Method and Madness in the English Language

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The English language gets a bad rap. Foreigners stumble over our eccentric pronunciations (my kids love the I Love Lucy episode with Ricky learning the “ough” words), and native-born speakers pontificate on how they would never have mastered the language had they not been born into it. It seems a general consensus that English is a veritable puzzle of eclectic spellings, pronunciations, and rules, a mystery to the uninitiated and an inexplicable paradox to the rest.

There’s a good reason for this perception, to be sure. English is a rich tapestry woven from the fabrics of numerous older languages that reflects the merging of our cultural and linguistic heritage. Sara wrote a nice paean to this crazy patchwork quilt, and plenty of people have documented its eccentricities and complexities at length.

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However, it turns out there’s more method than madness to the quirky quilt. I’ve been reading a book that has given me a great perspective on the English language, and it helped me tremendously, both to appreciate what I understand about English and to empower me to teach it with greater confidence.

The book is Uncovering the Logic of English, by Denise Eide. Many of the insights chronicled are of the “Aha!” variety. Chesterton described the experience well in The Innocence of Father Brown: “A window in [his] mind let in that strange light of surprise in which we see for the first time things we have known all along.”

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Knowing proper grammar and spelling opens so many doors.

I found that I have actually known many of the rules illuminated in the book, and without even realizing that they are formally canonized as rules, I have been following them intuitively.

The book begins by recounting the history of language instruction, noting the pitfalls that accompanied the abandonment of the phonetic system, and explaining that a truly strong foundation must be laid by teaching phonograms (unique sounds, whether made by one or more letters) along with letters.

A major problem with modern instruction is the teaching of rules that, in an attempt to cope with the complexity of the English language, are over-simplifications and generalizations. Such inadequate rules crumble under closer scrutiny.

One example is the old trope, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,” or “I before E except after C, or when sounded as A as in Neighbor or Weigh.” I grew up learning these. But which sound of the first vowel should talk—the long one, or the short sound? And what about all those times when the second vowel is sounded, or when a diphthong creates a new sound? And there are plenty of instances (which do not rhyme with A) where E comes before I.

Conscientious scholars of English will take vigorous exceptions to such haphazard rules, as well they should. Such rules weren’t accurate instructions: they were generalizations developed by sloppy optimists looking for a shortcut. Objections were waved away as more exceptions to be breezily memorized.

Apparently those cheerful optimists inventing misleading rules had photographic memories, because the average human memory can only maintain at most about 2,000 symbols. We simply can’t handle such a painstaking level of detail; we need a system to tie it all together.

When presented with illogical and inconsistent rules for language, logical students tend to become frustrated and lose interest in reading, whereas more intuitive learners will be able to bridge the gaps in logic and reconcile “the rules” for what they are reading with what they remember hearing.

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Intuitive, not logical

This is a bit of a generalization, but since boys tend to be more logical and girls tend to be more intuitive, this dichotomy is one reason why boys seem to struggle early on with reading more often than girls. It helps explain both why I managed to become such a proficient reader despite all the haphazard rules I grew up learning, and why my very logical son resists making the simple leaps that to me seem so obvious.

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The reality is that there are some good, solid rules to follow, but they must be carefully worded and scrupulously observed. True exceptions are extremely rare.

For example, one such precisely-worded rule is this: English words do not end in I, U, J, or V. You may indeed find words with little searching, as I did, that end in these letters (e.g. haiku, macaroni) but you will discover upon closer inspection that these are not English words. The only true exceptions are the three very old English words thou, you, and I. As the author likes to tell her students, you and I are special.

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I love how thoroughly this book documents the proper rules for the English language, along with comprehensive explanations and numerous charts. I had my two oldest girls—already proficient readers—read through this book; I’m going to present the rules to my next two students, who are muddling along all right through McGuffey’s but could both use a bracer; and my two youngest are going to learn to read and spell using these principles.

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Photo Credit: iStock. Following images courtesy of author.

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One Comment on “Method and Madness in the English Language”

  1. Julia
    March 30, 2019 at 12:16 am #

    I started using All About Spelling last year and it explains all the rules and is very systematic. My girls get it! Uncovering the logic of English sounds just like the All About Spelling program !

    Like

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