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.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

§   Unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step backwards into my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of a little girl so like myself.  §

When I was in the fifth grade, my all-time favorite teacher, Miss Shireman, gave me a book to read titled Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.   That book, written by Rumer Godden, became a lifeline for me.

The story describes the adventures of the eight-year-old Nona, who has been sent home from India to live with her British relatives. Lost in a unfamiliar culture, surrounded by strangers, cut off from everything she has ever known, Nona retreats into herself, terrified and abandoned, until she is given the gift of two Japanese dolls (the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title).

I can say without intentional punning that the book spoke volumes to me.

I still recall Miss Shireman asking me if I was enjoying the book, and my enthusiastic reply. She smiled as she remarked that she’d been sure I would like it. Looking back through the mists of time, now, I wonder—how did she know? How did she know that I, enduring my first year in a new school and feeling so frightened and lonely that I could have died, needed that story? But Miss Shireman always seemed to understand what her young students were thinking and feeling, and did whatever she could to mitigate their distress.

A large part of the book concerns the Japanese doll house which the main character’s cousin builds for her dolls. I remember trying unsuccessfully to convince my older brother to build such a dollhouse for me. I also remember him throwing very cold water on the idea! But not long ago, reminiscing about my own daughter’s childhood dollhouse, now stored in the attic of my father’s home, I unexpectedly recalled the Japanese dollhouse of the story, and the book itself, and how much it meant to the child I’d once been.

Misses Happiness and FlowerIntrigued, I searched for the book, locating a copy on a used book site. The price was not exorbitant, and I could not resist; I immediately slapped down my credit card to order it. The precious book appeared in my mailbox during the weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, and I reverently carried it into the house like the treasure it was.

Already, during the weary hours and days of lockdown, I’d learned that I was resistant to reading anything new. Despite the fact that reading is my passion, I faced hourly headlines summarizing chaos, death and panic.  I couldn’t bear to begin a novel. A new book might kill off a character I liked, or direct a series down a route that I hadn’t wanted it to go. It might be badly written, or irritating or upsetting.

Instead, I took comfort in rereading both old and recent favorites: Tracey Quinn’s hilarious Breezy Spoon Diner series and Clara Benson’s marvelous Angela Marchmont mysteries.  The timeless classics of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting. The Moonspinners.  I delved into the familiar, fantastic and funny world of Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales dragon cozies. I travelled once more to Aunt Bessie’s home on the Isle of Mann, and the secretive world of McIntyre’s Gulch in the Canadian north.

And now, unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step even further back into my comfort zone, communing with my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of the little girl I had so resembled. There she was, just as I remembered her: a young girl trying to adapt to a totally unfamiliar setting, friendless and frightened—exactly the situation in which I had lived at that age.

Rereading the book, I was delighted to find it just as enchanting a story as I recalled.  I marveled at the fact that at age 10, I’d been able to work my way without help through unfamiliar British terms and spellings, and to visualize a town so different from those that I, a suburban kid, had always known. How astounding and wonderful to have a bookstore on the same street as one’s home! And my adult-self thanked heaven that the book, written in 1960, predated the British changeover to the metric system, for then I might have been truly lost.

But what I really gained from re-reading this childhood favorite was a surprising realization of my own unquenchable spirit. At age 10, living in a new house that was not yet a home, lost and frightened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, too shy to make friends easily and trapped in a troubled, chaotic family situation, I, like the little girl of the story, somehow still found ways to adapt: to make friends, to be brave.

Half a century later, navigating the unfamiliar waterways of lockdown and pandemic, trapped in a home that’s begun to feel more like a prison than familiar territory, and lonelier than I have ever been throughout a very solitary life, I find it once more necessary to call upon that unquenchable spirit. She is in there still, somewhere, that inner child; that flame of life force reignited by a childhood memory and a beloved story. She is still finding ways to adapt; to be a friend to herself, and, most of all, to be brave.