Monday, September 12, 2011

Queer Language,indeed

Trying to understand English is a lesson in silliness as some words never sound like how they are spelt.

READER Otis Schindler received a call from India. The caller asked him to spell a name: “Is it S for Surat, M for Mumbai, I for Ichalkaranji, T for Tiruchirappalli and H for Hinjilicut?”

Otis was baffled. Later, he said to me: “Maybe it’s better if they have standard phonetics.” But then, he realised that it could be tricky in this globalised world, with phrases such as Q for qing, as in Qing Dynasty.

I had to agree. Even without the Asian elements, English is fundamentally a silly language. I’ll never forget trying to teach my daughter that the word ‘right’ has a g in the middle.

Her: “Why? That’s dumb."

Me: “There’s a good reason for it.”

Her: “Like what?”

Me: “Er, I’ll tell you later.”

Her: “You don’t know, do you?”

Me: “I do know.”

Her: “Tell me then.”

Me: “I can’t. It’s a secret.”

Her: “It’s not a secret.”

A particular problem when spelling things out loud is that English words often don’t start with the letter they sound like when pronounced.

Here are a dozen words which sound right but are wrong:

A is for eh?; C is for see; G is for jeep; I is for eye; K is for Cayman; L is for elephant; M is for eminent; N is for enlist; Q is for cue; R is for ah; S is for esteem; and U is for you.

Who made up this dumb language anyway? Probably Shakespeare or someone like that who rarely received calls from phone centres in India.

My rant was interrupted by someone sitting nearby. “Words are spelled with the right letters if you are a rap singer,” said a nearby youth, who shall go unnamed, as she was skipping school that day. She pointed out that people who made pop songs would spell esteem as S-Teem, eminent as M-inent and so on.

This music fan claimed that the trend started with Coz I Luv You by Slade in 1971 but was now widespread among music people. But even pop stars sometimes embarrass themselves.

“Jessie J had a line from one of her songs tattooed on her hip and spelled it wrong,” she said.

The British singer wrote: “Don’t loose who you are in the blur of stars”, misspelling the word “lose”. She now has to look silly the rest of her life or cut off a buttock.

This leads me to an observation. People who write nice letters to columnists can usually spell. But the ones who write abusive ones can’t.

Yesterday, I got a message saying: “Your gay.” I wrote back asking: “My gay what?”

I told Otis that if his caller from India rings again, he could have some fun by giving him a list of words with silent first letters.

Throw him an A for aisle; B for bdellium; C for czar; D for djinn; E for Euphrates; G for gnome; H for hour; K for knee; M for mnemonic; O for Ouija; P for pneumonia; and, most appropriate of all, W for wrong.

Posted on 5 September 2011 - 01:42pm