My mom always said you pretty much have to memorize all the words and the sounds that correspond with them, because while there is a pattern for figuring out sounds, there are almost more exceptions than rules. This has obviously got to be frustrating for a non-native English speaker. I get it. She would always then go on to exclaim how great Spanish is in that every single letter makes exactly one sound, and that any word can be sounded out. Yes, yes, yes.
In my mind, then, every time she would say that, I would always construct a piano keyboard which played, instead of a note, a sound for each key pressed corresponding to a letter in Spanish. I thought that if I were ever a Spanish teacher, I would take this keyboard to class and let the students learn how to pronounce correctly using the keyboard. They could press the keys on the keyboard spelling out a word and listen to the right way to say the word. They could experiment and even create hypothetical Spanish words and be assured the pronunciation the keyboard was assigning was correct.
I always wondered why no one had ever done that.
My mom repeatedly ranting about this triggers a very vivid childhood memory of an I Love Lucy episode I saw in which Ricky is reading a book and explores the many different ways "ough" is pronounced in English.
enough. through. cough. bough. though.
/ənəf. θru. kɑf. baw. ðo./
I think this is one of my earliest childhood memories of being interested in linguistic curiosities and oddities.* I was very young when I saw this episode, and the realization that "ough" could be pronounced in so many ways... just... blew my mind.
I was outraged. I must have been about 5 years old, because I hadn´t yet come across letter combinations with so many possibilities before. I specifically remember after the episode was over, I got a notebook and a pen and wrote down the example words Ricky had used.
I found the clip online just now! --and was surprised to hear Ricky--after the book reading part--exclaim almost word for word what my mom always said about Spanish.
(The noteworthy part starts at minute 2:45.)
Which brings me to this really great thing Nitzkin showed us in class the other day. It´s this project called Anguish Languish--which retells stories, using real English words--but the wrong words--to convey an accents or dialects. Try reading some! It works best if you read it out loud.** Here´s a snippet:
Ladle Rat Rotten Hut
Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
Wan moaning Ladle Rat Rotten Hut's murder colder inset.
"Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, heresy ladle basking winsome burden barter an shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tutor cordage offer groin-murder hoe lifts honor udder site offer florist. Shaker lake! Dun stopper laundry wrote! Dun stopper peck floors! Dun daily-doily inner florist, an yonder nor sorghum-stenches, dun stopper torque wet strainers!"
Funny, something like that could never, ever exist in Spanish. In Spanish, there is no other way to spell any sound than the correct way, and there is no word that could have two different pronunciations. One sound per letter, that´s it. Yes, I know, mama.
Which brings me to the YouTubes´ sensation Kim Dong Won. This video here kind of does the reverse of Anguish Languish.
So I don´t know if he´s reading these Mariah Carey lyrics, or if he´s just replicating the sounds from memory, but it´s really the subtitles that make this video so funny***.
Here is a link to another video of him, but without subtitles, and it is much less funny, because the listener´s mind automatically and instantly atunes to the accent and,--especially because the lyrics to this song are already relatively familiar in the background of Americans´ pop culture minds--it is therefore pretty easy to understand what he is saying.
What´s difficult about reading Anguish Languish is that we have set meanings in our minds associated with these symbols on the page, which are pretty much unrelated to the sounds we hear. Just listening to Anguish Languish (if read correctly) is very easy to understand. But the mind auto-disconnects the sound from the letters on the page when discerning meaning, making reading it silently and understanding practically impossible.
*I think one of my favorite parts of kindergarden was learning to read, and the rules for when vowels were supposed to be long or short. We learned the short and long sounds for each vowel, and then wrote some words with a little scoop over the vowel if it was short and a dash over the vowel if it was long.
The simple rule was that if a vowel was followed by a consonant, and then another vowel, the first vowel was long and the second, silent. Conversely, if the vowel was followed by only one consonant, or more than one consecutive consonant, the vowel would be short.
ie. "bĭt" and "bīke" or "măp" and "māde". I loved drawing the dashes and scoops. I wanted to draw them everywhere. (I think later that week we learned about different vowel combinations, and the sounds they made, but those were tedious and less fun, with no symbols to draw involved.)
On this same day, I distinctly remember we also learned when to pronounce /ði/ or /ðə/. We were walking to recess, and some kid just randomly asked it, and the explanation ensued.
The rule was that if the next word started with a vowel, say /ði/, if it started with a consonant, say /ðə/. Hard, fast rule. I liked this, too.
Of course, immediately someone asked about /eɪ/ and /ə/. The teacher said this was more easily alleviated, not by changing pronunciation, but by changing "a" to "an" if the next word started with a vowel. This annoyed me, because we already knew that.
I really liked my kindergarden teacher, Ms. McMyne, but one other thing that really annoyed me**** was the way they taught us how to put verbs in the past tense. We had already learned how to drop the -e and add -ing for present indicative or whatever the hell tense that is. So I think they were trying to simplify by teaching us to make past tense by dropping the -e and adding -ed.
This DROVE ME NUTS. Why couldn´t they just say "add -d"?!?!? I asked. The teacher placated me, said, "yes, could think of it that way, too", and moved on. My classmates of course took her side when I tried to bring the point up again at recess.
They were really extremely fond of dropping that -e before adding any ending at all, apparently gahdammit, and I just thought it was terribly inefficient to drop an -e and then re-add THAT SAME GAHDAMM -e along with the new -d.
**Here is an excellent video clip of Anguish Languish being spoken aloud.
***among many other factors, of course.
****Kind of like that time in third or fourth grade when we were learning our multiplication tables (maybe this doesn´t belong in a language blog?) and we were reviewing before a test or something, and the teacher asked if we wanted to share any helpful hints with the class.
I guess she was hoping someone would point out the gahdamm obvious like "add a 0 behind the number you´re multiplying by 10, like 5 x 10 = 50" but instead I tried to explain my trick for multiplying by 5s:
When multiplying by 5s, you could take half of the number you were multiplying, and just add a 0 behind it if the number was even (like half of 6 is 3, therefore 5 x 6 must= 30), or if the number was odd, use the next even number up, apply the rule I just said, and subtract 5 from the answer (like 7 is odd so half of 8 is 4 so instead of the answer being 40 it must be 40-5. 5 x 7 must= 35).
I tried to explain it was like half of multiplying the number by 10. The teacher was furious. She wasn´t having it.
This was a super FAST and EASY way to multiply, but the teacher looked horrified when I explained it, and tried to get everyone to forget I even spoke so as to avoid confusion and questions about my method. I briefly hated her. Then I felt superior because I had this trick up my sleeve and no one else did because the teacher was too lazy or too stupid to explain my method to the class.
Oh well. I guess this all stems from me not being very good at memorizing. If you know me at all, you know my memory is terrible. I´d much rather calculate quickly than memorize... WHICH IS WHY I LIKE LANGUAGES SO MUCH, I think. They´re just like math, really. Formulaic, generally neat, and calculate-able. Figure-out-able. I guess there were signs of my forthcoming love of linguistics all along.