It’s a Peculiar Little Language!

Most of us prefer either what we grew up hearing, or what sounds most euphonious to our ears.

I have always read a lot of British mystery, and it is perhaps for that reason that I often prefer verb formats that differ from the American. But (and in this way, I adhere to the “rules” of the English language, which seem to be that there really are no rules at all, since every rule has an exception), I’m not at all consistent in my preferences.

For instance, I dislike the British verb “leant” used in place of “leaned”, yet prefer “knelt” to “kneeled”. I much prefer the American “dove” to the British “dived”, and “scarfed” to “scoffed”—what, after all, does sneering and jeering have to do with gobbling up one’s food? And yet when it comes to “dreamed” vs. “dreamt”, I’m easy with each of them, using them interchangeably.

Perhaps it is the archaic flavor of the original British English which sets my preferences. I will always prefer the ages-old “wrought” to “wreaked”, while it’s probably best that no one question me on “shone” as opposed to “shined”!

I sometimes even extend my eccentric preferences to spelling. The spell-checker constantly reminds me that “theatre” is not American; I prefer “succour” to “succor”—and the French pronunciation to either, which in English sounds so unfortunately like “Sucker!”.

And that, perhaps, is the reason for my wacky taste in verbs: sound. One verb form simply sounds more euphonious or melodic to my ears than another. As I pointed out in “Mispronounced, Revisited” (October 19, 2018), there are words that I have mispronounced so long that the correct pronunciation sounds uncomfortable and wrong. The sound of a word, even as much as its form and spelling, is incredibly important to me.

Perhaps that is why I totally reject having the word “cisgender” applied to me. It is not that I rebuff the concept that I inhabit a body the gender of which, assigned to me at birth, I totally accept and practice; it is that cisgender is such an unattractive, ugly, uneuphonious word, reminding me of bullies in my childhood who called people sissies. I refuse to be called cisgender because I so dislike the sound of such an atrocious noun. Besides, it seems to me that if others can demand concessions to their gender identity, even going so far as to use the multiple pronoun “they” in place of the singular “he” or “she” — well, if others can demand such concessions to their preferences, then I have the right, also, to insist that I be called by my preferred descriptor. I am, therefore, either “birthgender”, or simply and straightforwardly female, just woman, just “she”, and not cisgender, thank you very much. You be whatever you want to be, and I will, also.

But then, not just the English language, but all languages, it seems, are having a hard time coping with and adjusting to the changes in social consciousness and recognition of gender fluidity. No doubt this mess will have shaken down in a generation or so, by which time I shall not be here to worry about it, in any case (she says with obvious relief).

Returning to the question of preferred verb forms, though, I have often found it hilarious when either British or American authors try their hand a writing a book or story set in one another’s countries. While familiar with the most egregious differences (i.e., lift vs. elevator; flat vs. apartment; chips vs. fries), each group invariably misses out on the more minor deviations, despite their best efforts. As I pointed out in a review of one novel, an American does not go on holiday, but on a vacation; nor do we go to hospital, but to the hospital. We eat cartons, not pots, of yogurt, not yoghurt, and are much more likely to cover our beds with a comforter than a duvet—although we might enclose that comforter in a duvet cover! We tend to eat candy, not sweets; desserts, not pudding, and we sprinkle that dessert with powdered or confectioner’s sugar, not icing sugar. It is these tiny differences that trip up an out-of-country writer every time, and make me wonder why they didn’t just track down an American colleague to scan their work and correct the more noticeable oddities. Nor does the shadow fall only on one side! While reading a novel set in Australia but written by an American writer, I noticed a few peculiarities myself, later collapsing in mirth at the snarky corrections helpfully provided by Australian reviewers of the book.

It’s no wonder that a non-native speaker of any language, no matter how fluent, is rarely able to converse in their new tongue with a comprehensive grasp of the nuances and subtleties understood by those who have spoken the language since birth–not when even those who learned the words in childhood sometimes find the whole darned process convoluted and ridiculous!

You can find the previous blog on the peculiarities of the English language, “Mispronounced, Revisited”, by scrolling below to the Archives. It was published October 19, 2018.

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