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The English Languish

The most difficult language to learn!

The English Languish

"England and the United States are two
countries separated by a common language."

So the saying goes.  And I found out how true it is while I was dating an English woman a few years ago.  But the difficulties presented by the minor differences between our two versions of English pale by comparison to those I experienced dating someone for whom English is a second language.

Kumiko and I were together just over two years.  During that time, she went from having a tentative grasp of English – learned in middle-school too many years before – to the level where she could carry on a conversation quite well (although she had trouble understanding the British and Australian accents).

When you find yourself in a situation where it is necessary to teach another person your native language, as I did in South Korea for a year and a half, it makes you realize how many peculiarities and anomalies there are – and that's especially true with English.

Take prepositions, for example...  Try explaining why we say:
...on Monday – but at 10:00 – or in two days
...why we get on a ship – but in a boat
...on a bus; but in a car

It is also difficult to explain the rules for the use of "the":
...we get in bed – but get in the car

Sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason, like:
...if froze is the past tense of freeze, why is squoze not the past tense of squeeze?
...sides is the plural of side, but besides is not the plural of beside.
...and the top to a jar is called a lid, while the top to a bottle is called a cap.

Kumiko had trouble with the rule about singular pronoun, plural verb – plural pronoun, singular verb; as in... he goesthey go. But as is usually the case with English, there are always exceptions – such as I go.

She also got confused about how to answer questions like: "Aren't you hungry?"  She would think for a moment, then answer, "Yes" – meaning, "Yes, I am not hungry." – which, of course, is correct.  But the custom, in America at least, is to answer, "No, I'm not."

One day we were lounging around the campsite (somewhere in Europe) and I asked, "Watcha doin'?"  Her reply was, "Are you speaking French?"  I then realized how often we English-speakers run words together to the point where they sound nothing like the original sentence.

And English is one of the most difficult languages for which to learn pronunciation as well.  During the thirteen weeks I spent in Japan on three different visits, I practiced my pronunciation of Japanese words by reading signs as Kumiko and I went about our daily business.  [It actually reminded me of when I was first learning to read English as a small boy, I read every sign out loud – it must have driven my mother crazy.]  But rarely did I mispronounce any of the Japanese words I attempted.  Because in Japanese, there is only one way to pronounce each vowel – with very few exceptions.  But, of course, English is different...

...why do bomb, tomb, and comb all sound different?

...why is none pronounced "nun"; shouldn't it rhyme with bone?

...and known does rhyme with bone, when it looks like it should rhyme with brown – and what's up with that extra "k" anyway?

...then there's noun, which is pronounced like brown, but looks like it should sound like noon (taking the rule for "ou" from "you", that is).

The most difficult aspect of learning English, by far, has to be different meanings for the same word in different contexts.  For example:

We were getting strange looks.
This food looks delicious.

It's time for...
At this point in time...
We had a great time...
We made good time...
Three times as much...
I did it five times...

Right (my personal favorite):
You can be right (as in correct).
You can be right (politically).
You can be on the right.
You can keep right.
You can turn right.
Something can be just right.
Or, as in England, you can use it in response to just about everything: Right!

While in China, I used my Chinese-English dictionary quite a lot to communicate with locals who did not speak English.  Since the various definitions (translations) were in Chinese, I could never be sure that I was conveying the desired meaning.  Once, I needed to look up the word "still" as I tried to ask, "Do you still want to go?"  But from the confused expression on my Chinese friend's face, I realized that they were probably understanding "be still" as in "to remain motionless" – and that I was actually asking, "Do you be still want to go?"  Not exactly the same, is it?

So consider the following anomalies (received via email; original author unknown) in this frustrating language called English...

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The farm was used to produce produce.

The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

We must polish the Polish furniture.

He could lead if he would just get the lead out.

The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

The bear couldn't bear it when the tree didn't bear fruit.

A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

I did not object to the object.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

They were too close to the door to close it.

A buck does funny things when does are present.

To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

After a number of injections my jaw got number.

Upon seeing the tear in the painting, she shed a tear.

I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

I didn't want to read a book I had already read.

Let's face it, English is a crazy language.  Consider the following:

There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple.

English muffins weren't invented in England,
nor French fries in France.

Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads,
which aren't sweet at all, are meat.

Quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square,
and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea, nor is it a pig.

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?

One goose, two geese.  So why not one moose, two meese?

Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends, but not just one amend.

If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them,
what do you call it?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Why do we...
...recite at a play and play at a recital?
...ship by truck and send cargo by ship?
...park in a driveway and drive in a parkway?
...have noses that run and feet that smell?

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

How is it that your house can burn up as it burns down?

Why do you fill in a form by filling it out?

How can an alarm go off by going on?

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race – which, of course, isn't a race at all.

That's why, when the stars are out, they are visible,
but when the lights are out, they are invisible.