While most us are frothing at the mouth over the competition to find the next president, the French are concerned with more important things. The Académie Française, that illustrious guardian of the French language – has proposed some spelling changes. Merde! (if you are still at school, you will probably be aware of the English equivalent, but just don't ask your parents).

Apparently the changes include dropping the hyphen from 'le week-end' and 'tic-tac', and sometimes omitting the circumflex, that is the '^' over such words as 'sûr' (for clarification, 'sur' means on or over, while 'sûr' means sure or certain). Altogether perhaps as many as 2,400 words would change, so that 'oignon' (onion) would become 'ognon,' and 'nénuphar' (water lily) would become 'nénufar.' The French Education Ministry has pointed out that these changes were approved and made optional in 1990, but it is only now that publishers have been told to include them in new textbooks. Needless to say, these changes are not being popularly received and it is our French friends who are 'écumant à la bouche.'

So, while America's first ally against the British wrestles with these matters of great moment, perhaps it is time that we should look again at the English language and remind ourselves of some of its oddities. First, there are the differences between American English and British English. Noah Webster did some of the gardening work in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 in which he removed the 'c' in words like 'defence' and 'offence' to produce 'defense' and 'offense.' Other idiosyncrasies in British English offended Webster, so he came up with 'center,' 'color,' and 'check' (instead of 'cheque'). He rewrote 'gaol' as 'jail' and 'plough' as 'plow'. He also offered 'nabor' instead of 'neighbour' and 'yung' in place of 'young', but these suggestions received public ridicule and didn't catch on – although the former did become 'neighbor.'

Differences have not gone away. In 1946 when the United Nations was invented, a decision had to be made over spelling; British English was chosen and is still in use today although with small modifications here and there. At the UN the spelling of 'program' is used to refer to computer programs, but 'programme' is used for all other applications, such as a schedule or an event programme.

But we are still left with aspects that create great confusion among those trying to learn our language. For instance, words such as 'rough,' cough,' 'dough,' 'through' and 'thought' all have the same combination of four letters, and yet the pronunciation of each is quite different.

At least, Webster simplified 'plough.'

All this said, we don't really help ourselves very well with the oddities of the English language. Is it any wonder that we confuse our non-English-speaking friends when we have inopportune meaning the opposite of opportune, but inflammable meaning the same as

flammable? And words like inept, but no such word as ept?

The problem for the foreigner becomes even more confusing when we come to spelling and pronunciation and the fact that so often we have words that are either spelled differently but pronounced the same, or spelled the same but pronounced differently. This was well illustrated many years ago in a poem by T.S. Watt entitled "English":

I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

On hiccough, thorough, lough and through.

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 – and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward,

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart—

Come, come, I've hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I'd mastered it when I was five.

And yet to write it, the more I tried,

I hadn't learned at fifty-five.

With confusion like that, it all makes choosing a president rather straightforward.

Derek Boothby



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