Bad English

Lingo Lag

Why Johnny can’t talk good

By Mad Dog

THEY SAY English is the hardest language to learn, and I suspect they’re right, since so few people you run into speak it worth a damn. It has the pronunciation problem (rough, dough, and through), the spelling problem (to, two, and too), and the learning problem (duh, duh, and duh).

Here in the United States, you can pronounce a word any way you want, which includes adding a spare syllable or two between vowels, dropping the ending to any word longer than three letters, or combining words at random because, well, it saves a breath and we only have so many in our life so why waste them?

A couple of years ago the Hyundai Motor Co. (motto: “Our name doesn’t mean anything, we just like to hear you try to pronounce it”) took a survey that revealed a lot about how we perceive accents.

Southerners, it turns out, have the most liked, most recognized, and sexiest regional accent in the United States. As for the rest of the country, the survey says Bostonians sound the smartest, the Valley Girls of Los Angeles sound the dumbest (fer sure!), and New Yorkers have both the most intimidating and the least-liked accent in the country.

In the past, spelling was a particularly thorny problem in the English language, but not anymore, thanks to the advent of the spell checker. The first spell checker I used made me run each file through a separate program that then checked it against a massive dictionary of 251 entries, putting its vocabulary on a par with Sylvester Stallone’s. As the software progressed, so did spell checkers. Unfortunately, Sylvester Stallone didn’t.

Now, thanks to my buying so many software upgrades that Bill Gates sends me a Christmas card each December asking for another $109, all I have to do is hit a button marked ABC and the computer instantly tells me that “McDonald’s” is guilty of incorrect capitalization, which is in no way related to the fact that you can find their restaurants in every capital in the world. Then again, maybe it is.

If we Americans find English to be the hardest language to learn, that’s probably because we don’t go to school enough. Children go to school here a measly 180 days a year, minus a few days for snow, threat of snow, or the fact that someone heard the weatherman say, “That’s no,” and misunderstood him.

Japanese children, on the other hand, go to school 218 days a year and they manage to learn a language that has a lot more than 26 letters. In England, students go to class 192 days a year, which means they’ve had 144 more days over the course of their school career in which to learn the difference between the past tense, the future perfect tense, and when Mums is PMS tense.

But like the cast of Melrose Place, our language is always changing, and not always for the better. It used to be enough that you learned the difference between the passive voice and the active voice; now you have to contend with the grammatical construction of the ’90s: the passive-aggressive voice. But that’s not all that needs further updating. Take collective nouns. Go ahead, take them. Then collect the whole set.

Actually, “collective noun” is just a fancy term for a specific group of animals. You know, like a herd of elephants, a pack of wolves, and a bevy of quail. Or a murder of crows, a shrewdness of apes, and a crash of rhinos. No, I’m not making these up, they really exist. So do a sleuth of bears, an exaltation of larks, and a bale of turtles. Good thing folksingers didn’t know this or the old song would have gone, “Gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of turtles,” and that would have gotten the animal activists’ organically grown all-cotton nuclear test-free panties in a knot.

I think it’s time we added some new collective nouns to our language. How about a sorority of coeds, a bubba of rednecks, a palette of artists, a file of computer programmers, and a bubble of blondes? Wouldn’t it make sense if you said, “Hey! Look at that round of drinkers, that corral of cowboys, that lot of real estate agents, that loaf of bakers, and that rejection of writers”?

On second thought, maybe that should be a success of writers. Yes, that’s better.

From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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