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Double English: Worse than Double Dutch!

by Eric Shackle

English spelling is guaranteed to confuse even those of us who have spoken the language all our lives. Sometimes, when we find our mother tongue difficult to understand, we say "it sounds like double Dutch."

A Dutch school teacher and author, Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946), returned the compliment when he wrote a long poem, De Chaos, first published in Amsterdam as an appendix to the fourth edition of his schoolbook Drop Your Foreign Accent, engelsche uitspraakoefeningen (Haarlem: H D Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1920).

In an article entitled The Classic Concordance of Cacographic Chaos, published by the Simplified Spelling Society in 1994, Chris Upward, of Birmingham, England, a vice-president of the Society, wrote: "The Chaos represents a virtuoso feat of composition, a mammoth catalogue of about 800 of the most notorious irregularities of traditional English orthography, skilfully versified (if with a few awkward lines) into couplets with alternating feminine and masculine rhymes."

Upward's scholarly review, and a complete version of The Chaos, are displayed on the Spelling Society website. Here are the opening lines:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

A poem frequently quoted on the Internet is The English Lesson. Strangely, no-one seems to know the name of the genius who composed it. Here it is:

The English Lesson
We'll begin with box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot... would a pair be beet?
If one is a tooth, and a whole set is teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth?
If the singular is this, and the plural is these,
Why shouldn't the plural of kiss be kese?
Then one may be that, and three be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim.
So our English, I think you will agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

I take it you already know
of tough, and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, through, slough and though.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it's said like bed, not bead!
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt)
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up &ndash and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language: Why, man alive,
I'd learned to talk when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn't learned it at fifty-five.

[An alternative version quotes the final couplet as:
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I'll not learn how 'til the day I die.
]

One of the many websites displaying The English Lesson on the Internet comments "Our queer language: so you think French is hard?" Another lists it under the heading "Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners." A Danish site shows the headline "A dreadful language? English. Engelsk sprogforbistring."

On a St. Louis, Missouri (US) website, Gary V Deutschmann has revised the final couplet to read "So the ENGLISH, I Think, You All Will AGREE/Is The Most WONDERFUL LANGUAGE You Ever Did SEE." And on an Ohio page it appears as "Let's be more tolerant of he and she/ And of all of those who have diffi-cul-tee!"

Summing up, the puzzle of English pronunciation is admirably described in this final couplet of the first stanza of The English Lesson:

So our English, I think you will agree
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

© 2002 Eric Shackle (eshackle@ozemail.com.au).
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

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