Sometimes I think all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, you fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm goes off by going on.
- Richard Lederer, Crazy English
Years ago, while living in Germany and attempting to learn the host language, I joined a German-American conversation class to practice my new craft. But the learning process went both ways. If we noticed an error in the way one of us spoke the language of the other, we were encouraged to call attention to the mistake and make the correction.
So when one woman pronounced the word, tomb, as though it were spelled, tome, I followed the procedure and told her how the word was supposed to be pronounced.
But, why is that? Doesnt it rhyme with comb? Theyre spelled the same way, so why arent they pronounced the same way?
Words, which are supposed to be my stock in trade, completely failed me, especially when I tallied all the o-m-b words I could think of - bomb, comb, womb and the infamous tomb - and counted three pronunciations for that one, four-letter construction. I also tallied the words that rhyme with tomb, and theyre all spelled with a double o, as in boom, doom, room, etc.
And it didnt help my English-speaking esteem at all to hear my inquisitor say, At least in German, every time you see a particular syllable you know it will be pronounced the same way.
I remembered that bilingual interchange the other day when a writer friend sent me the list, Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn. These lists have been around forever, so I might not have given this one more than a quick glance if the category hadnt been on how to pronounce or define words that are spelled exactly the same way without even a varying first letter.
When I finished the list all I could think of was how glad I was that I didnt have to explain the following to the tomb lady:
He wound the bandage around the wound.
The dump was so full it had to refuse any more refuse.
We decided to desert the desert.
Who painted the bass on this bass drum?
Look! A dove just dove into the bushes.
The insurance for the invalid was invalid.
They were too close to the door to close it.
A buck does funny things when does are around.
They didnt object to the object lesson.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
Why doesnt Buick rhyme with quick?
Language wasnt born in a one-size-fits-all laboratory, and its not an exact science, like math. Two plus two may always equal four, but letters, at least of an English feather, dont always flock in the same rhyming, spell-check way. Or, as someone has said, You dont explain language; you accept it.
Right. Tell that to a young child learning to spell or read or pass a vocabulary test; smile sweetly when you pass along such advice to non English-speaking adults; or take that to the conversation table when you are a guest in another land.
Still, youd better have an answer when someone asks why cone, done, and gone dont rhyme, and neither some nor home end with a b.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@aol. com.)
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