Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

The English spelling system is far from perfect, as anybody who was ever “hooked on phonics” will tell you. Letters are far from having a one-to-one correspondence with sounds (like they do in Russian), and the letter-by-letter spelling of a word is only vaguely related to how it’s actually pronounced. Now, native English speakers usually know this in the back of their heads, just from the pain of grade-school spelling bees, but sometimes, it’s good to reinforce the notion.

This poem, given to me by my phonetics teacher as part of an assignment, is untitled and by an anonymous author (to the best of my knowledge). It is, to this day, one of the most awesome poems I’ve ever read. Native English speakers, read this excerpt aloud to yourself:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Now look back at the actual letters of the word. Every line (or pair of lines) has a rhyme, but just looking at the letters, it’d be nearly impossible to tell that. In addition, some things (like “wind”) could either rhyme or not, depending on how you read it. See why it’s such a pain for non-native speakers to learn English? So, English spelling is a mess, but given the fact that we’ve gone through a vowel shift, absorbed countless new words, and gone hundreds of years without any major systematic spelling system changes, it’s not surprising. I’m not going to call for a spelling reform, though. It’s not because I don’t think we need it, or because I think it’s impossible.

It’s just that, well, considering tickets for the Putnam County spelling bee this Thursday are going for upwards of $94, it looks like the flawed writing system industry is making big money. I get too uppity about taking away their bottom line, I might just end up at the bottom of a consonant cluster, wearing concrete boots.

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