To the Power of N

February 24, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

This is not about math. I just had a pre-somnolent image of a cluster of words that I just have to let out. In less pretentious language: I thought of this as I dozed off last night.

“A mnemonic pneumonic gnu’s knees.”

Nglish is a weird language. Note that of the 4 words that are all pronounced as though they start with en, none actually start with en. They also came from four different root languages to English (Latin, Greek, Khoikhoi, and German).

We are taught spelling in school as a sort of faith: This is how it is because it is. The root of spelling (in non-pictographic languages) is to produce a stream of characters (letters) to represent the series of sounds (phonemes) that make up each word. So why do we use three different letters for the same hard-K sound? Four if you count eks. Let’s knot forget the mental knife we use to silence kay itself in several common words. Why have we lost the letters for hard and soft ch? Greeks still use chi (χ is not x). Can you spontaneously spout the 5 pronunciations of “ough”?

Basically, why are so many words pronounced differently than they are spelled? The simple answer is, teenagers.

Adolescents have a strong drive to both differentiate themselves from their nurturers, and to assimilate with their peers. In humans, this has always meant creating an “in” language. Slang. Some slang words or pronunciations just work, and are kept into adulthood and entered into the lexicon. In illiterate society, the whole language shifts from generation to generation .

Meanwhile, written words don’t change. So, as generations of speakers gradually drift their spoken language, the best matching written word stays the same. For example, leading glottals, like the kay in knee, became unpronounced in modern English. You’ll have to visit the U.K. if you want to get the feel of how to really pronounce all those ough’s. Or to see why there is the rule to use the predicate “an” for “h” words, with instead of “a”.

Homonyms are another toy I like to play with in this language where words and meaning and pronunciations line up as orderly as cooked spaghetti in a bowl. I frequently get to use a sentence with three different words that are pronounced exactly the same way. When I advise my customers of a shipment of multiple items, I write that “they’re on their way there”. I’m just easy to amuse.

N.E. way, speaking of drift. I’ll just stop here.

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Category: Education, Whimsy, Writing

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (2)

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  1. Vicki says:

    Hi again:

    You write "Basically, why are so many words pronounced differently than they are spelled? The simple answer is, teenagers."

    Phonological shifts don't happen because of teenagers, it's way more complex than that. Morphologically speaking, teen culture (a very recent phenomenon) may have added a few words to the lexicon but it is mostly derivative of subcultures outside the power structure. Edwardian public school slang borrowed heavily from Cockney, and the whole history of teen culture and "coolness" in the USA is a story of continuous appropriation of African-American culture.

    Probably you were just reaching too hard for Whimsical here but I think most scientists of language would find this sort of blithe speculation a tad offensive.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    I grant that Vicki's multiple degrees in languages and education may give her an advantage here. I used the term "teenagers" not to indicate the modern demographic classification, but rather as a familiar term for adolescents. That group that sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists define by their differential behavior.

    One of these traits is to play with their cognitive tools, like language. Generally speaking, children accept what they are taught "because God said so," and adults keep doing what they are used to; what has always worked for them. Adolescents are the experimenters. They are the ones who will incorporate a word used by a traveler into the local dialect. They are the ones who initiate vowel shifts, slang, and exercise other mechanisms for linguistic memeological change.

    It is the adolescents who push language changes at home. Vicki's own examples support my point. Prep school kids and be-boppers (flappers, rappers, whatever) pull foreign dialects into their speech and invent their own words.

    I admit that I'm ignoring the effects of merging cultures, when adults are forced to create a mélange of language to communicate: Creoles, pidgins, and border languages.

    Why do Finland (next to Sweden) and Korea (far end of China) share a root language that is not related to any other language anywhere in between? Why can a modern Italian easily read Dante in the original, yet modern English speakers can't read the generations-more-modern Chaucer?

    Linguistics is a complex topic. I merely was indicating one easy-to-observe mechanism for phonological drift, and using it as a teaser to read more from the break.

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