And Now for a Word…

“Flammable, inflammable… and non-inflammable. What are there three? Don’t you think two words ought to be able to handle that idea? I mean either the thing flams or it doesn’t flam…”

The late George Carlin, providing his take on the surprising, confusing, delightful and frustrating mélange that is the English language.

(Eagle-eyed readers will note the irony of using a French word to describe the English language. As you will see… it’s actually quite apropos.)

Ladies, gentlemen and assorted lifeforms, the English language is certainly an odd beast n’est-ce pas? It’s not something we think about much, but for those learning English for the first time, it must seem like the creators of our modern tongue had been drunk when they created some of the words and grammar “rules” that codify our communication.

Just to illustrate what I mean, we’re talking about a language where this is a grammatically correct sentence:

“Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo.”

Grammarians must be mad as a brush, surely.

Still stumped in that one? Unravelling the linguistic legerdemain in this sentence relies on the understanding the three forms of the word buffalo: an animal, a city in new York, and a verb in English, meaning to trick or fool someone. Here it is in a clearer form:

“New York bison [that are] tricked [by other] New York bison [also themselves] trick [other] New York bison.”

Now I realize a sentence like this is not really very common – I only use it once or twice a week myself – but imagine someone learning English for the first time coming across this idiomatic idiocy? Harrowing.

It’s not just oddball sentences involving furry quadrupeds that trip people up. Even our everyday words, phrases and sentences can become minefields of confusion. Take this gem for example:

“We don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t look up what we don’t know when we don’t know what to look up.”

You see what I mean… or perhaps you don’t, and that really is the point. The language is complex, unintuitive, completely mad, and filled with nonsensical constructions just like that.

Alright, now let’s look at another example, this time illustrating our apparent inability to decide on a single pronunciation:

“A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”

This sentence is made possible by the nine different pronunciations of the letter group “OUGH.” Nine! Some grammarians point to this as an example of tremendous versatility of the letter group, but it looks more like someone missed a memo… or several of them.

So how, you may ask, did English get this way? How did we get to a place where you can be disgruntled but never gruntled? Overwhelmed, underwhelmed, but never just… whelmed?

I’ve always imagined the English language to be a lot like the country which I call home and that I love with every fibre of my being – the True North Strong and Free(zing) – Canadia-land.

Like Canada, the English language is amazingly diverse, capable of soaring heights of intellect and achievement and devastating lows of depravity. It’s complex, resistant to easy labelling and of course, daffy to the eyebrows. Much like Canada’s diverse ethnic tapestry, English is filled with words and phrases we’ve borrowed from other languages and cultures.

For example, you probably know that attaché, (the person not the briefcase) ballet, silhouette and gaffe all come to us from French, but did you know that words such as bungalow, khaki, pyjama and (heaven help us) guru are in fact Indian in origin?

Algebra, zero, mattress and sofa come to us from the Arabic language. The nation of China has gifted us with feng shui, kung fu, silk and surprisingly, ketchup. Fans of The Walking Dead will appreciate words such as zombie, cola, banana and jamboree, all of which hail from the African continent. (One wonders what an “African banana cola zombie jamboree” would look like – great fun I should think.)

From Spain we get cigar, guerrilla, hurricane and vanilla. Artisan, balcony, cartoon and replica come to us from Italy. The Dutch (bless them) bring us booze, cookie, cruise and somewhat oddly, yankee.

And so on, ad nauseam. English truly is a kind of stew – a word derived from the French étuver – a mishmash of languages from around the world.

Now I know you dear reader. You’re sitting back, sipping on a mocha-latte-frappa-hoopa-al-pacino and shaking your head wondering what my point could possibly be.

Language is one of our most powerful tools for engaging and connecting with other human-shaped humans. While you certainly don’t need to access the full range of philological funny-business that makes up the language – the Oxford English Dictionary currently lists 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 so-called “obsolete” words – finding the right combination that can draw a through-line between two humans is a powerful thing indeed.

Explore the full range of the wonderful miasma that is the English language. Don’t be afraid to dip into the pot of unusual words to make your point. People are far smarter, and far more curious, than we’re led to believe. Strunk and White be damned.

You need not be confined to the same small bucket of words that everyone else uses. Be creative. Be bold. Be unique.

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