 #5) GH

I’m not a big fan of those letters in conjunction.  They can’t be pronounced phonetically with any recognizable sound.  Most of the time we use them as silent letters (the cheerleaders of the alphabet) but sometimes, seemingly on a whim, we pronounce the ‘G’ but not the ‘H’.  Other times we say “the hell with sense” and pronounce them as an ‘F’.

I, as a writer, speaker and grammar-fascist, appreciate the beauty of a language that looks as though it was created by a person desperate to catch up in a game of Scrabble, but all of the other languages are laughing at you (except French, which is currently on strike).  I tire of hearing the language I love mocked and ridiculed so openly and I think that with only a few of these minor adjustments we can mitigate the laughter.  We can also insulate the people who hand-write signs at local businesses from displaying their stupidity so openly.

I honestly don’t think we can fool the gas station attendant for putting up a sign that says (I actually saw this once): “This window closed due too whether”.  I think that the honest fault lies with you, English language.  No disrespect intended, but you knew that there were problems and have done nothing to fix them.  Linguists have tried to develop mnemonics like “’I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’ unless sounded like ‘A’ as in neighbor or weigh”, and still you thwart them with words like weird, ageing, theist, protein, seismology, either and marbleize (and the 1600+ other English words that don’t conform to this ‘rule’).

I’ve defended you for years, English.  I’ve been your uncompensated promoter and enforcer for much of my adult life.  All I ask in return is a small token to symbolize that we are in this together.  Barring that, I’d like you to remove one of the ‘A’s in aardvark so that my name can come first.


Aaron Davies

PS I appreciate the whole irony thing, but when you spell phonetically with a ‘PH’ it’s almost like you’re intentionally screwing with us.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I've been in use for a long time and no one ever thought to confront me personally. Thank you Aaron. I will take your comments under consideration.