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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Code of silence

by Brenda Looper | June 22, 2022 at 3:34 a.m.
Brenda Looper


My nephew is getting married this weekend (congratulations, Dalton and Amanda!) and I had a big dose of Vitamin C(harlie) last week, so I don't really feel much like carping. And no, Charlie, you're not getting carp, no matter how cute you and your toe-beans are or how many times you give me tiny kitty kisses.

Today, instead, I turn my attention to something that always makes my heart beat a little faster: words. Yep, the Word Nerd has returned!

As much as I might want to complain about misused semicolons (yes, you do need a semicolon, not a comma, before the last segment in a sentence using semicolons to distinguish between parts of a list) or confused words (lightning/lightening, lose/loose, their/they're/there), I'm not gonna do it. Other than just then, I mean.

I was more than a little amused by Merriam-Webster's recent Words at Play blog post, "English is maddening, and it's not sorry" (which reminds me of the old joke about English rifling through the pockets of other languages for loose words to steal). The blog notes: "English can be such an intractable heel, especially when it comes to its spelling: For every rule explaining how a letter is pronounced in a given situation it often seems like there is a herd of exceptions mooing about how the rule doesn't apply. Letters persist in words despite not playing any discernible role in the word's pronunciation. It's maddening for those of us who are peeved by such things."

The point, as becomes quickly apparent, is that virtually every letter is silent in some word, which makes it that much harder for people to spell some words correctly (or to pick the right correctly spelled word; spell-check won't help you pick the right word between led and lead). That means that for every person annoyed by those things, there's a snicker from those of us with a really weird sense of humor every time the wrongly chosen word completely changes the meaning of a sentence.

I make no apologies for my weirdness. I revel in it.

The letter a is silent more than you might think. Says the blog, "The a in bread (as well as in tread) does nothing. You might as well spell it bred except that then it looks too much like the past tense of breed. So don't do that. A is similarly indefensible in aisle and aesthetic."

Which explains why so many people write about "isles" in grocery stores. Don't do that unless there are islands in the store.

The b is silent at the end of a lot of words, like plumb, numb and bomb, as well as inside words like debt and subtle. C often sounds like an s, but is totally silent in words like indict. Then there's d, which isn't heard in handkerchief, but then isn't and is heard in Wednesday.

Most times the f is pronounced in words, but the dictionary notes that its first pronunciation for "fifth" omits the second f (and appropriately so, I think; I daresay most people don't pronounce all the letters in the word). "Overall, however," the blog says, "f is to be commended for its performance generally. We'd give it an A, if we were on speaking terms with that letter."

The letters I'm generally not on speaking terms with would be those strings of consonants with no vowels that I sometimes draw in Words With Friends. There's only so much you can do with those, and too many times there are no words to be made from them.

G, like p, is unheard at the beginning (gnash, pneumonia) and in the middle of many words (reign, corps). H is silent in heir (helpful hint: if there's an h sound, use it with "a" [a high-flying act] but "an" with no h sound [an heir]). The word colonel gets dinged twice in the blog post, once because only one l is pronounced, and then because o, despite being in the word twice, isn't pronounced. Skipping along further to r, the blog notes, "R exists in forecastle [pronounced FOWK-sl] only to mock landlubbers. It exists in February only to make us suffer."

While m and j got plaudits for being rarely silent (mnemonic and marijuana notwithstanding), the blog found that "V is at this point the only letter that refuses to be unheard in any established word of the language. And yet a dark cloud gathers on the horizon: In late May 2017 a much-followed and likely sleep-addled Twitter user tweeted out what was clearly a partially developed composition. The Internet seized on the enigmatic final word and discussed it ad nauseam. Of the myriad pronunciations suggested for this non-word, several of the strongest contenders had a silent v."

Covfefe lives, dang it.

I pity those learning English as a second language, but not so much those for whom it's their first language that they don't care enough to get right.

Everyone should know at least some of another language. (The most important phrase those of us with digestive issues should learn in other languages is "Where is the restroom?") The outright hostility some have toward the idea of learning another language (while insisting that outsiders learn your language) is troubling, especially since so much of English is borrowed (OK, stolen).

Oof, back to crabby. I may need some more Charlie time.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.


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