When I was learning to read – which happened when I was very young – I initially got some of the words wrong. English, as we all know, is a tricky language for sounding things out phonetically. So when I first encountered the word “laugh,” I thought it had to be “log.”
“See Spot run!” Dick logged.
In a preview of the reticent, non-confrontational person I was later to become, I never thought to ask anyone in authority exactly why Dick would log. I just went on reading and filed it away in my pre-school brain as something I would understand when I was older; along with why you had to eat things you didn’t like because they were good for you, or why you couldn’t stay outside and play after the street lights came on.
I should have gone to someone and pointed out the spelling of l-a-u-g-h and other consonant-choked English words and demanded an explanation. That is what an inquiring mind would have done. But I didn’t; my childish mentality simply accepted it all. It was as if someone had sold me a shirt with no hole for my head, and I just tried to make it work rather than asking for my money back. I presumed all the logging Dick and Jane did was sanctioned by some adult with the proper authority.
Someone eventually straightened me out on the mysteries of pronouncing our oddly spelled language. But I think a lot of people must have been sold that shirt.
Sometimes you need to enter the kingdom of English like a little child. To trust that all the consonants in “Knightsbridge” have a right to be there and that this is for the best. That it is all somehow good for you, like standing under a cold shower at 6:00 a.m.
I blame the British and their stiff upper lips. “Damned nuisance, those consonants. But they’re there for a reason y’know. Wouldn’t be, otherwise. Keep calm and get in the shower.”
(Part of the reason they’re there is that our ancestors once used them, and we forgot to terminate some of them when they were no longer useful. English is the civil service of languages.)
Let’s face it, English will never be pronounced the way it is spelled. We even call it Inglish instead of Ehnglish.
I know someone who spells phone “fone.” Why use two letters, he reasons, that aren’t even pronounced like an “f” when you could just use the “f” itself? My friend is sidestepping the historical reason for using “ph” – since it comes from the Ancient Greek letter Φ and was transliterated by early scholars as phi.
Maybe he has something, from an efficiency standpoint. But he is also going with the most simplistic, least thoughtful way to write the word. He is introducing needless inconsistency (would he write “elefant” as well?). He is stripping our language of its elegance and character by spelling fonetically.
I believe that English, with all its silent letters, inconsistent rules, and ambiguous idioms, is rich to read, delicious to speak, and beautifully balanced to look at. Can anyone honestly say that “laff” looks classier on the page than “laugh”?
The good news for writers is that millennia of rampant linguistic interbreeding have generated an awesome lexicon – once we learn it – that draws from at least three major language families and dozens of minor ones.
This gives us a zillion different ways of saying the same thing. The writer (note the silent “w”) controls this part. It comprises much of our playground and makes expressing ourselves in English worthwhile.
“Observe Spot scamper!” Dick chortled.
I hope to write much more on this topic in a future blaugh.