Halkias: Simply English?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by award-winning journalist Telly Halkias. It first appeared in the Portland Daily Sun.

The English language is rich and splendid, but it has many issues that stick in my craw. Most of these headaches come from my 15 years overseas. There, I was always on alert to defend our linguistics. My foreign friends found me to be a veritable whipping post for the logic of English convention.

Consider pronunciation, the bedrock of any language. In the mid-1980s, when living in a German farming village, I noticed how I could converse with the natives after minimal self-study. I was onto something when they stopped using hand signals and just spoke to me colloquially. The rules were simple and I learned how to say words quickly, despite my accent.

Yet I was in the uneasy position of having to correct my neighbors when they tried to practice their English on me. I felt ungrateful with every adjustment to their elocution. Accustomed to their precise language, my friends were befuddled by many of our words, and rightfully so.

For example, how many ways does English find to pronounce the letters “ough?” It seems elementary that “bough” should sound like “plough.” Easy enough, right? Consider that to “bow” before the throne is different than a “bow” and arrow. To “plow” snow is an alternate form of “plough,” yet the homonym of “bough” is not a tree branch but the action of bending over at the waist.

Why must we add another version of uttering “ough” in the word “through?” After scratching nails on the proverbial blackboard of English, is it possible that we can all finally agree to change its spelling to “thru?”

Stay with me. “Cough” is pronounced like “trough,” but why aren’t either pronounced like our two earlier friends? And what in Heaven’s name is going on with that “f” sound, which is also found at the end of “rough?” At least with the latter, we can use “ruff” to describe a dog’s bark. Similarly, “thought” sounds very much like “fought.” But why don’t we just pronounce those two words “thoft” or “foft?”

Mercifully, there’s one more, for now. Why must we add another version of uttering “ough” in the word “through?” After scratching nails on the proverbial blackboard of English, is it possible that we can all finally agree to change its spelling to “thru?”

These are a fraction of the verbal minefields I asked my foreign friends to navigate. Sadly, they didn’t appreciate my explanations on etymological history, Indo-European language divergence, and other such narcoses. Their yearning eyes, behind polite smiles, would ask me: “We have rules; what are yours?”

I decided to take this conundrum into the classroom. As a young Army officer, I once serve in a multinational peacekeeping force on the Egyptian-Israeli border. On our base camp in the Sinai, while off duty, enlisted unit members had the chance to take college courses through accredited stateside schools.

I taught one of these night classes, English Composition, to a group of enrolled Americans. Also, the program was open for audit to all force members. Half of the class, therefore, consisted of men and women from around the world trying to improve their written and spoken English.

Initially, my worst nightmares became reality. The international students wanted to draw conclusions on English based solely on parallel reasoning, when there was none to be found. I quickly learned that I had to draw on all of my knowledge of modern and ancient languages, and eventually began teaching two courses in the same classroom: “English Comp” and the makeshift “English Comp for Foreigners.”

No one dropped the class. We devoted a portion of every session on word game competitions and drills where mixed teams of U.S. and foreign students would try to correctly pronounce a newly selected slate of words from the dozen languages therein represented. Needless to say, the “ough” words were along the most feared, and popular. It was fun, but I was drained by semester’s end.

A year after leaving the Sinai, while entrenched in grad school in California, I received a Christmas card from one of my past Dutch students. She caught me up on her news, and wished me a great holiday.

In between, she wrote: “You changed my way of looking at English words forever. I thought of something today while browsing an American magazine and it’s driving me crazy. ‘Doe,’ or ‘dough,’ is not like ‘shoe,’ but like ‘thorough.’ How then did we ever get ‘Thoreau?’ Wait! That’s French!”

You may e-mail Telly Halkias at [email protected]

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  • Steve Fine

    “Different than”? The shame of it!

    • Telly Halkias

      Not completely, Mr. Fine, but I got a chuckle from your comment, and concede what a sticking point this is.

      I had been a disciple of “different from” since my first gander in Strunk and White 35 years ago, and currently in the college classes I teach. But I’ve softened that stance in my op-ed writing the last few years in favor of “different than” because of the latter’s increasingly widespread use, and the fact that it does have a few correct usages.

      Interestingly, this is in direct contrast to the massacre of “to go”‘s past participle (“gone” formed with “to have”). Today, more Americans are using the past form, “went,” as the past participle. Unlike “different than,” it has zero redeeming features.

      Thanks for the smile, and be well, sir.

      Telly Halkias

      • Karl Riemer

        It’s true that ‘different’ can legitimately be followed by ‘than’ on occasion but never, that I’ve noticed, is that inescapably required or preferable to recasting the sentence. That doesn’t constitute a convincing argument for proscription, but it argues for avoiding such knotted constructions that ‘different… than’ becomes the best avenue of escape. I see it as evidence of inattention. The problem with relaxing a general rule because exceptions exist is what we see here: flouting the rule where no exception warrants, no escape is needed. Inattention, in other words, can become habitual.
        May I offer the observation that our language is the great accumulator, having absorbed without prejudice or preference the most exalted and base bits of everything around, that that indiscriminate adoption and amalgamation, with concomitant irregularity, emboldens people to take liberties and give vent to creative impulses, that the language continues to evolve at a gallop with anarchic abandon not only through assimilation but through cultural fragmentation and self-conscious self-identification? Cockney rhymes, ghetto trash talk, defiant regional accents and dialects, even the current fetish for methamphetamine-mimetic neoteric transitive verbs (I’m looking at you, vile ‘incentivize’, before you’re murdered in turn by ‘incent’) all make a mockery of rules. It wouldn’t be wrong to say english owes its richness, as well as its madness, to a certain willful ignorance if not contumacious contravention of rules. We speak schizophrenia, born of babel. For some (I am one) that unending labor (in the obstetric, not herculean, sense) is often exquisitely painful. Every verbal ‘impact’ gives me another opportunity to master my gag reflex. None among us, though, isn’t daily rewarded by the resulting palette of hues available to authors. Any writer willing to wield the wilderness, rather than rail against or retreat from it, has an arsenal any in a rule-comforted language has to envy. Don’t you think so?

        • Telly Halkias

          Thanks for your tsunami of literary inspiration, Mr. Riemer. As a journalist, I have to also be aware of AP style, even if many of my columns are classified “creative non-fiction” as opposed to “opinion.”

          Most of my editors give me some rope; others, none. So be it. I try to start with the AP as a baseline in news print, and MLA or Chicago in academic work–then go with whatever slack I’m granted.

          On another note, witness the evolving verb: “to conversate.”

          All the best,

          Telly Halkias

  • Nigel Hilton

    The spelling of English is not a quaint eccentricity but a real hurdle to literacy. It is costly, uncompetitive, the cause of much school failure and inplicated in a host of other ills across the English Speaking world.


    • Telly Halkias

      Spelling is another matter, Mr. Hilton. I can excuse E.E. Cummings, but not my college students – yet (emphasis).

      I have no problem with any movement toward more phonetic simplification of our spelling. How we get there, of course, is quite another matter.

      best regards,

      Telly Halkias

  • U hav (sic) ritten as tho English spelling is the language.
    It’s not. The language is words, their meanings, pronunciations, syntax, etymology – and spelling.
    I do not hav the international experience u hav, but i hav been told by people who hav learned English as a second language that it is easier to learn than ar most other European alfabetical languages.
    But its spelling is the nitemare. Not only for your foreign frends, but particularly for our own young learners. Every English-speaking nation complains about its “long tail” (about 20 percent) of functionally illiterat school leavers.
    Early in their school life these students had to deal with the idiosyncrasies of our spelling, which tricked them so often that they began to lose interest in reading and riting. Instead of helping them, spelling was hindering them.
    We need to upgrade our spelling, so that it matches the spelling systems of those other languages that “follow the rules”. We can start, as i hav here, by such a simple step as omitting the “silent e” when it does not do its job of lengthening the previous vowel.

    • Telly Halkias

      When I lived in Germany, Mr. Campbell, I found great comfort in pronouncing words correctly because they were spoken, for the most part, according the conventions of their spelling.

      The same is not true with English, and creates barriers for many, including our own native learners. It says much when a professional writer needs to pause, even for one second, to take a breath and consider whether to type the correct version of a word, or its homonym.

      Still, it remains a wonderfully flowing tongue whose spelling and its resulting varied pronunciation can give anyone fits.


      Telly Halkias