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Monday, February 25, 2008

I thought I had it ruff, er rough!

I often feel a bit sorry for myself, what with being a non-native Hebrew speaker awash in a sea of new words, slang expressions and vague pronunciations.  But the thing that most frequently trips me up is the spelling.

Since most of the Israelis I interact with are not older Temani (Yemenite) people or people who are equally careful about differentiating between Het and Chaf, Aleph and Ayin, Tet and Taf, etc., I have never really gotten the knack of spelling things properly.

This causes a circular problem of not being able to differentiate between words that sound similar, such as was demonstrated in yesterday's post (thanks for the frequent catches Dave and Rahel) and in this post where, instead of saying "I have my doubts..." I casually explained to a room full of people that "I committed suicide".

Well, I just stumbled across a poem that made me put away my self-pity and thank my lucky stars that I was raised in the U.S. and didn't have to wade into the trackless swamp of arcane spelling, conflicting rules and improbable pronunciation that is the English language, as an adult!

Here, see for yourself:

Hints on pronunciation for foreigners
By T.S.W. *

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough
Others may stumble but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh* 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 barely made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

I hereby solemnly swear to have much more compassion for non-native English speakers who have gained even modest proficiency in my convoluted - even cruel - mother tongue.  And people like Mademoiselle a. (German) and Lioness (Portuguese) who actually blog in English... I'm just not worthy to breathe the same air!

* While this poem is occasionally attributed to George Bernard Shaw (likely because he was so passionate about the horrendous state of English spelling and pronunciation that he was the driving force behind the creation of a new alphabet), but most sources I've seen say that this poem was first published in 'The London Sunday Times' on January 3, 1965 under the otherwise unknown author T.S.W.'s initials.

** Some of the versions of this poem I've found have 'lough' (pronounced lock; which is a lake or arm of a sea) instead of 'laugh'.  This was probably changed by people sharing the poem who, lime myself, were unfamiliar with the word 'lough' or its pronunciation.

Hat tip 'Mostly Cajun'

Posted by David Bogner on February 25, 2008 | Permalink


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Whenever Israelis say that Hebrew is a hard language, I always disagree (and how would they know anyway?) English is RIDICULOUS. Only a few days ago, I realized the absurdity of my last name having two consecutive T's even though it only makes the sound once.

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | Feb 25, 2008 2:10:44 PM

My son's teacher, who I guess to be in her mid-30s, distinguishes between an ayin and an aleph.

Posted by: mother in israel | Feb 25, 2008 3:13:48 PM

PS. My daughter just told me about a girl in her 8th grade class who also does. But it's unusual.

Posted by: mother in israel | Feb 25, 2008 3:17:32 PM

At least newcomers to the States can use a spellcheck to help them. My kids school no longer teaches spelling because they argue spellchecker makes it uneccesary.

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques for my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it to say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
It's rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
Eye am shore your pleased two no
It's letter perfect awl the weigh
My checker tolled me sew.

Margo Roark.

Posted by: Chedva | Feb 25, 2008 3:39:34 PM

I'm just not worthy to breath the same air!

Of course, you meant "breathe," not "breath!"

Sorry, couldn't resist...

Posted by: efrex | Feb 25, 2008 4:07:32 PM

OK, I'm about to send this to everyone I know. Great poem, Trep - I couldn't stop laughing! (Ditto to Chedva.)

Posted by: psachya | Feb 25, 2008 4:24:02 PM

Great one Trep! My sisters Israeli boyfriend is trying to learn English(for her and for the psychometrics(sp?) It's really funny to read some of the text messages he sends...several she asked me to interpret!

Benji - the comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham does a bit about how silly his name is. between the two 'f's in Jeff, and the 'ham' that isn't pronounced in Dunham...google him and you should be able to find it...I'm laughing just typing about it right now!

Posted by: Jesse | Feb 25, 2008 7:23:49 PM

What about all those poor Israelies students, that depending on their teacher and their English background, are being taught conflicting ways of speech and spelling. I remember, when I was a teenager, an Israeli girl whose mother was from England, would argue with her teacher about the way the she taught English (American). It was wrong because it wasn't what she learned growing up from her mother.

As for the poem, David and I were just commenting on those differences because my son, who is in kindergarten is learning how to spell. I'm sure for him it's tad frustrating and confusing (and admittedly, humorous for us) figuring it all out.

Posted by: Jaime | Feb 25, 2008 7:56:34 PM

(yikes- boy my grammar is atrocious - yep I am a fine example of an American English education.)

Posted by: Jaime | Feb 25, 2008 8:22:16 PM

Great poem - as both a teacher of English as a second language and a Reading Specialist (though I don't purport to be an expert!) I have come across it before, and it doesn't fail to amuse - and ring true. My husband is a non-native English speaker, and actually speaks several languages. He often jokes that as part of the bargain of marrying me, he'd have thought he'd sound better in English by now!
Between speaking to our kids in English, Hebrew, and Russian, they ought to be the perfect Israelis!

Unrelated - how old was Ariella when you made aliyah? What do you feel is the cut-off for a child to be able to attain both native-like fluency and native-like cultural familiarity? (loaded questions, I know)

Posted by: RaggedyMom | Feb 25, 2008 8:47:17 PM

Then there is the 20-year spelling reform recommendation, supposedly written by Mark Twain:

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Posted by: Raz | Feb 25, 2008 9:30:41 PM

I wouldn't worry about your spelling. The real issue is that funny East Coast accent. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Feb 26, 2008 12:37:53 AM

I still remember falling into the trap of pronouncing certain words (blood), the "British" way in junior high school... ouch. And I hate the way some words (route) have two pronunciations. Come on, people, choose one!

Posted by: Irina | Feb 26, 2008 4:13:05 AM

About a year after moving to the States I spoke English fairly well, and because I was a kid quickly lost my accent. But it took me much longer to learn all the weird exceptions. I gave an oral book report in front of the class on Thomas Edison, and dozens of times pronounced the "Th" in Thomas just like in "the" much to my embarrassment.

The exceptions are really annoying, and only immigrants notice them. Note that the vowels in "blood" "fool" and "door" make three different sounds. That's not OK when you learn a perfectly logical general rule that works for "cool" "wool" and "spool" and then suddenly hit "door" and sound like a moron.

Posted by: Dcotor Bean | Feb 26, 2008 6:48:58 AM

Benji Lovitt... Not to mention the possible spellings of your first name (Benji, Benjy, Benjie, Bengie, etc.)

mother in Israel... Old school... I like that.

Chedva... One of my favorites. Thanks for sharing.

efrex... Why yes... yes I did. Thanks.

psachya... If that includes anyone I know please send regards. :-)

Jesse... You've never seen some of the SMSs and emails I send in Hebrew. People pass them around for laughs.

Jaime... If you're talking about all those wasted 'u's (colour, humour, etc.) I agree... what's up with that??? :-)

RaggedyMom... Ariella (our oldest) was 8 or 9 when we made aliyah. I would consider this the upper edge of the envelope for a relatively easy social and language transition. But there are no hard and fast rules. Some kids are better with languages than others... and some kids adapt more easily than others to new cultural experiences. I've met kids who came in high school and had no problem, and I've met kids who came in 3rd grade who still haven't gotten past the whole 'oleh' thing.

Raz... Great one. I'd read that years ago but had forgotten about it. Thanks.

Jack... Like, OMG!

Irina... Considering how beautifully you write, I wouldn't worry too much about your pronunciation.

Dcotor Bean... Oh yeah, I forgot you were an immigrant. Lucky you (not). :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 26, 2008 11:48:27 AM

Thanks a lot for responding - I think 8-9 is a generally accurate cutoff for a lot of things as well, and the 'critical age' most people agree on for language acquisition backs that up.

I was 5 when we moved to NY from Israel, and I (almost always) feel like a native speaker of English. My oldest is turning 5 this summer, and the clock is ticking on her feeling the same way if/when we move back to Israel. Hopefully it's somewhere within the next 2-3 years.

Posted by: raggedymom | Feb 26, 2008 7:00:27 PM

tip: If you're not sure about things like Kaph or Heth, try another declension. For example, if you don't know whether the segments of a grapefruit are Pelach (Heth) or Pelech (Kaph) like spindles..., then when you say Piluah Shuk, the answer is obvious - it's Heth.
Usually, Hebrew is a WYSIWYG language, and that's great.

Posted by: asher | Feb 27, 2008 12:51:05 PM

Oh and here I was! *waves madly* Writing in English for me is so easy it's really nothing to write home about. Hebrew, now... SOB. It is by far the hardest language I have ever had to learn and the possibilities for ridicule are endless. I actually made up a colour once - it was a cute one - and often told people I danced with dolphins instead of researching them, it is so easy to swap a syllable and land in a different language planet altogether. Because it pains me so to make mistakes when speaking any language, especially one I really love, I always avoided speaking Hebrew to the extent that one day Uzi's sister walked in and I was happily yapping away in Hebrew (I sort of forgot myself for a bit) and she exclaimed "Oh, ze medaber ivrit!" I found it hysterical and very adequate. Uzi's Portuguese now, that was impressive, I think he learnt by osmosis.

Oh, and on embarrassement I once went to the zoo with a bloke in Germany and added a very superfluous "ver" to the beginning of a verb and instead of saying "I'd be very happy if you guided me because I don't know my way around" I said "I'd be very happy if you seduced me". To his credit he replied "Oh gladly but I don't think that's quite what you meant.", and didn't even mock me (I was subsequently spit on by a llama so it evened out, I suppose). Ahh, the joys of foreign languages. It's depend, hein?

Posted by: Lioness | Mar 3, 2008 9:44:17 AM

raggedymom... tick...tick...tick... :-)

asher... I'm sorry, my eyes glazed over and I started to hear a buzzing in my ears right around the time you began to explain a rule to me. :-)

Lioness... regarding your encounter at the zoo... one has to admire his restraint in the face of such an invitation. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 3, 2008 12:39:09 PM

In reference to TSW poem "Hints on English Pronunciation for Foreigners" - although I have seen in many a place that it was attributed to a Jan. 1965 issue of the London Sunday Times, I feel compelled to inform the interested readers that in 1962 this poem was given to me by MS Estelle Lynch (Estelle Alexander then). The writer of that poem was, indeed, TSW, but its origin is earlier than 1965.

Posted by: Chaim Kropach | Mar 15, 2009 6:54:58 PM

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