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Linguistic lunacy

A burro and a cowI'll get back to the burro and the cow later on.

Natural languages are extensive and marvelously complex, but nobody designs them - they just grow over time. And because they are used for communication, the rules need to be agreed upon by a large number of people.

Speaking as an Engineer, I know that the design of any system, even a simple one, is difficult. The more interacting parts, the easier it is to get into unanticipated difficulties. To me, languages, "designed" by everybody, yet designed by nobody in particular, are remarkable.

Given their evolutionary development, it's not surprising that languages have their problems. Let's start with English, whose biggest problem is its bizarre spelling. It's astounding under the circumstances that it has managed to become a world language. Of course it drives foreign speakers crazy - it drives native speakers crazy. A substantial amount of time is spent teaching English-speaking students how to spell.

Hey, you native English speakers reading this: did it ever occur to you that spelling is just not a problem in many other languages? Spanish speakers don't have to spend much time on spelling, for instance. If you hear a word in Spanish, you can pretty much write it down, just from the sound (there are a few small problems, such the letter "h" being silent, but they're not much trouble). Native speakers of Spanish don't have to waste their time in school on spelling bees.

Because I'm a native speaker of English, I learned to speak it first, and then later learned to spell. Thus, for me, English has a problem with spelling. But a non-native learner might learn to read and write English first. So to him, it's the pronunciation that is difficult. Really, the problem is a lack of correspondence between the pronunciation and the spelling. Here are six words in which the letters "ough" are pronounced completely differently:


Search the internet on [English spelling], and you'll come up with countless similar examples. Internet "blogs" and other such sites are themselves a source of endless misspellings. Confusion between "there", "their", and "they're" abounds, as well as between "your" and "you're". "Right" is pronounced exactly like "write" and "rite. And let's not get started on the apostrophe. If anyone had deliberately designed all this, he should have been taken out back and shot.

But spelling isn't the only bad "design" in English. Suppose you mention that a particular restaurant dish is "hot". I'd guess that at least half the time, your listener will ask, "Do you mean "temperature hot", or "spicy hot"? So why can't we give up on the word "hot" when it means "spicy"? English borrows words from other languages all the time. Note 1  Why have we not, century after century, managed to borrow, for example a word like "picante" from Spanish? That means, unambiguously, "spicy hot".

When driving, why do I ask my wife, "Do I turn left here?", and then when she says "right", I turn right instead. Can't we manage to eliminate that meaning of "right", and substitute "correct"?

Ambiguities abound. I once saw the following sign:

"Valet parking only after 3:30"

Does this mean:

"Valet parking (only after 3:30)", that is, valet parking is available only after 3:30


"(Valet parking only) after 3:30", that is, after 3:30 you must use valet parking?

I actually still have no idea what was meant, but you'll notice how the meaning of sentences could be clarified if we used parentheses, as in a mathematical expression.

When I once posted the above on the internet "news group" alt.usage.english, Bill Lieblich replied, "Larry's last example reminds me of a 'Saturday Night Live' skit in which the head of a nuclear reactor leaves John Belushi in charge. His only instruction is: 'You can't put too much water in the reactor.' With a possible meltdown turning on the outcome, Belushi tries to figure out whether that means that you should limit how much water you put in, or that you should put in as much as you can."

Once, in an editorial, Karen Auguston Field, chief editor of Design News magazine, wrote,

"... I wouldn't have any reason to live without chocolate."

From the context, it was clear she meant:

"... (I wouldn't have any reason to live) without chocolate."

But it could have also been read as:

"... I wouldn't have any reason to (live without chocolate)."

Again, notice how I could use parentheses to disambiguate the sentence.

English is hardly the only language that contains lunacies. I find that in general Spanish is an extremely logical language, to a great extent because its spelling is so regular. It's as if its "designers" thought, if you've got one sound, you've got one letter - why would you ever double it? So "difficult" in Spanish is "difícil", with only one "f", and you never have a problem trying to decide if there's one consonant or two ("L" and "R" double, but the "LL" is treated as a separate letter, pronounced like an English "Y", and using "RR" instead of just "R" is subject to strict rules, and the two are pronounced differently).

Spanish strikes me as the easiest Latin language to learn, but it has one rather difficult verb tense, the preterit (the simple past). French and Italian use a compound past tense, so you only have to learn the conjugation of two possible auxiliary verbs, and the past participle for irregular verbs. But in Spanish, as in English, there are a lot of irregular simple past tenses. Consider in English, for instance, "I go" → "I went", "I eat" → "I ate", "I think" → "I thought", and so on.

Thus Spanish has a pile of irregular simple past tense verb forms that the student has to remember. Except, in a bizarre twist, the Spanish verbs "ser" (to be") and "ir" (to go) ARE THE SAME IN THE PAST TENSE!! Thus "fui" can mean either "I was" or "I went"! What happened? While preterits were being handed out, did they suddenly just run out? "Oops, we can't think of a new one, let's just re-use 'fui'. Yeah, I know, there are already 237 others, but gee, I've just run out of steam here."

One of the oddest things in Spanish is the pronunciation of the letters "v" and "b". Particularly in Latin America, they are both pronounced the same - like a "b". True, real aficionados of Spanish say there is a slight difference, but I certainly can't hear it. And even native speakers must have trouble hearing it, because they usually ask for a clarification of the spelling of any word that they don't already know which they hear pronounced with a "b" sound in it.

Well, OK, so you just spell it verbally, letter by letter, right? Here's where it gets even crazier. To spell it verbally, you say the NAME of the letter. The name of the letter "b" is "be" (pronounced like the English word "bay"). And the name of the letter "v" is "ve", but since "v" is pronounced like "b" in Spanish, "ve" is also pronounced "bay"! So spelling it doesn't help you at all! You can't distinguish the letters by their names, any more than you can distinguish them by their sounds.

Spanish speakers have ways around this, of course. In reading the rest of this paragraph, remember that be and ve are pronounced the same, like "bay". Spanish speakers further clarify the spelling by distinguishing between "b grande" (big b) and "v chico" (little v). Or, perhaps even more frequently, they give an example, commonly "b de burro" (pronounced sort of like "bay day boo-row") or "v de vaca" (pronounced like "bay day ba-ka"). This explains the picture at the start of this entry, in which the burro is labeled with a "b", and the cow ("vaca") with a "v". But wouldn't it have been simpler to just have clearly distinguished letter names in the first place?

Apparently, Spaniards have been pronouncing "v" like "b" for a long time now, because there is an old Roman joke about it. The Latin verb "vivere" means "to live", but if you pronounce it like a Spaniard, it sounds like "bibere". And "bibere" in Latin means "to drink". So the Romans used to say,

Beati Hispani, quibus "vivere" "bibere" est.

That is, "Happy [are] the Spaniards, for whom "to live" is "to drink".

I'll drink to that.

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© 2010, 2012 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted December 9, 2010
Updated December 10, 2010, for some minor clarifications
Updated January 6, 2012, to add Note 1

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   James Nicholl once famously said of English, "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."   [return to text]

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