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Whaddya Mean You Don’t Understand?
I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone whose first language is not English and arrives in America with all their hopes and dreams but little or no (American) English language skills. Our conversational styles, which vary from region to region, idioms (“knock on wood,” “under the weather,” “bite the bullet”), buzzwords/buzz-phrases (“new normal,” “kicks” for shoes), clichés, ambiguous remarks and just the way we pronounce words (“drawer” vs. a Bostonian “draw”) must be beyond confusing for foreigners wanting to understand and communicate.
English, brought to this country by colonials (Anglo-Saxons), is considered a Latin-based language also made up of words with roots in many other languages (Greek, French, Arabic, African, etc.). According to ilovelanguages.com and Wikipedia, the roots of English actually began with Germans, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (Germanic tribe that settled in England after the Romans left). The transition to early modern English began around 1480. Then there was The Great Vowel Shift shortly after that and then a large-scale migration from England to North America; late modern English came in around 1800. This lead to a new strain of English that we know and use today here in the U.S.
Wait, How Do You Pronounce/Spell That?
The point I’m making is there’s such a long history of words changing in spelling and pronunciation it’s got to be hard for new arrivals to learn our language. One example of this is the suffix -ough, used in a variety of words with different pronunciations, different meanings and same spelling. Imagine being a new immigrant; try to pronounce, spell, and understand the following words and their contextual use.
There are 9 distinct pronunciations of -ough; see if you can differentiate:
1. -ow (like ‘cow’), oh (long Ō), oo (as in ‘moose’): bough (like ‘cow’), borough (like ‘burrow’ but a different word), dough (the kind you knead or use to buy stuff), though (not ‘thou’ in the Bible), through (like ‘threw’), although, slough (‘slew’ – Scottish origin), thorough, plough (as in ‘plow’)
2. -uff (short U), uh (short U), upp (short U in ‘up’): enough, rough, tough, hiccough (‘upp’ sound)
3. -aw (as in ‘awe’), au (as in ‘hat’), ah-ff (as in ‘off’): bought, cough, draught (spelled ‘draft’ in U.S.), drought (we say ‘drowt’), ought, thought, wrought, slough (this one is ah-ff, as in ‘skin sloughs off daily’), trough, fought
4. This one’s just for fun: lough (pronounced läk) – a lake, bay or inlet sea (Ireland); loch in Scotland
Phew. Confused yet? You find slough in #1 and #3 with different pronunciations and meanings. Have fun with that one!
More of Me Being Silly (and still making the point)
Online I found a sentence (yes, ONE sentence) that uses all NINE (there are actually TEN) pronunciations:
“The wind was rough along the lough (#4) as the ploughman fought through the snow, and though he hiccoughed and coughed, his work was thorough.”
It’s kind of silly but this is one I came up with:
“As I took my bow (I didn’t tie a bow with a long Ō) in the outdoor theater, down came the tree’s bough upon my head. And even though it was rough I was tough and fought to stay alert. “Enough!” I yelled as I thought I ought to see a doctor about my wound; he can give it a thorough cleaning and slough off the dead skin around the edges. I wrought my hands in anguished thought about whether I could go through with it and if I had enough dough to pay the man. I came to my senses quickly and thought I might first have a draught to make me brave.”
Then I came up with this:
twiddle twaddle diddle dawdle (catch that?) fiddle faddle… yikes…it never ends…welcome to English, people…
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