The Glorious Chaos of English

Primative Spelling BeesEnglish, in many ways, is one of the simplest languages to learn quickly and in which to converse fluently; but scratching below the surface one rapidly finds incongruities.  As a teacher for English as a foreign language for adults (TEFLA), I was frequently confronted with the challenges of teaching students to spell and pronounce words correctly, but I was also comforted by the fact that English nouns only come with four possible preceding cases, or articles (a, an, the, and none), rather than, say, German, in which each noun has a nominative, genative, dative or accusative, singular or plural form of their case; or Finnish, which has a whopping 15 cases.

The Chaos, a poem written by the Dutch traveller & teacher,  Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946), gives ~800 examples of irregular spelling.  In general one can say that there are spelling “rules”, but English, in all its historic complexities of absorbing, digesting and recycling influences from conquerors, enemies, travelling companions and allies, seems designed to say “rules can and will be broken”.  I would never give his last advice to anyone – but after reading this poem, you’ll understand that English needs tenacity and constant practice to use well!

The Chaos

by G. Nolst Trenite’ a.k.a. “Charivarius” 1870 – 1946

Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse

I will keep you, Susy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy.

Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear,

So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,

Pray, console your loving poet,

Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

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).

Made has not the sound of bade,

Say said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as vague and ague,

But be careful how you speak,

Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,

Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,

Cloven, oven, how and low,

Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery:

Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.

Exiles, similes, reviles.

Wholly, holly, signal, signing.

Thames, examining, combining

Scholar, vicar, and cigar,

Solar, mica, war, and far.

From “desire”: desirable–admirable from “admire.”

Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.

Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.

Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,

One, anemone. Balmoral.

Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,

Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.

Scene, Melpomene, mankind,

Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,

Reading, reading, heathen, heather.

This phonetic labyrinth

Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

Billet does not end like ballet;

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,

Which is said to rime with “darky.”

Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s O.K.,

When you say correctly: croquet.

Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive, and live,

Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,

Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,

We say hallowed, but allowed,

People, leopard, towed, but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,

Between mover, plover, Dover,

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,

Chalice, but police, and lice.

Camel, constable, unstable,

Principle, disciple, label,

Petal, penal, and canal,

Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.

Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,

Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”

But it is not hard to tell,

Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,

Timber, climber, bullion, lion,

Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,

Senator, spectator, mayor,

Ivy, privy, famous, clamour

And enamour rime with hammer.

Pussy, hussy, and possess,

Desert, but dessert, address.

Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.

Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,

Doll and roll and some and home.

Stranger does not rime with anger.

Neither does devour with clangour.

Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.

Font, front, won’t, want, grand, and grant.

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.

And then: singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,

Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.

Query does not rime with very,

Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;

Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.

Though the difference seems little,

We say actual, but victual.

Seat, sweat; chaste, caste.; Leigh, eight, height;

Put, nut; granite, and unite.

Reefer does not rime with deafer,

Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,

Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,

Science, conscience, scientific,

Tour, but our and succour, four,

Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, guinea, area,

Psalm, Maria, but malaria,

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,

Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,

Dandelion with battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,

Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.

Say aver, but ever, fever.

Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.

Never guess–it is not safe:

We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.

Heron, granary, canary,

Crevice and device, and eyrie,

Face but preface, but efface,

Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,

Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,

Ear but earn, and wear and bear

Do not rime with here, but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,

Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,

Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation–think of psyche–!

Is a paling, stout and spikey,

Won’t it make you lose your wits,

Writing “groats” and saying “grits”?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,

Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,

Islington and Isle of Wight,

Housewife, verdict, and indict!

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,

Saying lather, bather, father?

Finally: which rimes with “enough”

Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?

Hiccough has the sound of “cup.”

My advice is–give it up!

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To-Too-Two-Tutu

Funny

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Writers love to read; I think there’s also a bit of a movie buff in each one of us!  I like to watch films for the entertainment, but also for the analytical aspects; to see how the plot is built, how characters are developed, how scenes unfold, and which camera angles work best in a particular moment (that translates in writing to the point of view in a given context).

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont“Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont” (2005) is a beautiful piece of cinematic craft in which characters are explored with a great deal of tenderness, wit and insight.  The film is based on the eponymous book by the English writer Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975), considered one of the greatest British authors of the twentieth century.  There are a wide range of characters, from the calm and insightful Mrs Palfrey or the spontaneous and warm-hearted honorary grandson, to a collection of oddball characters all staying together in the same London hotel for better or worse, and the great minor characters such as the “bellboy”, the waitress, the ex-girlfriend or the real grandson.

It’s a gem of a film; if you haven’t seen it, consider getting your hands on it to watch!  It’s one to enjoy, and then re-watch and take notes on how it unfolds.  Be inspired, and keep writing!

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Thoughts From Gibraltar and London

I just returned from a research trip a week ago; after the dust of “coming home” has settled, it’s time to sit down and get to work in earnest on my next novel.  I’m working on the third book in my 18th century historical trilogy, and to be honest, up until this trip I would have rather been working on a different manuscript!  My time away was research into the major section of the book which takes place in the Royal Navy aboard a ship of the line.  Part of the reason I think I’ve had “writer’s block” on this manuscript is that the military aspect of the plot is not my favourite topic to delve into from a writing aspect – I love reading about it, but condensing that down into dialogue and prose is not my forté.  But I know myself:  As with anything, if it’s not my strength I’ll work at it and hone it until it is.

The Cutty Sark 1

The Cutty Sark

A very important thing for me to remember in the midst of the research is that I’m not writing a maritime history book, but a novel; I’ve got to take the research, sift it for the elements that support my plot and leave the rest of the information aside as “nice to know”.  I’ve bought, read and taken notes on dozens of history books focused on the Royal Navy; I spent a day taking in impressions aboard the Cutty Sark (one of the fastest clippers from the days of Sail, on the right), and talking to curators both there and in the Maritime Museum, as well as the British Museum; I spent time on a clipper on the Thames, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, salt spray and tastes of the river.   My hotel was literally just round the corner from the largest used book shop in London (Skoob Books)… a very dangerous thing.  Trust me.  I found some great gems, from a history book on the Seven Years War (exactly in my time period), to a portrait collection of 18th century fashions – invaluable visual aids, with explanations of things like mob caps, waistcoats, etc.  If I’d had more time (and more room in my carry-on-sized luggage), I still would have had to leave hundreds of great books behind…!

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary Ape, with Spain in the distance.

Gibraltar itself was a special time:  I was there with my husband, who then took off for a 10-day bike ride toward Madrid on the day I flew to London.  Gibraltar was vitally important as a British Naval base for centuries, and you literally cannot walk down any street without being reminded of its military past:  Atop the Rock are the ruins of fortifications; St Michael’s cave was a strategic hideout; in the town are cannons everywhere; ramparts are now part of walled parks, and everywhere there are military street names, town square names, and military ships in the harbour; Spain is a spit away, and Morocco is visible even on a foggy day; it is literally the gateway to the Mediterranean.  Taking a cable car to the top of the Rock you’ll find Barbary Macaque (aka Barbary Apes, though they are tailless monkeys) everywhere; they were originally brought from Africa in the 18th century by British sailors.  A few of them escaped and set up house on the rocky slopes above the town, and now they run the show; tourists are lower down in the pecking order than they are, and if they get half a blink they’ll steal your food if you’re silly enough to take it outside.  They usually stay up on the Rock, but it’s still not wise to leave your hotel window open…

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

So now that I’m back, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into this new manuscript!  Sometimes it just helps to get away, get new impressions, percolate ideas, and become inspired.  If you’re stuck on something you’re writing, get out!  Go on a research trip, or if you can’t afford it time- or money-wise, then get out to a park, or somewhere different for a change; take your notebook, and let your mind wander.  You’ll find a way through the block!

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Commas Matter

When was the last time you saw one?…

Commas Matter

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Writing Tips: Dialogue

howtobebritish1Dialogue is (to point out the obvious) vital to a novel; it displays the voices of your characters and helps the reader get to know and care about the characters, understand their motives, their interrelationships, and distinguish each character’s point of view.  If you don’t get the dialogue right, you rip the reader out of the story, or worse – make them put down your novel and add your name to “never again” lists!  So, here are a few pointers and tips to keep in mind as you develop your characters and put words into their mouths:

1) Develop your characters well enough to make their voice distinct; do they have catch-phrases, or local dialects that influence their vocabulary?  Do they tend toward long or short sentences, or are they from a past time and place that had a different way of speaking?  Educate yourself if necessary in various modes of speech .

2) Dialogue is an illusion of conversation; but it’s also about what is not said.  Non-verbal actions reveal:

a) How a character says something

b) What a character chooses not to say, but inadvertantly reveals through actions.

c) Why the character says what they do.

Do they have particular actions when they are upset or aggitated that communicate their moods to the reader?  Do they bounce their knees when excited?  Does their body language confirm or contradict their verbal message?

3)  Fictional dialogue needs to cut to the chase; if there’s no point to the text (revealing motivation, character or plot point), then chop it!

4)  Avoid the trap of using dialogue as exposition (the proverbial villain’s monologue as he prepares to destroy the hero), but rather reveal essential information through action, or narration.

Explore your characters and develop their voices, and above all – keep writing!

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The Etymology of Hobson’s Choice

Thomas HobsonThomas Hobson (1544-1631) is still famous through the idiom, “Hobson’s Choice”, which means basically “take it or leave it”.  An innkeeper in Cambridge, England, he would hire out his horses (according to information at the Cambridge Guildhall, he had an extensive stable of 40 horses, which was a sign of vast wealth in those days!).  To avoid the best horses being favoured and thus worn out more quickly, he devised a rotation system that became known as Hobson’s Choice:  The horse closest to the entrance, or none.  The idiom is sometimes used erroneously to mean a choice between two equally good (or bad) situations or solutions (which is rather a dilemma, or Morton’s fork); but Hobson’s choice was really a choice between something or nothing.

I first came across the phrase when reading Frederick Hoffman’s “A Sailor of King George“:

I interrogated the next, who was a short, slight, pale-faced man. “And pray,” said I, “what part of the play have you been performing; were you ever at sea?” “No, sir,” said he; “I am a hairdresser, and was pressed a week ago.” “D——n these fellows!” said my captain; “they are all tailors, barbers, or grass-combers. I want seamen.” “Then,” said Captain N., who was the flag-captain, and had just come on board, “I much fear you will be disappointed. These are the only disposable men, and it’sHobson’s choice—those or none.” “The admiral promised me some good seamen,” returned my skipper, rather quickly. “Then I fear the admiral must find them,” was the answer, “as I have not more than twenty seamen on board besides the petty officers. The last were drafted a few days ago in the Defiance. Will you take any of these men, Captain W.?” “What do you think,” said my captain to me; “shall we take any of them?” “Suppose,” returned I, “we take twenty of them and the tailor; they will all fit in in time.” I then picked out twenty of the best, who were bad enough, as they were the worst set I ever saw grouped. Their appearance and dress were wretched in the extreme. I reached the ship before the hour of dinner with my live cargo. “What, more hard bargains,” said the first lieutenant, “we have too many clodhoppers on board already. The captain told me we were to have seamen.” “Captain N.,” said I, “assured our noble captain that the Defiance had taken all the A.B.’s.*” “D——n the Defiance!” replied he; “I defy Captain N. or anybody else to match those gentlemanly ragamuffins.” The master’s mates were called, and they were given into their charge.

Captain Frederick Hoffman. A Sailor of King George (Kindle Locations 2063-2077).

*A.B.s – Able-bodied seamen

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