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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