Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eggplant, Fat Chance and the Neutral Ground

If you need proof that English is a difficult language for immigrants to learn, read the next few lines. We take these contradictions for granted, but try to explain them to an ESL student.

There is no egg in eggplant or ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France.

Why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?

If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth?

Ship by truck and send cargo by ship?

Why do we have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

When the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

Read more examples on Deejay’s blog.

Mastering English is often difficult for those of us who have spoken it our entire lives. To complicate matters, American English is different from British English which is different from Australian English. And like any language, there are regional dialects. Listen in on a conference call between Boston, Baltimore and Birmingham and you might need a translator to keep up. If you’re just learning English, you might not understand what I mean by “keep up” in my previous sentence.

English spoken in my native New Orleans might not be recognizable as English to someone from Milwaukee. If you’ve lived in neither, do you know what a ‘neutral ground’ is? Or a ‘bubbler’?

I’ve said all of that to say this: one thing I miss from my youth is personal conversation. Fiftysomethings grew up writing letters and visiting people. Twentysomethings grew up on email and texting. I prefer face-to-face interaction to email. The language of personal communication includes visual cues as well as words. Context can help explain gaps in grammar. A smile means almost the same thing in every culture. Music is universal. Email is just a string of words on a screen, and casual email writing style is very fragmented. Half sentences. Abbrvtns.

Txtng s wrse WTF

I have nothing against email; it just doesn’t have the richness of facial expressions and colorful slang. And I have exactly one friend in the world who refuses to send email. I look forward to his hand-written, postal-delivered letters.

OK, time to go. I’ll wrap this up with one more sentence borrowed from Deejay’s post:

Why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it?

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