Saturday, March 7, 2009


I routinely use an essay by Richard Lederer called "English is a Crazy Language" in my composition classes. It's one of my all time favorite essays, and students love it, because it talks about all the paradoxes and inconsistencies in the English language. (There is another, longer excerpt here and it's really a fantastic and humorous read!).

I've always viewed this essay with the idea of how difficult it must be for some of my students for which English is not their first language, to learn English. (When I taught in the "bigger" cities, I always had at least one student to which English was a foreign language).

But these days, I'm looking at this essay in a whole different light. Through the eyes of a child learning his mother tongue...

Lederer explains, "Language is like the air we breathe. It's invisible, inescapable, indispensable, and we take it for granted. But, when we take the time to step back and listen to the sounds that escape from the holes in people's faces and to explore the paradoxes and vagaries of English, we find that hot dogs can be cold, darkrooms can be lit, homework can be done in school, nightmares can take place in broad daylight while morning sickness and daydreaming can take place at night, tomboys are girls and midwives can be men, hours -- especially happy hours and rush hours -- often last longer than sixty minutes, quicksand works very slowly, boxing rings are square, silverware and glasses can be made of plastic and tablecloths of paper, most telephones are dialed by being punched (or pushed?), and most bathrooms don't have any baths in them. In fact, a dog can go to the bathroom under a tree -- no bath, no room; it's still going to the bathroom. And doesn't it seem a little bizarre that we go to the bathroom in order to go to the bathroom?"

Of course when children are learning their language, they generalize. They apply the rules that they are learning about the language across the board. This explains why, when they are learning their plurals, they put an "s" at the end. Most plurals are that way. They haven't yet comprehended the exceptions to the rules; such as the plural of foot is feet. They may understand the feet part, but most of the time they will add the "s" and say "feets," because, for them, that seems to be the rule for plurals; you add an "s." (As a side note, you can correct them all you want, but they will continue to say "feets" until they really comprehend the exceptions to the rules, which may not be for a few years.)

It's one thing to look at these issues linguistically and theoretically. But it's an entirely different thing to watch these issues in action.

I was reminded of this essay this week. We were in the car and D was wanting his car seat unbuckled. He told his sister: "Buckle me up!" She said "You're already buckled." So of course he applied what he knows about the rules of opposites and said "Buckle me down!" It makes perfect sense. But of course, buckling something up and buckling something down are pretty much exactly the same idea! Although used in slightly different ways. You wouldn't really say that you were buckling your child down in his car seat or high chair (while it may be just as accurate?). But if you were towing a snowmobile or something on a trailer behind your car and using ratchet straps or something similar, you might say you were buckling down the snowmobile.

We are just in the fascinating stage of language learning, and I'm getting such a thrill out of seeing these linguistic theories in action :)


Cascia said...

What an interesting post. I guess I don't really know how to comment on it. But I can see how your son would say "buckle me down." To a little child that makes complete sense.

Momisodes said...

What a fascinating post. I never really stepped back to look at it this way. I think my daughter is in a similar stage. She constantly tells us her carseat buckle is "too tight!" But we assure her that, "it's not too tight." So her response is, "it's too loose!!!" when she's just trying to say that it really does still feel too tight.

Kaci-Ellyphant said...

Very interesting!! :)

Suzie said...

I love this stuff its amazing how the brain is wired to learn language. The mistakes that are made show us how the brain interprets languauge in such a cool way

Lapa37 said...

I went to the link you have and it made me laugh several times. I have thought the same things about the english language. My son's teacher told me once that "if the some of the words in the english language were spelled the way they sound my son would be an awesome speller" it is so true.

Anonymous said...

Hadn't thought of that. It makes me wonder why we shouldn't just clear up the whole language and say "feets" or "foots"!

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