Is English a great lan­guage or what?

The Willow Grove Guide - - OPINION -

When I was stu­dent at Chel­tenham High School the one course my friends told me to avoid was Latin. They reeled off the ditty “Latin as a lan­guage is dead as it can be, first it killed the Ro­mans and now it’s killing me.” I took their ad­vice.

A stern look­ing woman named Juanita Downes taught Latin at dear old CHS. I avoided her by be­ing ahead of the curve and strug­gling my way through three years of Span­ish. I tried French once and lasted one or two re­port pe­ri­ods and took off for typ­ing class (which served me bet­ter any­way). Some­one at the school had de­cided it would be a good idea to have an ex­change teacher from Bel­gium teach us French with a Flem­ish ac­cent. I could not un­der­stand her in any lan­guage.

I’m re­minded of the story about 1930s and ’40s big league player/spy Moe Berg who was a lin­guist and could con­verse in seven lan­guages and, as a sports­writer once wrote, “could not hit in any of them.”

So what hap­pened? I ended up as an English teacher. If you think Latin, Span­ish and French are hard, con­sider grow­ing up in an­other coun­try and com­ing to Amer­ica and hav­ing to learn English. Also con­sider be­ing a teacher and try­ing to make ra­tio­nal sense of the lan­guage to some­one who clearly thinks you (and your lan­guage) are crazy.

Some ex­am­ples (com­piled, in all hon­esty, from stuff I’ve gath­ered from fel­low teach­ers over the years) are in or­der to il­lus­trate my re­marks. We run a gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion and the win­ner be­comes, not a goober (though some end up be­ing one), but the gover­nor. Pineap­ples have nei­ther pine nor ap­ples in them. Guinea pigs are not from Guinea, nor are they pigs. Of course there are no eggs in an egg­plant, English muffins didn’t come from Eng­land and french fries didn’t start out in France. Ital­ian hoa­gies didn’t orig­i­nate in Italy ei­ther.

Writ­ers write but fin­gers don’t fing, gro­cers don’t groce and ham­mers don’t ham. The plu­ral of tooth is teeth, but why then isn’t the plu­ral of booth, beeth? Why doesn’t Buick rhyme with quick? Why do teach­ers teach and preach­ers preach, but while teach­ers taught, preach­ers don’t praut. Why is geese the plu­ral of goose, but meese not the plu­ral of moose?

How come you open up some­thing be­cause it is stopped up? Or open up your store in the morn­ing and then close it up in the evening? In fact that lit­tle two­let­ter word “up” prob­a­bly has more uses and mean­ings than any other word in the English lan­guage. vou wake up, speak up, write up a re­port, clean up left­overs, stir up trou­ble and work up an ap­petite. To get dressed is one thing, but to get dressed up is quite an­other. vour house can burn up as it burns down.

Peo­ple ship by truck and send cargo by ship. They have noses that run, feet that smell. Boxing rings are square, quick­sand is of­ten slow. As­sum­ing a veg­e­tar­ian eats veg­eta­bles, what does a hu­man­i­tar­ian eat? vou can make amends but not one amend. vou can have odds and ends, but if you are left with just one what is it? Odd or end?

What I find re­ally baf­fles peo­ple — es­pe­cially the for­eign stu­dents — are het­eronyms. Th­ese are words that have the same spell­ing but, ac­cord­ing to the way they are used, mean dif­fer­ent things and are of­ten even pro­nounced dif­fer­ently.

For ex­am­ple, the nurse wound the ban­dage around a wound. They used the farm to pro­duce pro­duce. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse. The cap­tain could lead if he got the lead out. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes; the buck does funny things when the does are present. The in­sur­ance for the in­valid was in­valid. There’s this killer: Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. Did you record record sales? vikes!

Ho­mo­graphs are like het­eronyms and are a word spelled like an­other but with a dif­fer­ent mean­ing or ori­gin. I present the fol­low­ing to il­lus­trate. The word fast can mean speedy but it can also mean go­ing with­out food. A flat is an English apart­ment, but it can also de­scribe some­thing smooth. A wise per­son and an herb can both be de­scribed by the word sage. A slug is a ghastly look­ing lit­tle an­i­mal, or it is some­thing you do to the guy who just in­sulted your wife?

Since I teach creative writ­ing at the col­lege I use a weekly syn­onyms drill. That’s where you learn that not just one word de­scribes some­thing. I use the ex­am­ple that a stu­dent once turned in a two-page pa­per in which the word “re­spect” ap­peared 42 times. Even Aretha Franklin, on her best day, never used it that of­ten. Syn­onyms are how writ­ers keep things in­ter­est­ing. The words to say or to tell have, at least, 50 pos­si­ble syn­onyms from in­form to ver­bal­ize, ar­tic­u­late to jab­ber. Some­one that is ugly is also hideous, fright­ful, grue­some and 25-plus other words.

I had some great English teach­ers in my life — J. Hamil­ton Lampe at Thomas Wil­liams Ju­nior High was my most mem­o­rable — and I try to em­u­late their teach­ings and their in­flu­ence as I work with my stu­dents. And, some­times, it’s not easy. With all due re­spect to Juanita Downes, English is hard enough – I stood no chance with Latin.

Lis­ten to Ted Tay­lor on WRDV FM 89.3 ev­ery Tues­day from 8 a.m. to noon, or con­tact him at ted@ted­tay­lor. com.

Ted Tay­lor

At Large

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