Wednesday, January 3, 2007

English, plurals and why foreigners go a little crazy

English, I remember being young enough to think that English was a great language, and so much better than French, since there are fewer exceptions. Hahah... it's funny when I look back.

While I still prefer English to French, I realize that it's just because I know it better and spend more time reading, writing and generally working with it than I do with French. The French generally have it right when they go back and revise once every few years.

English speakers' general take on English is one of apathy, and we'd rather let the language evolve than try and fix it - anyone who tries to "fix" English comes across as pretentious. Not that you'd know what to fix anyway - there are many, many places where English is the first language, and there will always be a few who wouldn't want to speak any differently anyway. And, if enough people speak a certain way, it becomes the normal way of doing it and the new standard (try pronouncing the "t" in often, and then realize that you don't do it in soften - ever)

Think about this - how do you make a word plural? Sure, you can just add an "s", but then you have:

child - childs
sheep - sheeps
woman - womans

These are all wrong.

Of course, then there are words that have two plurals, like brothers and brethren, people and persons (not to mention peoples).

Then there are the words that imply plurals, but are actually singular, like "stuff" - there is no such thing as "stuffs", since stuff implies a group. Just like "beef" has no plural (cows maybe?).

This isn't even getting into weird words like through... which somehow sounds like "threw", or "throo" (which isn't even a word, but the only one which looks correct phonetically).

How about words that are pronounced differently depending on how they are meant to be used - "It was a minute amount of time, maybe a minute or so.". "Sewer" is a place where sewage goes, or something who sews with thread and needle. "Address" is pronounced differently if you are writing it on an envelope or if you are addressing someone. In isolation, these words are impossible to pronounce - think about "polish", "tear", "lead", "produce", "present" and so many more.

I had a boss who is Brazilian, and thus speaks Portuguese. She said that two Portuguese speakers looking at a word that they'd never seen before would pronounce it exactly the same way - that sounds reasonable to me.

Of course, everyone talks about the problem, but no one does anything about it. I would like to say that I'm solidly in this category as well, and will probably do nothing to fix English, but I like to complain.

I do one thing regularly, and that's use the American spelling of color, flavor, neighbor and so on. I get a lot of flack for this, since I'm a Canadian, and I'm living in New Zealand, neither country goes for the American spelling, and generally aren't warm to Americans anyway. The thing is, it's fewer keystrokes to write "color" rather than "colour", which no one pronounces that way anyway - all the Brits in the office say "callah" anyway. And the Canadians say "color" just like the Americans. It's shorter and I hear that these shorter spellings came first too. It isn't very often that Canadians side with Americans, but I'm doing it on the spelling.

Of course, if I ever write a book that sells overseas, I'll have to go and do a massive search and replace on all the words that I spell differently from everyone in the non-American world... it could happen. I look forward to the opportunity.

Anyway, while English is screwy, I still like it. I regret not living long enough to see English change in the various countries, so that the Americans and the English won't understand each other any more - that would be funny, since they barely understand each other now.