Knock Down a House, Up Sprouts Something New

heidelberg TV

Whole neighborhoods are being torn down in Detroit. But life goes on.

In one of the oldest neighborhoods around Heidelberg Street, abandoned buildings and empty lots are being turned into living art. It is a small sign of hope, like a wildflower springing up from a crack in a junkyard parking lot. It is also an example of what people do when the old structures and the old rules are swept away: they build something new and totally unexpected.

That is the backdrop for the quirky story of destruction and rebirth called The Loose Meat Sandwich King of Hamtramck. It is a fun read that will give your own hope a boost, and a few laughs along the way.

A Truly Meaty Language

crumbs

A crumby introduction to a meaty topic.

One Saturday a couple of my engineer friends and I took our wives out for breakfast. These wives put up with us and our clumsy social skills, possibly because one is a physicist and the other two are software developers. As is our wont, we began a little word game, trying to outdo each other in complementing our wives.

“Pass the sugar, sweetie,” Mikey said.

Dmitri took up the challenge. He said, “Pass the honey, honey.”

I don’t like to sweeten my coffee, so I was at a disadvantage when my turn came. My wife looked at me expectantly. I shrugged and said, “Pass the bacon, pig.”

I had fallen into their trap. When you get past sugar and honey, there are few food-related words in English that are consistently positive when used to describe non-food items, like spouses.

I don’t think I would have received any better reaction from my wife if I had tried calling her meaty, porky, or even something lean, such as chicken.

“Pass the drumstick, Turkey Dearest.” Nope. That wouldn’t have flown either.

I don’t understand this peculiar aspect of my beloved language. Everybody loves food. I would expect that comparing things to our favorite foods would universally make them sound better. But it seems that it is just the opposite. Here are some examples that took me only five minutes to think up.

I ordered a cheesy pizza, but the delivery guy was late because of his cheesy Chevy Vega.

That story about the honey and bacon was not only corny, but I think I heard Milton Berle tell it before.

Uncle Milty was great on TV, but the camera made him look a little puffy. On stage in Vegas he used language that was quite a bit more salty. My mom preferred Jerry Lewis, although to me he came off as oily and just plain nutty.

Our dog feels crumby because the weather has been so soupy the past week.

My neighbor was acting a little flaky and crusty the other day, which seemed fishy until I found out he was no longer loafing around at the pond, and now had a job at the bakery. Before he got that gig, he used to be bony. With all the free donuts he is growing milky and doughy.

It’s a fun game to play in the car while you’re driving with the family, in between sending texts. Take turns thinking up food-related words, and the winner of the game is the first to think of one that is positive when describing non-food stuff. Fair warning: it’s almost impossible. I love word games like that. They’re peachy! (Oh, no! A counterexample!)

 

 

 

Detroit: Ruin and Rebirth

Atrium, Farwell Building

They say the seeds of the architectural revolution of Chicago were planted in the Great Chicago Fire. That disaster wiped the city slate clean, giving the opportunity for something amazing to take its place.

Detroit wasn’t destroyed in one night. It is disappearing bit by bit, house by house, building by building, in what could be called the Great Detroit Abandonment. As the slate is slowly erasing, like some forgotten Etch-a-Sketch left on its face in the attic, will something amazing take its place?

Loose Meat thumbnailThe Loose Meat Sandwich King of Hamtramck is a novel of Detroit’s ruin and rebirth. When buildings and rules collapse, an unexpected sense of freedom is created, the freedom to re-invent a city, the freedom to re-invent oneself. It is a story told with gentle humor, and with hope.

For more haunting photos of abandoned Detroit, check out the photography blog at http://timsolomoncontexts2.blogspot.com/2011/03/abandoned-buildings-detroit.html

The Apostrophe is a Catastrophe

"Mmmmmm. apostrophe."

“Mmmmmm. apostrophe.”

At Ford we had a saying whenever we heard complaints that one of our cars wasn’t working as well as it should, such as the gear shift suddenly popping by itself out of Park into Reverse and running over somebody in the driveway. “It’s a defect all right,” one of the old-timer engineers would say, “A loose nut behind the wheel.” Implying that the only thing wrong with the car was the incompetent driver who hadn’t put the gear shift all the way into Park in the first place.

When a system works most of the time, it makes sense to blame the occasional mistake on the stupid user. But when that system fails almost all the time, the system is stupid, not the user.

Take English, for example. One of its most common mistakes is using its instead of it’s, or the other way around. Nobody can remember when to use the apostrophe, because the rule is confusing.

Here is the formal rule:

It’s is the contraction of it is, similar to Frankie is going home can be shortened to Frankie’s going home..

Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it, NOT similar to They are going to Frankie’s home to see how Frankie’s doing.

Usage: It’s time to put everything in its place.

(My dad would recommend avoiding this problem by saying “Now’s the time to put everything in their place.” Which is a different stupid English problem to be covered in another post.)

The problem is that everybody remembers this rule: to make a word possessive, you add ‘s.

The big dog stole the little dog’s bone.

And the apostrophe distinguishes this from the plural form (two or more):

My dogs are a-barkin’ now!

So naturally the casual writers of English are confused by the possessive form of it. They are vaguely aware of some stupid exception to the rule here, but can never remember which way it goes, because the apostrophe could be correct either way.

Since it seems nobody can remember this rule, and it is abused so frequently, my position is that the general population isn’t stupid, the Rule is stupid. Let’s just drop the apostrophe and get on with it. Nobody is confused if we write:

Its too bad its rules are stupid, that is, you know, English.

Come to think of it, we can just get rid of the apostrophe altogether, and I don’t think anybody would miss if very much.

“Oh, but what about all the contractions!” you lament.

The apostrophe in don’t and isn’t and ain’t indicates that one or more letters have been removed from do not and is not and am not to form these informal contractions. That happened centuries ago. I think it’s time to get over it and admit those dropped letters are never coming back.  Don’t is not really shorthand for do not. It is its own word nowadays. It doesn’t need an apostrophe to remind us of its origins anymore.

“Surely possessive nouns still need them!” you cry out.

Somehow in spoken English people can hear the difference between plural and possessive nouns, based on context. You don’t need to click you tongue to indicate an apostrophe when you pronounce a sentence like:

My cat’s fleas are driving her bonkers.

You know cat’s is possessive and fleas and bonkers are plural. The apostrophe adds nothing. (Well, OK, if you have multiple cats, the location of the apostrophe can add this smidgeon of meaning, as in

Your cats’ fleas have fled.)

The apostrophe is not completely useless. It is just mostly useless, and because it is mostly used incorrectly, I’d say, on balance, we’d be better off without it.

Especially in the case of shop signs, when the sign creators are trying to be cute by connecting words with a contracted form of the word AND. Here the rule is pretty simple: when you omit a letter, stick in an apostrophe. Yet, nobody can get it right.

Stop N Shop-66-Logo(1)

If I work the rule backwards on this professionally designed sign, I should be able to take out the apostrophe and add one or more letter to form the original word. What is this sign trying to say? Stop In Shop? Stop On Shop? Stop Upon Shop?

OK. They made a mistake. But everybody knows what the sign means. My conclusion has to be that the apostrophe before the N, and the lack of apostrophe after the N, add nothing to the meaning of the sign.

Let’s get rid of the apostrophe. We won’t miss it much, and it will immediately add five points to all of our future SAT English scores. Or is that score’s?

 

Stupid to Its Roots

My dad loved languages. He convinced me to study Latin for two years in high school.

“Latin and Greek are very important building blocks for English. Lots of English root words come from Latin. Once you learn to recognize them, you can figure out the meaning of words that you may not know.”

Sometimes I think he was just messing with me, though.

“What are you talking about?” I said, “I’m memorizing hic, haec, hoc and huis, huis, huis. How does that help me understand English?”

“Here’s a good example,” he said, “Tomorrow night is the equinox. Do you know what that is?”

“Not exactly. Isn’t that when eggs balance on their ends?”

“Let’s figure it out from what you know about Latin. Equinox is formed from two root words: equi- and -nox. What Latin word is like equi-?”

Equus means horse.”

“And nox means night. So put horse and night together, and what do you get?”

“Horse and night? Nightmare?”

“Now you’re getting it, son!”

The Old Man had a point. But you don’t have to take two years of Latin to learn a few basic root words that can help you figure out meaning of unfamiliar words in English. One that you probably already know is the prefix in- , meaning not, as in

sane / insane

expensive / inexpensive

The prefix im- is basically the same thing. It also means not. It just uses the letter “m” instead of “n” when the letter combinations would be hard to pronounce.

movable / immovable (try saying ‘inmovable’ and you’ll see where the switch to “m” came from.)

balance / imbalance

 The reason you don’t need to study dead languages to get this one is that it is easy to infer the general rule from just listening to English itself. You learn the pattern from pairs of words like these:

perfect / imperfect

definite / indefinite

finite / infinite

decent / indecent

But like all the other “rules” of the English language, they are there just to lull us into a false sense of security. Just when you think you can figure this language out, the exceptions start popping up ruin your day.

Because the opposite of sight is not insight, of that you can be sure. Unless you’re not sure, which is not insured, but unsure. And just because you have lots of intuition, don’t think that would cancel out the tuition at some fancy private school where you could learn all the intricacies of this crazy language. All the ins and outs of English make me tense sometimes, because the confusion can be intense, which doesn’t help me relax at all. And let’s not get started again on flammable and inflammable.

The defenders of English will be jumping up and down right now, claiming a perfectly good excuse for this. Some words come from Latin origins, and in Latin in- meant not. Other words come from other places, like German maybe, where in- means, well, in. The opposite of out. Such as:

income (money that comes in)

inhale (suck in breath)

ingest (stuff cheeseburgers into your gullet) (as opposed to in jest, which is to eat a lot of cheeseburgers to get a laugh from your drinking buddies)

This excuse is perfectly true. But it doesn’t stop English from being stupid. If you were building a language from scratch, would you have a prefix with two different meanings? Nope. But English does. Just because it’s the result of a historical accident doesn’t mean it isn’t stupid.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t study Latin or Greek when you get the chance. Or Swahili or Mandarin or Urdu. The more languages you know even a little about, the more you understand that they were not constructed out of some logical system of rules. Language is just people expressing themselves. What people do in large groups is usually messy. Linguists can describe the structure in general ways, but there never were any real “rules”.

Besides, as my dad would say when I wanted to quit Latin, “It will come in handy some day when you go to Latin America.”

 

 

 

The Poetry of Signs and Headlines

locusts

Please consume all food on the premises

News headlines and traffic signs are like tiny poems. Perhaps not as lyrical, but they do have one thing in common. Poems and road signs are both trying to convey a message in a very controlled and limited format.

Signs have to convey a specific message in only a few words. Poems, such as the haiku, also try to cram a lot of meaning into a very limited form.

The difference is that a sign or a headline is supposed to convey only one meaning, while a haiku is shooting for somewhere between zero and four. Sign writers are hampered by the rampant ambiguity of the English language. On the other hand, ambiguity is the fertilizer from which the flower of poetry grows.

How many meanings can you find in this haiku? (My bet is on zero, but I could be wrong. I only wrote it.)

Dog chases his tail

Center is always empty

The winners circle

My favorite buffet restaurant used to post this sign:

PLEASE CONSUME ALL FOOD ON THE PREMISES

This is a one-price, all-you-can-eat place, and the food is pretty good. I am positive that what they wanted to convey was, “The all-you-can-eat deal applies to you while you are here, and does not cover you taking as much away as you can carry when you are done stuffing your gullets.” There may have been a problem with customers filling up bags and boxes and bottles and drums to take home with them. So they wanted to make it clear that the admission price was for as much food as a person could eat during their visit.

The first thing that popped into my head was that the restaurant management was inviting us to clean the place out. “Please eat every morsel of food in the building,” was my interpretation, and I gave it my best shot.

It was a dangerous thing to say to us Midwestern Americans. We take our all-you-can-eat buffets seriously. It is in our history, going back to the locust swarms that used to descend on our crops and eat everything down to the bare dirt. We learned to copy their behavior out of necessity, eating everything in sight before the locusts had a chance. And now that we’ve eaten the locusts, and they are no longer a threat, we continue, out of the shear love of eating.

They don’t have that sign any more. Maybe somebody ate it.

I wish it was still there, only because it was one of my favorite examples of how powerful and stupid English can be. It becomes especially ambiguous in the short form: texts, headlines, signs and poetry. Why include poetry with news headlines? Poetry is English distilled, like liquor. Sometimes there is meter and rhyme scheme, so the poet is forced to reverse normal word order, or leave words out. Which leads to double meanings of phrases, which in poetry, can be a very cool thing. You want to say one thing, and mean something else. Metaphor. That is the power of English.

The stupidity of English is that sometimes you want to be very specific, and it won’t let you.

My dad loved to smoke. When we’d yell at him not to light up, pointing at the sign forbidding smoking, he’d say with his all-knowing smirk, “Look at the sign. It doesn’t say I can’t smoke here.”

NO SMOKING ALLOWED

“What are you talking about? It says clear as day NO SMOKING!”

“No. It says it is OK if you don’t smoke. NO SMOKING is ALLOWED. So I won’t force you guys to smoke if you don’t want to. The sign says it is OK for you to stand here and not smoke.”

We knew it was useless to argue with him. Even if we got a security guy to come over, Dad would probably confuse him enough that he’d let him finish his cigarette.

Other languages do not rely so much on word order to supply meaning. One word is clearly the subject of a sentence and another is the object of the sentence, designated by word endings. In German you can put the words in almost any order and still know whether the dog bites the man or the man bites the dog. English relies on our brains to group the words together to get the right meaning. But brains have a tendency to find their own meaning, even in places where there is none. My brain differs more than most, I’m afraid. That’s why I enjoy new headlines like these (gleaned from http://www.fun-with-words.com/ambiguous_headlines.html):

KIDS MAKE NUTRITIOUS SNACKS

JUVENILE COURT TO TRY SHOOTING DEFENDANT

ENRAGED COW INJURES FARMER WITH AX

The last short form of English that features these ambiguities is the joke. It takes just as much skill to construct a great joke as it does to compose a sonnet. The difference is that with the joke, you don’t want to convey both meanings at the same time. You only want the listener to get one meaning — the wrong one, on purpose. You already know this classic example:

“While on safari, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

Ah, poetry!

Back Me Up on This — English is Stupid

back buttonSpeaking of rear, the word back is a deceptively simple English word. If you are a dictionary reader like me, you already know that the shorter the word, the longer the list of definitions. Back has its share of definitions, but they aren’t the problem. The most delightfully confusing usage for this word happens when it is combined with other directional adverbs, such as up and down.

Used alone, back has a couple of general meanings that are related to each other. There is the back, the place on your body opposite your front, the thing that annoying folks are always being a pain in. And then there is Arnold’s tag line “I’ll be back.” He is not hinting that he will become his own rear end. He only makes himself the butt of jokes later in his personal life. As The Terminator, he is saying that he will be returning shortly, with violently entertaining consequences. For once English makes sense. These two definitions of back are logically related. A return journey is the opposite face of a forward journey, so “coming back” implies you had to turn around and show your back to the place you went.

But English likes to pile up directional words to make new idioms that mean specific things that vary in crazy, stupid ways depending on the context. Even though up and down are opposites, the combined forms back up and back down are not opposites, as a logical linguist might expect.

The only way to see what I mean is by example:

Your bathtub drain can back up, or you can back up the car into the street.

But using the opposite direction helper adverb does not give the opposite meaning:

The plumber demanded a huge fee to fix the backed-up drain.  I wanted to argue, but I backed down and gave him the money.

You can back up your computer hard drive, go back up to your old high school for the ten year reunion, or back up your sister in her decision to buy that red sports car.

But when you want to restore the computer files from the server, you don’t back them down, you download them. And if you decide your sister is being foolish to buy that Miata, you don’t back her down (that would be something else), you back out of your support for her.

For years I would back in my car into the garage, so that when I want to go back out, I can just drive forward instead of backing up. But when my wife got back in, she got on my back about it, so I backed down, and now I have to back up to go back down the driveway.

I’ve gone back through this whole article, and I still don’t want to back off of my original premise that the word back got me back on to way back when:  English is stupid.

Y’all come back on up here soon!

Stupid English Idioms

taiwan culture 2

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau spent a ton of dough for this full page ad in a recent issue of the prestigious Smithsonian magazine. Apparently they did not have any left over for a speaker of American-style English  to read it over. Grammatically there is nothing wrong with this slogan. But as soon as I flipped to that page, I said out loud, “Oh, no.” To American readers like me this slogan has exactly the opposite meaning of what was intended. The problem with it stuck out to me like a sore thumb, but I’ll be whipped if I could cite any official language rule that would explain it to the coiner of this slogan. “It’s just how we say things,” I would have to say.

Maybe the problem isn’t obvious to everybody. This ad must have been approved by a long chain of people before it was published, and they didn’t get it. So here it is:

“It’s time for culture in Taiwan” is the same as saying “It’s time that Taiwan get some culture now,” with the implication that Taiwan does not yet have any fine culture, and it would be pointless for people to travel there if they wanted to experience some. I have never been to Taiwan, but I am pretty sure there is plenty of culture there. The people of Taiwan have a rich tradition of art, music, architecture, poetry, dance, and theater going back hundred and hundred of years. (In comparison, my home town has a 150-year-old house with aluminum siding on it, and they call that historical.)

Somebody made a very subtle mistake composing this ad. I don’t blame the writer — I blame Stupid English for being so tricky.

If I could rewrite this ad, it would say, “It’s time you experience the culture ofTaiwan,” or perhaps “It’s time for Taiwan’s timeless culture.” That implies Taiwan already has culture, and the only thing that it is now time for is you to travel there immediately.

Why does the slogan “It’s time for culture in Taiwan,” appears to imply that Taiwan does not have any culture yet? Perhaps it comes from the common English phrases like these:

It’s time for lunch.

It’s time to leave for work.

It’s time to extract the slug from the gunshot victim.

The phrases “It’s time for” or “It’s time to” are used to indicate the beginning of something, something that is not already in progress. If you tell me “It’s time for the football game,” I suppose it is logically valid that you mean the game started an hour ago and is still going on. But that is not the meaning I’d take from you. If the game were half over, and you said, “It’s time for the game,” I would be seriously miffed at you. Your subtle twist of stupid English has made me miss an hour of glorious, pointless violence!

“It’s time for culture in Taiwan to begin” is what the ad slogan says to me. The words in italic are silently and automatically attached to that slogan by the brains of English speakers. How is anybody who is just learning English, or attempting to translate into it from another language using a dictionary and grammar book, supposed to know that?

That is why computer software is still positively lame at translation. Software is just an automated set of rules for converting one set of data into another. It works well at translating the parts of English where the rules actually work. But in English, the rules have more exceptions than not. In cases like this, there aren’t any official rules. Even a really great Grammar Checker would not flag “time for culture” as a problem. How could it?

Eventually they’ll make an app that learns a language by being immersed in it. Neural nets, or algorithms that learn as they go, might be the beginning of such a system. The translating app would make a best guess at translating a phrase, then listen to see if anybody laughs at what it came up with. It would then improve future guesses by having its mistakes corrected. That’s the best way for us humans to learn a crazy stupid language like English. Learn the rules from books, but then just jump in and start using it and make a lot of mistakes, and then learn from the mistakes.

I make them all the time. I work hard to weed them out of my copy, but in the long run, mistakes are good! That’s how I learn (if I’m willing to get past the embarrassment of listening to laughter at my expense.)

Mistakes are not so great if you’re making them in an expensive ad in front of a huge number of readers.

Let’s not ridicule the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. Their expensive mistake has provided us a priceless lesson in Stupid English.

Stupid English — Contranyms

Impregnable fortress captured in 1769 and 1814

Impregnable fortress captured in 1769 and 1814

“You English-speakers,” my dad would complain to me, as if I had helped invent English, “Your language is all one big inside joke. Yours is the only language where a word can be its own opposite. How can a sane person learn a language like that?”

My dad was great at learning languages. English was the fourth or fifth one that he learned, and it was the only one that he claimed he couldn’t master. He got past the fact that the words duck, dock and dog all sounded exactly alike to his Slavic ear. He quickly got used to the idea that there were words that sounded alike but were not the same word at all (like there and their.) And he could even accept that a word could have more than one meaning, completely unrelated, such as:

mint: a candy left on a hotel pillow

mint: a factory for manufacturing pennies, one of which could not purchase a mint

But Dad could not accept words that have two commonly accepted definitions which are opposites of each other. “This fortress is impregnable. That means the fortress either can or cannot be taken by force!” he complained, “How can you have a word like that? What is the point? In mathematics, such a word would cancel itself out, and one would never use it again.”

I explained it was always clear what the meaning was. You only use that word in two contexts:

Impregnable fortress. That fortress cannot be breached by force. (For some reason it’s always an impregnable fortress and never an impregnable fort.)

Impregnable female: a woman capable of being impregnated.

“How is anybody supposed to know that?” he would answer, “That proves English is just an inside joke. You make up these crazy words just to trick us immigrants.”

He was giving the inventors of English too much credit. These contranyms (words that mean their own opposites) cause confusion for native speakers, too. Take the simple word rear.

Rear means the back of something, such as your rear end. The troops sent back from the battle lines are said to be “in the rear.” As opposed to “at the front.”

When I was a kid I loved to read The Black Stallion books. I grew up in the city. The only horses I saw were on Gunsmoke. When the books described the horse rearing up in fright, I would picture them kicking up their hind legs, like a bucking bronco in the rodeo. It was a natural assumption, since the books didn’t have pictures. I didn’t know what a halter was either, except that it was made of leather. It was hard to imagine a horse wearing something like the halter tops I saw girls wearing at Humboldt Pool, but I went with it somehow.

I was nearly an adult when I discovered that when a horse reared, he was actually lifting his front legs off the ground (think of the Lone Ranger and “Hiyo, Silver!”). “That’s not rearing,” I said, “That’s fronting!”

Rear has a second definition that has a somewhat opposite meaning — you might think of it as 90 degrees in the opposite direction instead of 180 degrees. It also means to raise up, as in a mother rearing her children, or a farmer rearing his cattle. The horse is rearing his front legs, and it has nothing to do with his rear end at all. Except, I suppose, when the horse bucks, it is rearing its rear, but I don’t think this is commonly used.

Even though I get confused like everybody else by these double-crossing words, I love English. All these stupidities make the best jokes possible. One of my favorites is from The Simpsons, based on a different kind of word, in which an opposite-sounding word is actually a synonym.

Patient:     “Dr. Nick, should you be smoking here around all this gas?”

Dr. Nick:    “Oh, don’t worry. This stuff is inflammable. See? IN-flammble!”

                                  [Kaboom!]

Dr. Nick:     “Uh-oh.”

Stupid Spelling

y is for wire

My brother never liked school. He had plenty of reasons, but the one that seemed the lamest to me was “The stuff they teach doesn’t make sense. What good is it to sit there all day learning this junk?”

I, on the other hand, loved school. Every question had just one right answer. I got good at coming up with those answers, and I got praised by parents and faculty regularly for it. But now that teachers aren’t handing me gold stars anymore, I am beginning to see my brother’s point. Some of the things they teach in school are downright stupid. One of them is spelling (specifically English spelling, which is the language I know the best. As I’ll go into later, spelling works a lot differently in other languages.)

It is not a secret that spelling is hard. I happen to be pretty good at it, and I still make plenty of mistakes. Ask the people who proofread my books. Spelling is hard because the only sure-fire way to know how to spell a word correctly is to memorize it. That means the average person has to memorize around 25,000 words, and average people aren’t going to do that. Highly educated people know between 50,000 and 100,000 words, which means the more you know, the more chances you have to make mistakes.

I don’t blame teachers for how stupid English spelling is. Spelling is the result of a series of horrible historical accidents that got written down. But I do blame teachers for trying to convince us that there is actually some kind of logical system for spelling that we can learn.

Such as “i before e, except after c.” That’s how I learned to spell believe and friend. But that didn’t work with neighbor, so they added a codicil “… or when sounding like A, as in neighbor or weigh.” Nice rhyme, but it turns out that a statistical analysis of the dictionary shows that there are more words that violate this rule than obey it.  Do caffeine and and heifer look weird to you? When in doubt, it’s back to the dictionary for all “ie” and “ei” words.

A second method teachers gave us was “Sound it out in your head.” When the word is cradle, that method helps you decide it doesn’t start with the letters “W” or “L”. But it can’t help you guess whether it starts with “C” or “K”. And what about the word wrong? Silent “w”, naturally. The trouble with English is our stupid alphabet. Every letter has at least two or three sounds it can make, and every phonetic sound can be represented by at least four or five letters or combinations of letters. My dad’s favorite example of this was an exotic way of spelling the word fish: ghoti

  • “gh” as in tough
  • “o” as in women
  • “ti” as in nation

There’s a favorite family story about my brother learning to read. “A is for Apple. B is for Baby,” my father began. As they neared the end of the alphabet, he prompted my brother, “… and Y is for –”

My brother thought hard for a moment, and then said with a bright smile, “Wire!”

We made fun of him over this gaffe to this very day. But recently I’ve had a change of heart. I now understand why the family legend is funny — but it is not because my brother made a dumb mistake. It’s because he made a perfectly good logical extension of all the unspoken rules of spelling and pronunciation. He wasn’t wrong. Those rules just don’t work! Wire DOES start with the “wye” sound — wye-err. It’s English spelling that is stupid, not my brother.

The third stupid thing teachers did, in a well-intentioned effort to make spelling fun, was the Spelling Bee. Don’t get me wrong. I am not making fun of the kids who compete in Spelling Bees. They are very smart and I commend them for their discipline and hard work. What I am making fun of is the teachers who think Spelling Bees give students an incentive to become better spellers. I think it does just the opposite.

Everybody has had to participate in a Spelling Bee, even if it was only at the classroom level. Everybody stands up, everybody takes a turn spelling a word. Ten minutes later everybody but one has spelled a word wrong and has sat down in shame and relief. That little game teaches us that spelling is so hard that only the very smartest people on the planet can do it perfectly. The rules, with all their exceptions, are not reliable enough. Sounding out words phonetically almost never works. And English, with its 500,000 words, is just too huge for any one person to memorize. The very existence of the Spelling Bee proves that spelling is stupid.

In contrast, I offer the Ukrainian system of spelling. Ukrainian is one example of a real language that has a completely phonetic alphabet. Every letter has only one sound, and every sound has only one letter, or combination of letters to represent it. After you learn the alphabet, you can read Ukrainian out loud. You may not understand any of the words you are saying, but you can pronounce them correctly.

There is no such thing as the National Ukrainian Spelling Bee. Any schoolkid who knows the alphabet can spell any word. No need to ask for a definition or origin. Just listen to the pronunciation and say the letters for those sounds. Schools don’t have spelling tests. There are vocabulary tests, to see if the kids know definitions, but spelling is a no-brainer.  Apparently, somebody a few generations ago decided that communication was too important to make it easy for only the very smartest people, and simplified the spelling system.

Spelling is important. A word has to be spelled correctly to get across the right meaning. So it’s stupid to be proud of how hard it is to spell things in English (that’s the point of the Spelling Bee.) It’s as if the telephone number to 911 was actually 911 digits long instead of three. Sure, a few mental freaks could memorize such a number, but the whole idea of an emergency phone number is to have one everybody can learn and remember. Shouldn’t spelling be the same way? Spelling is important, so we should make it simple enough that everybody has a good chance to get it right.

English spelling has had its reformers: Noah Webster, George Bernard Shaw, Robert McCormick. These big-shots got nowhere trying to change though to tho, so I know I have no chance at all in fixing anything. I love English, and I don’t expect it to change. I just enjoy pointing out the ways that I find it stupid. From now on I’m going to spell wire “YR” in protest.