December 31st, 2011

study, words, language

Gnu ears eavesdropping

My mother sent me a link to this amazing doggerel (credited to G. Nolst Trenité) about the insane relationship between English spelling and pronunciation, which I quote from here (the link’s poem is much, much longer):

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.

It goes on for 112 lines. There are a few that I only got right by the skin of my rhyme scheme and a bloody-minded adherence to the poem’s local meter, even when I knew the words’ meanings:

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore[...]
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

…a penchant for reading Greek mythology as a kid goes a long way — I knew that Terpsichore was the muse of dance — but D’Aulaires doesn’t tell you that “Terpsichore” rhymes with “trickery”. A few others I whiffed on (viscount, Balmoral) are inkhorn terms to me, largely because I’ve only ever read them in period pieces from the east side of the Atlantic.

The link’s framing text claims, suspiciously, that

If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world.

… which triggered my “lazy writer’s bad statistics” alarm: I couldn’t get all of them right, and I have empirical evidence (what, the GRE isn’t empirical?) that my mastery of English sesquipedaliana is in the 99th percentile. The subsequent citation to “a Frenchman” further suggests that the framing author is just looking for some catchy-sounding but un-accountable numbers (N words for snow?) to spice up the writing.

Mirrored from Trochaisms.