Wednesday, July 8, 2020

English: I Think That That Language Is Screwy


This post is available as a vlog. Put it on the big screen and gather the whole family! Or, fire it up on your phone, add earbuds, and pretend it’s a podcast!

Note: this post is not about Vladimir Nabokov or any of his works. It’s kind of inspired by his love of words, though, and there is some Russian language lore in here.


If you’re a super-nerdy word buff like I am, this post should be right up your alley. If not, it’s an opportunity to silently mock me and feel relieved to be a normal person. Either way, read on!

The Poem

English: I Think That That Language Is Screwy

All languages are more or less complex.                            
To learn a second one is to subject                                   2
Yourself to much abuse. It does perplex                           
Me: so much stuff to get correct!

One language highly likely to abuse                      
The learner is our blasted English tongue.                     6
It’s almost like it’s tailored to confuse:
Of tangled threads it’s intricately strung.

Pronunciation rules do exist.
Exceptions, though, seem almost infinite.                   10
(To number them, much less produce a list?     
For such a project, I’m inadequate.)                    

As evidence, allow me to present                         
The heteronym, which proves without a doubt:         14
Our rules simply do not represent
An airtight way to sound our vowels out.

When I write “wind” what way have you to know           
If “moving air” is meant, or “reeling in”?                     18
Does “tear” suggest reaction to a woe,                
Or ripping something up? See? Evil twins!

Our consonants are dodgy, too. You see,
The word “refuse” can mean “debris,” although        22
The “s” can be pronounced just like a “z,”
In which case “turn down” is the sense, you know.

These heteronyms confound inflection, too.
Does “entrance” mean a way to get inside,                26
Or “put into a trance”? It’s up to you
To sort it out. It’s not well codified.
What’s going on? There’s really no excuse         
For ambiguity to so abound.                                        30
Who authorized a system so abstruse
That letters make an arbitrary sound?

    The secret of our tongue, I think is that
    It does reward a grasp that’s intimate.                 34

Footnotes & commentary

Title: That That

No, it’s not a typo. The first “that” is a conjunction and the second is an adjective. Both are arguably necessary. More on this later.

Line 1: all languages

There has been some bickering among linguists and anthropologists about whether all languages are equally complex. As detailed here, there was a movement to assert this, perhaps driven by a desire to “reject any nationalist ideas about superiority of the languages of establishment.” I can’t see how anybody could objectively assess the complexity of this or that language, because we all have a native tongue that will make some languages easier for us to learn and others harder. Also, I don’t actually care.

Line 1: complex

Why is this word blue? And certain others? Hmmmm…

Line 3: abuse

Is “abuse” an overstatement? Perhaps, but I’ve seen and experienced some pretty disparaging behavior around the attempt to speak a foreign language. For example, a teenager I once knew, whose mom was from China, was visibly disgusted with her mom’s English and routinely said, “Learn how to talk—I can’t even understand you.” Myself, I struggled with French. A college instructor once told me, right before my oral final exam, “You should know: your pronunciation is terrible.” This didn’t exactly put me at ease. Then, halfway through the final, he stopped and said, “Before we go on, I just have to say, your accent is awful.” At the end he recapped how poor my performance had been throughout. Nice. It’s also worth noting that when I have  the classic anxiety dream of showing up to a final exam having never attended the class, the class is always French.

Line 4: so much stuff

There are so many possible errors you can commit with written communication. It occurred to me once, when reviewing my score on a college French quiz, that since the instructor is allowed to knock off half a point for any little goof, a poor student could end up with a negative score.

Incidentally, if you rightly recognized this poem as a sonnet (though it’s longer than the standard 14 lines), you may have noticed that this fourth line is missing a foot. That is, it has only four two-syllable feet instead of five. This is deliberate. With all five feet, the line sounded jarringly too long. I encountered  similar problem when I wrote my Ode to South Park. Its fourth line is technically correct (five iambic feet) but it doesn’t sound right. For eight years I’ve been considering fixing that.

Line 6: blasted English tongue

I am so glad I learned this language the easy way (i.e., from imitating my parents as a toddler). Its grammar is so much harder than that of Latin or Russian. I’m tempted to include French in this list of easier languages, but its insistence on arbitrarily assigning gender to an inanimate object, and then requiring articles and adjectives to match this gender, seems unnecessary and possibly malicious.

Line 8: tangled threads

I believe it’s pretty widely accepted that the difficulties inherent in English stem from its long and complicated history, starting with Germanic dialects that evolved over time by contact first with Vikings, then with conquering Normans, Bretons, and Frenchmen. Details here.

Line 10: exceptions … almost infinite

Other languages I’ve studied are so much more consistent than English. Sure, French has irregular verbs, but not all that many of them, and although my mouth cannot make the sounds this language requires, in principle its rules make sense, and the diacritics (accent marks etc.) are helpful. Russian is also very logical (in my experience, and according to a fluent speaker I consulted). As for Latin, my college class learned all the grammar in a single semester and spent the next term translating Cicero et al … that’s how consistent Latin is.

Line 11: number … list

I got sucked in by Heteronym web pages and ended up letting several hours of my life slip away. Existing lists on the Internet are either too short (like this one) or too long (like this one which lists 427 pairs). By “too long” I mean too generous. I don’t want to count theoretical heteronyms, like “luger” (the pistol—proper nouns shouldn’t count) or the word “as” when it’s pronounced “ass” to mean “a Roman coin.” Who’s ever heard of this coin?

Incidentally, my first attempt to list all the heteronyms lead me to the Heteronym Homepage, way back in 1996 when the Internet was pretty new to most people. In case you’re a youngster, I have to tell you that back then, websites weren’t the slick multimedia affairs we see today. They all tended to be like the Heteronym Homepage: some nerd at a university posting a little essay about heteronyms and inviting readers to contribute their own. (This was before blogs were a thing.) As you can see, I’m credited with three contributions (one of which I had to argue for and which the webmaster only begrudgingly posted, with a qualification). This was my first-ever Internet presence.

Line 14: heteronym

If the heteronym is my poster child for English being particularly hard, I suppose I should establish that it’s a mostly English phenomenon. Since there are something like six or seven thousand languages worldwide, demonstrating this would be like proving a negative, but among mainstream languages I believe this is true. More on this in the Appendix, if you’re interested.

Line 14: proves without a doubt

Of course the existence of the heteronym isn’t the only evidence we have that the English language is completely whacked. Consider the word “thought.” Why does this crazy assembly of letters, “o-u-g-h-t,” make an “ott” sound here, whereas in the word “drought” it makes an “out” sound? And how come removing the second “t” from “thought” changes the “o-u-g-h” from “ott” to “oh”?

When I lived in San Francisco, I always puzzled over the pronunciation of the street name “Gough.” It could rhyme with “bough,” “cough,” “dough,” “rough,” or “through.” The arrangement of the letters in English is so often useless. We have to learn so many pronunciations à la carte.

And what’s this business with “h” and how it affects other letters, like “s” and “c”? Why should the “c” in “ch,” which is a “k” or “s” sound, combine with “h” to produce a totally different sound than either of them makes alone? Makes no sense. You know how the Russians indicate the “ch” sound? They have a specific character for it: “ч.” For a “sh” sound they have the character “ш.” They even have a character, “ж,” for the “zh” sound we nonsensically suggest with a simple “s,” like in the word “pleasure.” And their “k” sound is indicated by a letter, “к,” that never makes an “s” sound like our two-timing “c.” (The French “c” also does double-duty, but at least when it makes an “s” sound they indicate this with a cedilla (i.e., “ç”).

Line 18: reeling in

Yes, I acknowledge that “cranking up” (like a wind-up toy) might be a better way to convey this second sense of “wind” then “reeling in.” Call it poetic license: I had to set up the next rhyme (two lines later). I think I deserve some leeway, given how freaking hard this poem was to write. My original goal had been to pack a heteronym into every line, but that proved impossible (for me). If you count up the blue words you’ll see how far short I fell.

I’d also thought it’d be cool to use each sense of each heteronym, but you see I only managed that once.  I even wanted to rhyme two pairs so that one sense of each rhymed with the corresponding sense of the other. For example, I wanted to rhyme the noun “abuse” with noun “excuse” and the verb “abuse” with the verb “excuse.” Oh well. I don’t know why I thought I could do all this … probably I listen to too much Eminem. I have to remind myself: he’s a genius and I am not. (Plus, rhyming is easier for a rapper because he or she can warp pronunciations slightly to achieve the desired effect.)

Line 20: evil twins

This is not a reference to my brothers Bryan and Geoff, who are twins (though they were pretty evil as kids). It’s an allusion to the TV trope of a look-alike evil version of the hero. At least three episodes of the original “Star Trek” featured the evil twin concept; there was a “Magnum, P.I.” evil twin episode;  and if memory serves there were three evil twins in “Charlie’s Angels” once. I can’t think of a better way than “evil twin” to distill the heteronym concept.

Line 22: refuse

This word was a trap! Did you get it wrong the first time you read this stanza? Good, good. One characteristic of a proper sonnet is its strict adherence to iambic pentameter: you have to arrange your words carefully to naturally create the proper rhythm for the reader. As I’ve explained before in these pages, it wouldn’t do to  screw up your naturally iambic vs. trochaic words willy-nilly in a line of verse:

Right: Exquisite and expensive are her tastes
Wrong: Hot dogs are bad for foraging pit bulls
Right: The yuppie Zeitgeist sickens Uncle Ralph
Wrong: His blood pressure is getting acute now

In the first example above of incorrect verse, you’d have to put the stress on the third syllable of “foraging,” which just sounds wrong. And in the second wrong example you’d have to put the stress on the second syllable of “pressure” and the first syllable of “acute,” which is also unnatural.

It turns out this consistent, rhythmic inflection can often help the reader (subconsciously) recognize which sense of a heteronym is intended, if the word has more than one syllable. For example, in line 26, there’s not much context to suggest which meaning of “entrance” is the right one, but you probably got it right (EN-trance, a way to get inside) because the meter led you there.

So getting back to line 22, you probably read it “re-FUSE” the first time, until you got to “debris” and had to go back and revise your interpretation (perhaps subconsciously). If so, you probably noted a small snag in the rhythm of the poem. I employed this little trick to jar you a bit, to prep you for my point about inflection later on (line 25).

Line 26: entrance

Ever since I realized “entrance” was a heteronym, I’m unable to look at an “ENTRANCE” sign and think “EN-trance.” I always see “en-TRANCE,” as though there were a hypnotist on the other side of the door.

Line 31: abstruse

I deliberated about “obtuse” vs. “abstruse” here. Generally, I avoid using a fancy word where a simple word will do. But “obtuse” is just too much of a stretch for the meaning I’m looking for. It’s not just me: look how much one dictionary had to say about using “obtuse” to mean, well, abstruse:

Lunching with a colleague once, I described my entrée as insipid, and he said, “How can pasta be stupid?” I explained that insipid mainly means “lacking in flavor” even if the word is often used to mean “dull” or “generally lacking.” He refused to believe me, so I bet him $5. We stopped at a bookstore on the way back to the office to check a dictionary (this being in the pre-smartphone era). Easiest $5 I ever made. I should have tried to take $5 off my teenager today when she read this poem and asked why I didn’t use “obtuse” here.

Line 33: that

Why is this word in blue? Isn’t blue supposed to mean it’s a heteronym? Well, yes. I haven’t seen “that” listed on any of the heteronym web pages I’ve seen (though for that matter, none of them lists “misuse” either, which certainly belongs on the list). We know that for a pair of words to qualify as a heteronym pair, they have to be spelled the same, pronounced differently, and have a different meaning. For the first test, consider that at least three mainstream dictionaries (the three I’ve checked) show two different pronunciations for “that,” as shown here. 

That upside-down “e” character, ə, makes a sound something like “eh,” as in the words “about, item, edible,” etc. as shown here.

Now, you might say these are just alternative ways to pronounce the word, like we sometimes say “the” to rhyme with “thee” and sometimes to rhyme with “duh.” But I don’t think “thăt” vs. “thət” is arbitrary. When we use “that” as an adjective (to specify “the one singled out, implied, or understood” we pronounce it “thăt” (rhymes with “hat”). But when we use “that” as a conjunction (to introduce a subordinate clause that “is joined to an adjective or a noun as a complement”), we say “thət” (rhymes with “pet”).

To test this (actually, to prove it, as I was already convinced), I wrote two sentences on Post-Its and took them around to my wife and kids to read aloud. The first read, “If you think that I’m going to put with that, you’re crazy.” All three read it as, “If you think thət I’m going to put up with thăt, you’re crazy.” No prompting was necessary: that’s how they naturally pronounced those words.

The next Post-It read, “I think that that that that man said is a lie.” All four read it, “I think thət thăt thət thăt man said is a lie.” By sounding the conjunctions with the “ə” sound, they were able to easily utter (and understand) the sentence, odd though it is. But when challenged to pronounce “that” to rhyme with “hat” in all four instances, they got tripped up. So: we have established a different pronunciation that tracks with the different meaning. Voilà! Heteronym!

(If it seems like I’m making an inordinately thorough case for “that” being a heteronym, it’s because my daughter drew me in to a spirited debate on the topic and got me all excited.)

Line 34: grasp that’s intimate

This really is the glory of English: by being hard to learn, it gives an unfair advantage to native speakers. All languages do this, of course, but to the extent that English is particularly difficult, the advantage is magnified. Moreover, English is a particularly good language to be utterly fluent in if you’re trying to a) be upwardly mobile in the global economy, or b) rest on your laurels. When I mention to people that I was an English major in college, I like to add, “It was a really easy major for me because I grew up speaking English at home.”

Another reason I contrived to end this poem with the word intimate? It rhymes perfectly with “thət” (as used in the previous line).


Is it truly the case that the heteronym is mainly an English thing? Well, I studied French for six years and never came across a pair in that language. According to this article, “French has relatively few heteronyms, and the ones they do have, they often put a gratuitous accent mark on one of the meanings to differentiate them. (For example, meaning ‘where’ and ou meaning ‘or.’ The accent grave makes no pronunciation difference for the letter ‘u’; it's added so that ‘where’ and  ‘or’ are not spelled the same.)” Wikipedia lists 21 French heteronyms, and points out that a heteronym pair is usually the case of a noun being spelled the same as one conjugation of a verb (particularly third person plural), for example “couvent” meaning either “convent” or “they brood” (as in eggs). Since the French don’t really pronounce “ent,” the verb form sounds quite different. But this is certainly more obscure than English heteronyms.

I never encountered heteronyms in Russian and can’t imagine them because every letter in that language so consistently makes a discrete sound. As for Italian, Wikipedia is ambiguous about heteronyms in that tongue. It states, “Italian spelling is largely unambiguous, with a few exceptions” but then lists 35 examples. I plugged half a dozen of these examples into Google Translate to try to hear the difference, and they all sound identical to me (certainly nowhere nearly as different as “tear” (the liquid) and “tear” (the verb). As for German heteronyms, Wikipedia says that language has “few.” Ditto Dutch. No other languages are mentioned, for what it’s worth.

Further reading

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.


  1. This is a question, not a comment. I am curious about the phrase "no certain feat", and wondered what you know about it. At first, I thought it was an erroneous combination of "no mean feat" and "in no uncertain terms" but the definitions didn't match the sentence. Apparently it means a feat with no guarantee of success.

    1. To be honest, I've never heard that expression, and I am not having much luck googling it. I guess it kind of makes sense but is no substitute, IMHO, for "not a sure thing."