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Speaking the Truth

Gary is an author, trial lawyer, Mequon-area resident and town of Cedarburg supervisor. He is a columnist for the News Graphic and writes for several Wisconsin area magazines and is a national columnist with The American Thinker and PJ Media.  He lives with his wife, Lisa, and has three sons ages 18 to 28. Gary won Ozaukee County in his bid for the Wisconsin Assembly's 60th District in 2011, but came up just 58 votes short.

What's Up With The English Language?

We’re all guilty of it. Shouting into the telephone when asked to press “2” for English or listening to the bus boys banter back and forth in Spanish or Mandarin and wondering why they just don’t learn to speak English. After all, this is America! Of course, we also get annoyed when traveling abroad and the desk clerk doesn’t understand our request for an extra pillow. The language we know and love is neither the easiest nor the hardest language to acquire, but it must be one of the most quirky and nuanced.

They say that Chinese is a difficult language to learn, but I’m not so sure.  After all, the phrase "怎么可以这样的措辞加以学习" can only mean one thing. How difficult can it be? Instead of agonizing letters, they use stick men. But here’s the rub: there are 47,035 such stick men in the Kangxi dictionary – we only have 26 letters and after parties we have a hard time reciting even those. I’d hate to see the Chinese eye chart.

They say that Polish is harder still to learn. With seven cases, seven genders and very difficult pronunciation, the average English speaker is fluent at about the age 12, while it takes the Poles until about age 16. Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian are also very difficult to learn, each with countless noun cases.

On the other hand, I am told that English at the basic level is relatively easy, but to speak it like a native is quite difficult because of the “dynamic idiomatic nature”. That is the understatement of the year.

Simple English sentences might stop a non-native speaker in his or her tracks:

 The bandage was wound around the wound so he could produce produce.
 He decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
 There is no time like the present, so he decided to present the present.

English can be strange. For example, there is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in a pineapple. English muffins don’t come from England nor french fries from France. Quicksand works slowly and boxing rings are square. My sons’ guinea pig is not a pig and not from Guinea. 

As a writer I write, but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, and hammers don’t ham. The plural of tooth is teeth, but if I have more than one booth do I have beeth? It the plural of mouse is mice, should there be three blind meese? Does a homebuilder build hice?

When I offend somebody with my editorials, I can make amends, but I can’t make just one amend. In my Lutheran grade school teachers taught so I guess the preacher praught? It’s enough to make your head spin.
 Why do my kids recite at a play but play at a recital? We ship by truck yet send cargo by ship. Our noses run and our feet smell. How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same thing? How can the weather be “hot as hell” one day and “cold as hell” the next – and the temperatures be vastly different?  It makes no sense.

Christian Science is neither Christian nor science. We go “up north” to Rhinelander in the summer and “down south” to Florida in the winter, but never “left west” or “right east”. What kind of a language is it where flammable and inflammable mean exactly the same thing?

A lactose intolerant immigrant would probably avoid ordering head cheese, but he wouldn’t have to – it contains no cheese. He could also enjoy the “cream of the crop”, as there is no such thing as a crop of milk.

When the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights go out, they are invisible. We fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm clock goes off by going on. Huh?

English is a crazy language, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other language in the world. It is not exact, and was not created perfectly by a computer. It reflects the creativity of the human race – which of course, is not a race at all. Otherwise, not wanting to be in crowds would make you a racist.  And if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

In a country inundated with political correctness, I wonder how we end up (as opposed to “down”) with idioms which used to be ethnic slurs but have now become appropriate, such as “welshing on your debts”, “Indian-giver”, “Chinese fire drill”, or “he tried to gyp me”?

We get dressed to go “out” shopping, but to do so we must go “in” to town. Going uptown means going to the upper part of town so what does going downtown mean? The downer part? The dictionary says downtown is the middle part of the city, but isn’t that “midtown”? Some say “uptown” isn’t really geographical, but refers to the ritzy part of town. To go there you not only need to be dressed, but “dressed up”. If you’re not, some haute couture critic will verbally “dress you down”. I could really go to town about all these confusing idioms and expressions!

Speaking of “up”, it seems one of the smallest words in our language has by far the most meanings. We all know what it means, so how can waking in the morning be “waking up”? Why do we speak “up” when somebody can’t hear us and why are politicians “up” for re-election? Why do kids say they”re “down” for something when they want to do it – but they really mean they’re “up” for it? Why is it “up” to a policeman to write “up” a report when you’re mixed “up” in an accident? We call up our friends. We brighten up a room. We clean up the kitchen after we’ve warmed up the leftovers. We lock up the house and some of us fix up old cars. What’s up with that?

We hang up the phone by putting it down. When you’re mixed up you’re confused, but when you understand something, you’ve got it down. We can stir up trouble, line up for for a movie, and work up an appetite in the process. But why would we open up a drain? Because it is stopped up? Or because nothing goes down? The confusion over this word needs to be cleared up. When it is about to rain it is clouding up, and after the rain the weather clears up, and things dry up.

To clear things up perhaps we should look the word up in the dictionary. We would then find that it takes up nearly a whole page. It took up a lot of my time to come up with lots of confusing uses of this word, but I didn’t give up. I could come up with even more, but I think you’re probably getting fed up.

I could go on, but I’ll wrap it up. My time is up. I’ll shut up.   

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