English is a funny language. I know, because for 30 years, I taught this hilarity to hapless foreign students.
They had many questions, such as why do we pronounce the “c” in Pacific Ocean three different ways? I could go into lengthy explanations, but with teaching experience comes the insight that at least in early stages of learning, it’s best to not dole out all the gory details. Students will flee.
Moving on to spelling, I explicated that the rule for doubling the final consonant before adding “ing” (for example in omitting, but not visiting) has to do with stress. No, not the stress they were feeling at that moment in English class, but the accented or louder syllable in the word. Of course, this presumed they knew about consonants and syllables, and if not, I had to veer off in that direction, which I won’t do here because I know you know about them.
Let’s continue with morphology, the study of word formation. Students learn that adding the prefix “un” at the beginning of a word — happy/unhappy — negates the original meaning, so now they assume they can “un“ anything. Stupid, unstupid? Uh, no. Why not? Read on.
There are other negating prefixes besides “un” such as “in” (insane), “dis” (disqualify), “ir” (irregular). The more the merrier, yes? Nope, sorry because we cannot just throw a dart to pick any one.
Inappropriate yes. Unappropriate no. Irresponsible yes, disresponsible no. See why non-native speakers flounder in the English swamp?
As for “stupid”, stupid is stupid, and we cannot “un” it.
To make matters worse, there are redundant prefixes: unravel, forewarn, preplan, etc. Inquiring minds want to know why we need them in the first place since they add no new meaning. Good question.
In my early days of teaching, when asked about something to which I had no answer, I would say, “Let me do some research and get back to you.” But I soon learned that detailed, unwieldy explanations put students in a coma, so instead, I told them about my grandmother.
Apo did her best to answer my many juvenile questions, but when it was a doozy such as, “Why is the sky blue?”, she answered “Chicken Why Why.” She might have been playing with English, Chinese and Hawaiian but Chicken Why Why/Wai Wai meant that even if she knew why, the laborious explanation would drive us both pupule.
Students were happy to hear this story and relieved that there would be no test question on any of the illogical, unanswerable, discombobulated incomprehensible rules of this confounded and confounding language. (We’ll save participial adjectives for another day.)
Other aspects of the English morass include grammar, syntax and semantics for which there isn’t enough space to delve into. I’m sure you’re disappointed. And idioms? I won’t even go there.
If you’re wondering why I’m torturing you with English, it’s because of endless discussions around speakers of other languages who are trying to come to the United States. Some already here want to shut the door now that they are comfortably perched on shoulders of ancestors who sailed across oceans and grappled with, among other things, this diabolic language.
But from a teacher’s perspective, there is nothing more rewarding than picking up your medication and the pharmacist remembering that he was in your English class before embarking on the road to pharmacology.
Perhaps by now, you’re suspecting that English may not be a fount of logic, clarity and precision. So if newcomers are willing to wrestle with a clunky language and a crazy country, then I say welcome!
Rochelle delaCruz was born in Hilo, graduated from Hilo High School, then left to go to college. After teaching for 30 years in Seattle, Wash., she retired and returned home to Hawaii. She welcomes your comments at email@example.com. Her column appears every other Monday.