Harley Hay

Harley Hay: English language can be understood though tough thorough thought, though

Scientists say that apart from a whole lot of hair what really made human beings different from our other ape relatives is one crucial factor. Electric cars.

No, sorry, my human being mind wandered there for a minute. What I meant to say is: language. The development of complex verbal communication made us homo sapiens “superior” to all the other beasts on Earth. Note the quotation marks around “superior” because as we all know, the sad fact is that we humans as a race of power-hungry money-grubbing life forms often display an intelligence significantly below that of your average garden slug.

But boy can we use language. Too bad we don’t always communicate.

Not that language is easy. Take English for example. What a tangled web we weave when we Anglophones blab away to each other a mile a minute. Imagine trying to learn to write a language that has a sentence like: “I had to bow under the bough of the tree before I threw the rock through the window.” Or how about the famous Groucho Marx joke: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” And the classic: ‘Time flies like and arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.”

And here’s a perfectly correct sentence, grammatically speaking, that can make your head hurt a little: “The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.” This only makes sense when you realize “houses” is used as a verb and not a noun – whatever those things are!

How about: “The horse raced past the barn fell.” It’s legit as a sentence, but it sure helps if we add “that was” between “horse” and “raced.”

You might be thinking: “Isn’t grammar fun?” while a person learning English might respond, “Yes, and my grammar is 92 years old!” It’s all as confusing as a fart in a fan factory, as they say.

Read this one out loud: “A woman without her man is nothing.” Now read it with world-view changing punctuation: “A woman, without her, man is nothing.” See how we can get ourselves in big trouble just by missing a pause or two in our grammar?

And then there’s spelling, and wow, that’s a can of monkeys. Someone once said: “I’m fairly certain that the person who put the first “r” in February also decided how to spell Wednesday.” Even the word “misspell” is usually mispeled. And why on earth is Colonel pronounced kernel and on which planet does Lieutenant come out as Left-tenant?

And when two people go to the mall, too – which to is two, too or 2? Or right, rite, wright, and write. Site, cite or sight. I could go on about spelling but that would be too weird, even though we all know the rule is ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.

Rattle this one around in your large homo sapien brain for a while: “Read rhymes with lead, and read rhymes with lead, but read and lead don’t rhyme and neither do read and lead!”

One of my favorite grammatical silly-sayings is “’I see,’ said the blind man as he picked up the hammer and saw.” I use it, out loud, whenever possible. Drives the Rotten Kids nuts. And how does a new speaker of English understand: “I chopped a tree down, and then I chopped it up”?

And, finally, just when you figure you’ve got this English language thing figured out, here’s a nice little “chronological journey of words that will make you feel comfortably self aware”:

“You have just begun reading the sentence you have just finished reading.”

Harley Hay is a Red Deer author and filmmaker.

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