“But everybody speaks English now!” If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, whether on holiday or away on business, the presumption that the whole world speaks English is pretty common. If, horror of horrors, the person with whom the holidaymaker is speaking doesn’t immediately understand, many resort to the “I’ll just talk louder” plan, as though English must be spoken at a certain volume to be understood.
Apart from the fact that this attitude is at best naïve, and at worst horrendously arrogant, I don’t think many people consider just how difficult English is as a language. It’s full of irregular verbs, tricky conjugations and pronunciation quirks, and, just as you think you’ve mastered it, another word comes along which bucks the trend again. Of course, all languages have their difficulties. This week on the Silver Tongue Facebook page, I posted a link to a Language Difficulty Ranking system, which rates languages on their perceived difficulty, along with the approximate time they take to learn. This was based on how similar to English the languages were, as judged by the Foreign Service Institute in the US. Obviously many things contribute to the ease with which an individual learns a language, and the similarity to their native language is just one small part of this. For fun, I’ve copied out a poem written by Bennett Cerf, a publisher and one of the founders of Random House – he also had the reputation of being one of the most prolific punsters of his generation, which is probably why I like him so much. There’s an audio file for this too, so you can listen as you read it – essential for fully appreciating the (wonderful) strangeness of the English language and its spelling quirks!
The wind was rough
And cold and blough
She kept her hands inside her mough.
It chilled her through,
Her nose turned blough,
And still the squall the faster flough.
And yet although,
There was no snough,
The weather was a cruel fough.
It made her cough,
(Please do not scough);
She coughed until her hat blew ough.
Bennett Cerf (May 1898 – August 1971)