Poems and essays on English language

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Inspired by my last blog post, I have collected some interesting and amusing poems and essays that depict the travails of English language.

Here you are:
(If you know more examples, please drop me a line and I’m happy to add them to the small collection)

An Orthographic Lament by Charles Follen Adams

The English Lesson by Richard Krogh

Brush Up On Your English from the Manchester Guardian

English in the European Commission by ???

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by Mark Twain

Our Strange Lingo by Lord Cromer

English is a Crazy Language by Richard Lederer

Phoney Phonetics attributed to Vivian Buchan, NEA Journal 1966/67, USA

Why English is so Hard to Learn by ???

An Orthographic Lament

by Charles Follen Adams

If an S and an I and an O and a U
With an X at the end spell SU;
And an E and a Y and an E spell I,
Pray what is a speller to do?
Then if also an S and an I and a G
And an HED spell side,
There’s nothing much left for a speller to do
But to go commit siouxeyesighed.

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The English Lesson

by Richard Krogh

We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes;
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
When couldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot – would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn’t the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?
Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose;
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, 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.
And 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, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I’d learned to talk it when I was five,
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five!

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Brush Up On Your English

from the Manchester Guardian

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.

And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword
Well done! And now if 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 and not like bead–
For goodness sakes 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 mothers,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.

And here is not a match for there,
And 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 do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

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English in the European Commission

The European Commission has just announced an agreement that English will be the official language of the EU – rather than German (the other possibility). As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement, and has accepted a 5-year phase-in of new rules which would apply to the language and reclassify it as EuroEnglish.

The agreed plan is as follows:

In year 1, the soft c would be replaced by s Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard c will be replaced by k . This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan now have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome ph is replaced by f. This will reduse fotograf by 20%.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent ‘e’s in the language is disgrasful and they should eliminat them.

By year 4, peopl wil be reseptiv to lingwistik korektions such as replasing th with z and w with v (saving mor keyboard spas).

During ze fifz year, ze unesesary o kan be dropd from vords kontaining ou and similar changes vud of kors be applid to ozer kombinations of leters. After zis tifz year, ve vil hav a reli sensibil riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer.

Ze drem vil finali kum tru!!

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A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

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.

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Our Strange Lingo

by Lord Cromer

When the English tongue we speak
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of a verse
Cannot cap his horse with worse?
Beard sounds not the same as heard —
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow, but low is low —
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose and dose and lose,
and of goose — and yet of choose.
Think of comb and tomb and bomb.
Doll and roll, and home and some.
and since pay is rhymed with say,
Why not paid with said, I pray?
We have blood and food and good —
Mould is not pronounceed like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone —
Is there any reason known?
And, in short, it seems to me
Sounds and letters disagree!

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English is a Crazy Language

by Richard Lederer

Let’s face it — English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England, nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another.

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable?

And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.

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Phoney Phonetics.

One reason why I cannot spell,
Although I learned the rules quite well
Is that some words like coup and through
Sound just like threw and flue and Who;
When oo is never spelled the same,
The duice becomes a guessing game;
And then I ponder over though,
Is it spelled so, or throw, or beau,
And bough is never bow, it’s bow,
I mean the bow that sounds like plow,
And not the bow that sounds like row
The row that is pronounced like roe.
I wonder, too, why rough and tough,
That sound the same as gruff and muff,
Are spelled like bough and though, for they
Are both pronounced a different way.
And why can’t I spell trough and cough
The same as I do scoff and golf?

Why isn’t drought spelled just like route,
or doubt or pout or sauerkraut?
When words all sound so much the same
To change the spelling seems a shame.
There is no sense – see sound like cents
in making such a difference
Between the sight and sound of words;
Each spelling rule that undergirds
The way a word should look will fail
And often prove to no avail
Because exceptions will negate
The truth of what the rule may state;
So though I try, I still despair
And moan and mutter “It’s not fair
That I’m held up to ridicule
And made to look like such a fool
When it’s the spelling that’s at fault.
Let’s call this nonsense to a halt.”

Attributed to Vivian Buchan, NEA Journal 1966/67, USA

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Why English is so Hard to Learn

We must polish the Polish furniture.
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
This was a good time to present the present.
A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
They sent a sewer down to stitch the tear in the sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
Upon seeing the tear in my clothes I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
I read it once and will read it agen
I learned much from this learned treatise.
I was content to note the content of the message.
The Blessed Virgin blessed her. Blessed her richly.
It’s a bit wicked to over-trim a short wicked candle.
If he will absent himself we mark him absent.
I incline toward bypassing the incline.
This poem is quoted on many websites.

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2 Responses

  1. Damian O'Brien
    |

    Hi Julia. You might be interested in my book If Houses Why Not Mouses? Check it out on amazon

    http://www.amazon.com/If-Houses-Why-Not-Mouses/dp/1909395595/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374651202&sr=8-1&keywords=if+houses+why+not+mouses

    Keep up the good work with the blog.

    Best wishes
    Damian O’Brien

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