Monday, September 22, 2014

Though A Hiccough Is Enough, Plough Through This Trough

                                                                                                                               Gerard Nolst Trenité
One of the customers has forwarded a long verse that points out some of the blatant inconsistencies in English pronunciation.  Called The Chaos, a few of its dozens of stanzas will give you the idea:

            Dearest creature in creation
            Studying English pronunciation,
            I will teach you in my verse
            Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

            Pray, console your loving poet:
            Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
            Just compare heart, hear and heard,
            Dies and diet, lord and word.

            Now I surely will not plague you
            With such words as vague and ague,
            But be careful how you speak,
            Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

            Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
            Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
            This phonetic labyrinth
            Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

            Have you ever yet endeavoured
            To pronounce revered and severed,
            Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
            Peter, petrol and patrol?

This ironic rhyme (which you can read only if you already know the correct pronunciations) is the work of a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité, who was born in 1870 and died in 1946.  The poem first appeared in an appendix to Nolst Trenité’s 1920 textbook for non-English speakers, Drop Your Foreign Accent. A virtuosic linguistic feat, the full work runs some 274 lines and covers 800 of the most notoriously difficult words in English.

Nolst Trenité was educated in The Netherlands and by 1894 was working as a private teacher of English to foreigners in California. He returned to Holland, where he taught school and published several books in English and French.  Under the pseudonym “Charivarius,” he also wrote a column on language for a weekly newspaper called The Green Amsterdammer. “Charivarius” probably derives from the French satirical magazine Le Charivari and the British Punch or the London Charivari. “Charivari,” variously pronounced, means a noisy, festive serenade—rendered as “shivaree” in American slang.

Nolst Trenité recognized the futility of getting every pronunciation right in so illogical a language.  His final stanzas counseled resignation:

            Don't you think so, reader, rather,
            Saying lather, bather, father?
            Finally, which rhymes with enough,
            Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough,  
            Hiccough has the sound of sup...
            My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

The entire poem can be viewed at

That other Bard—he of Buffalo Bayou, whose name must not be spoken—  throws up his hands in awe and wonderment at such a masterly poetic  accomplishment, and from his uncouth southern mouth he spews forth his two-bits’ worth of unstable parables.
            It shakes me up and makes me shivery
            When I hear someone say “Shuh-RIV-ur-ee.”
            Of course, I’m also very wary
            To hear them call it “Shah-ree-VAIR-ee.”           
            And I am genuinely sorry
            When folks pronounce it “Shah-ree-VAHR-ee.”
            All of them sound so absurd,
            Perhaps we’d best retire the word.

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