Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

Noah Webster was 70 when he copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language in 1828. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fetish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly quickly. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s true gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) nor Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!

Sunday Nibble #35: A life online

The world may be going to hell in a very big handbasket, and whether we’re all going to die of the plague, roast to death as temperatures rise (either drowning in the rising seas or choking on the endless smoke or both), or we’ll perish in a WW III most likely started by a collapsing and fully fascist United States of America.

Or we could luck out and turn things around. But one thing I have to marvel at is what an amazing era of technology we live in. It’s only the beginning, but we’ve gotten pretty far, pretty fast.

Now, I happen to be of that part of Gen X that has never not been online at any point in their adult lives. In fact, I used a networked computer before I got my driver’s license, way back at the tender age of 15.

But… I was an adult before the founding of either Google (1998) or Wikipedia (2001), and although I wrote all of my scripts and such on computers, I still had to rely on analog research methods until the beginning of this century — mostly libraries and books.

For one black comedy set during the Civil War, my research was pretty much limited to the big book of Ken Burns The Civil War documentary, with occasional library trips and heavy use of my handy Columbia Desk Encyclopedia.

Damn, at one time, I had a huge personal reference library full of dictionaries, specific encyclopedias, writers’ reference books on various subjects that pertained to a particular genre — I think I had Crime and Science Fiction — as well as buttload of foreign language grammars and translating to English dictionaries, including ones like Old English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese.

Side note: I’ve made a sincere effort in my life time to learn ten languages besides English. I managed fluency in one (Spanish) and, through that, the ability to kind of read and understand one that I studied but could never hear the pronunciation of and another that I never studied (French and Portuguese, respectively), know more than I should but nowhere near enough of the language of the country my last name comes from (German), two for specific purposes of script writing (Italian and Norwegian), two just to try out non-Latin alphabets (Japanese and Russian), one because there seem to be a lot of tall, hot men from there (Dutch), one because the opportunity came up through a theatre company I was in (ASL, until our teacher moved), and one because it’s spoken in the country from whence came half of my genetic heritage (Irish Gaelic).

Funny story, though. Spanish and German are the only two languages that I studied in school. The rest but three were on my own, and most of those were before the internet days. At best, I managed to find recorded lessons to listen to in the car, and for a while I got pretty fluent at basic Russian, but that was about it. As for the other two, once I left school, I kind of lost my abilities in either for a long time.

I remember one particularly informative moment when I traveled to Mexico with an ex, who was himself half Mexican on his father’s side, and realized once we got down there that I couldn’t understand shit, and I couldn’t say shit beyond very simple phrases — that despite studying Spanish in school for five years.

So… I used to have to try to learn languages through books or, if I were lucky, from a human teacher, but good luck with any kind of immersion in it. Likewise, in writing any kind of reality-based fiction, the research was tedious and time-consuming.

And then came the internet. Sure, in the early days (and I was there on the ground floor) you really couldn’t look up shit. I did happen to work for one of the first companies to jump into it with both feet.

This happened to be The Community Yellow Pages, a publication for the Lesbian and Gay community started in 1969 by Jeanne Córdova, who is a piece of lesbian history herself, and whom I was fortunate enough to have known.

She started the guide as a very thin phonebook with both Yellow (commercial) and White (residential) pages, and it was a way to advertises businesses that were either gay-friendly, or owned by gay people and, probably, the white pages part was a de facto but not really acknowledged dating section. (It was eventually discontinued.)

Anyway… 1994 rolls around, the internet is just getting going and, because one of Jeanne’s (many) siblings lives near Silicon Valley and is very tapped into what’s going on, that sibling (a younger sister) convinces her that online is the way to go.

I only worked for the CYP a couple of years, but it was an interestingly schizo time, because we were simultaneously selling people on this paper edition that would come out once a year, along with this electronic thing that could be searched from anywhere and which could be updated if needed.

And… the paper version was by far the best-seller. Bonus points: at that time, we could have done the layout digitally, but didn’t, and so for the few months leading up to publication, we had an actual layout artist come in and physically paste-up the boards that would be photocopied to create the masters for the final run.

Eventually, though, the sleeping giant of the internet’s potential awakened in quick order, first with Google indexing everything, and then Wikipedia accumulating knowledge.

And say what you want about the latter, but over time the ol’ Wiki has really become a stellar example of the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Plus which, it should never be a primary source, but just a guide to finding the same, which are now also all over the internet.

So researching and writing became a lot easier, but so did learning languages, especially after the launch of Duolingo in 2012, as well as the realization that it’s possible to set devices like phones and computers into other languages — and that cars have radios, which make possible both language-learning podcasts over modern tech or, depending on language, radio stations in the target language via old tech.

So those of us with computers, tablets, phones, or other devices, have access to the biggest research library ever assembled. It definitely dwarfs the fabled Library of Alexandria, and most likely has a lot more material than the Library of Congress — which would fit on ten single terabyte hard drives, by the way.

And it’s not just books and stuff like that. It’s full of music, movies, photos, and everything else that humans have left in their wake, all of it there to access either for free or for a nominal fee.

So if we make it through this Anno Horribilis of 2020, then maybe we’ll make it further and continue to see technology make leaps and bounds that our grandparents could never have even imagined.

Words both common and not

Knowing other languages can teach us a lot about our own. Not only can common sources for words between our native and target languages help us learn vocabulary, but sometimes an unknown word in our target language can teach us a word we didn’t know in our native language. Here are examples of both.

One of the first sounds that a baby makes, regardless of culture or language exposure, is some sort of “Mmm,” usually associated with an “ah.” If you think about the human mouth for a second, this makes total sense. Close your mouth and try to exhale, and what sound do you make? Now open your lips mid-exhale, and what are the combined sounds?


Once a baby realizes they can control the sounds they’re making, it’s a simple step to “mama,” and this sound refers to all things mother in so many different cultures and languages that it’s ridiculous. In Chinese and Japanese both, the word is pronounced mama, and you find very similar things in Zulu (umama), Thai (maaa), Punjabi (mami), and Irish Gaelic (mam). Even in Basque, which is said to be not related to any other known language, the word is ama.

Although less universal, in a lot of Western languages, the M sounds still holds when you get formal: mother, madre, Mutter, mère, mama, matka. And extending the concept via Latin into Romance languages, you find the official word for breasts coming from the same place: mammaries — which makes total sense if you keep in mind that one of a mother’s major functions after giving birth is to feed her child. And that’s true of any animal that is classified as… a mammal.

In case you were wondering where that term came from, ta-da!

I was reminded of this linguistic evolution when I ran across a story in La Opinión with the headline “Policía amamanta a bebé cuya familia sufrió un accidente.” The word that stuck out because I didn’t know it was amamanta, but in the context of the rest, I took a guess and then looked it up to find out that I’d been right. The infinitive form of the verb is amamantar, but if you get rid of the prefix, “a,” and the verb ending, “tar,” you’re left with maman. The prefix “a” is the Spanish word for “to,” but it is also often used when the direct object of a verb is a person, in which case it’s referred to as the “personal ‘a.’” (It even appears in the headline, right before the word bebé.) I won’t get into that here, except to say that affixing an “a” to a verb often means that the verb indicates that the subject is doing something for someone else.

If you haven’t guessed the meaning already, the rest of the sentence is talking about a police officer, and a baby whose family was in an accident. Think of the verb as “mothering-to,” and you can see how it means to breastfeed. The mammaries are right there in the word, so to speak. It just takes a little breaking down to get to them.

And then there are those cases where not knowing a word in our target language at all leads us to look it up only to find out that we don’t know the word in our native language, either. In my case, it was the Spanish word álgido, which I ran across recently. I couldn’t figure it out in context no matter how hard I tried, so resorted to looking it up, only to learn that the English word was… algid.

Okay, that was a new one to me, too. The form of the word in both languages told me that it was probably an adjective — many Spanish adjectives end in –ido/-ida or –ado/-ada because the past participle of the verb is often used that way, just as it is in English: he’s baked, you’re stoked, all the leaves are raked, and so on. Also, a lot of English adjectives end in –id, e.g. rigid.

Otherwise, guessing the meaning really didn’t help. Sure, a lot of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic start with “al,” like alfombra (carpet), or algodon (cotton). Even English got the word algebra from Arabic, but all that the “al” prefix means in Arabic is “the.” Compare this with the Spanish masculine the, “el,” so el algodon is technically redundant. And if you take the al off of álgido, all you’re left with is gido, which means nothing because the only logical verbs it could be derived from would be ger or gir, which do not exist.

And so looking up the translation for álgido in English led me to algid and taught me nothing, so I finally had to resort to an English dictionary, where I looked up the word, doubting that I wound find anything — except that I did. The words in both languages mean frozen or cold, and they come from the Latin word algidus, which means exactly the same thing. It came into English in the very early 17th century as a medical term, and since Latin was still all up the butts of academics and religious at the time, this is probably how it came into Spanish, too. The only difference was in how both languages liked to make their adjectives, so Spain went the –o/–a ending route, while English cut it short.

And there’s another English word that looks a lot like this one and means the same thing: Frigid. Ironically, this word also came into English from Latin, but about a generation before algid. Why one persisted in every day speech and the other didn’t is a mystery I’m not going to try to solve.

And yes, the word for frigid exists in Spanish, too — but I’ll bet you a quarter you can figure out what it is without me even telling you.

Foreign accents

As a language, English is relatively accent-free, although that wasn’t always the case. Until fairly recently, we still used diaresis in words like cöordinate and naïve, although that has fallen out of fashion and my spellchecker is insisting that the first word is wrong. The only English word I can think of off the top of my head to use any sort of marking is façade — but we borrowed that one as-is from French.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you may occasionally see advisory accent marks in the text for very good reason: Pronunciation has changed since the Bard invented modern English. In his time, the last syllable of past participles was pronounced, so that the word “pronounced” would have actually been three-syllables — “pronoun-sed.” Nowadays, that –ed ending generally comes across as sounding like a single “d” or “t” is stuck on the end of the word. In Shapespeare’s day, “looked” would sound like “luke-id.” Now, it sounds like “lookt.”

So if you’re reading Shakespeare and see a word rendered like lovéd, it means to pronounce that last syllable as its own. Conversely, if the text isn’t marked like that but you occasionally see “lov’d,” then it means the syllable is pronounced by default and elided when marked with an apostrophe.

The lack of accents in English can be problematic because where we place emphasis in words almost seems arbitrary and, in fact, someone who otherwise sounds like they’re from the U.S. can give themselves away as Canadian by putting the emphásis in a place where we don’t normally hear it, and vice versa. A classic U.S. vs. UK example is the word “laboratory,” where the U.S. stresses the first syllable and the UK stresses the second, although at least the accents overall are a bigger giveaway of someone’s origin.

This is one of those areas where languages that use accents have a big advantage, especially if they have simple and consistent rules for where emphasis belongs. For example, in Spanish there’s what English speakers call the NOSE rule. If a word ends in N, S, or any vowel, than the natural emphasis is on the next-to-last syllable. If it ends in any other consonant, then the emphasis is on the last syllable. The accent marks are there to indicate deviations.

For example, the word for English is inglés. Without that accent, the stress would be on the first syllable because it’s the penultimate one and the word ends in S. Likewise, corazón, “heart,” has that accent there because otherwise the emphasis would be on the A. Unlike French, you can only have one accent mark per Spanish word, although you can have other markings, such as the tilde and diaresis along with accents. The Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s last name is a perfect example of this.

As for diaresis, it’s rare in Spanish but it does happen, and one of my favorite examples is the word for penguin, pingüino. Without that mark over the U, the word would be pronounced “pin-GHEE-no,” with the second syllable the same as the gui in guitar. With it, it’s pronounced “pin-goo-EE-no.” It’s a subtle distinction, but important. This accent only appears over the letter U in Spanish.

Finally, there’s the tilde, that little squiggle above the letter N — and only above the N. In fact, Ñ and ñ are still considered separate letters from N and n in Spanish. This is the last holdout after revisions made in the 90s. Before that, Ch, Ll, and Rr were also considered letters on their own, but have since been removed, reducing the alphabet from 30 to 27 letters. (If you happen to have a Spanish dictionary or grammar that does include all 30 letters in the alphabet, you might want to toss it and get something more up-to-date.)

As for other languages, German is famous for its umlauts, which is the same thing visually as diaresis, and you can find them over the letters A, O, and U. The effect is basically like trying to pronounce the base vowel while shaping your lips into the form they’d make saying the letter E. Oddly enough, the end effect is more like you’re blending the vowel into the letter R. A famous example is the beer brand Löwenbräu, which sounds more like “Lervenbrye” because of those marks.

The other famous German letter, though not an accent, is the Eszett, or ß which, despite its appearance, is not pronounced as the letter B. Rather, it represents a double S sound, and it’s often replaced with those letters when German words are rendered in English documents, so that a word like “heiße,” which means hot, becomes “heisse,” which is technically wrong. Then again, so is writing “senor” instead of “señor,” but since most English keyboards don’t accommodate these characters easily, it’s hard to avoid.

Believe it or not, the Eszett sort of has a relative in English in the form of a lost letter known as the Long S. If you’ve ever looked at handwritten documents from the 18th Century and earlier, then you’ve probably seen it. It is eʃsentially a replacement for the initial lowercase S in a pair or a solo S in the middle of a word, but can easily be mistaken for a lowercase F. Other languages have similar variants in letters. For example, Arabic has different versions of letters depending on whether they’re at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, and Greek specifically has two different versions of its S, Sigma, one of which is only used at the end of a word. The Long S was basically killed off in the 1790s as foundries started to design new typefaces that favored what was originally called the Round S.

And this brings us around to the curious concept of Upper and Lower Case letters, in case (pun intended) you’ve ever wondered where those terms came from. Once upon a time, in the dark ages before digital layout, before photosetting, and before linotype, anything printed on a press was laid out by hand, and it was done with letters cast in lead. Generally, it was one letter per one piece of type, called a sort, although ligatures were common. These were combinations of letters frequently used together cast as one piece — ff, fi, fl, ffi, and ij were very common ligatures in English.

All of that type had to go somewhere to make it easy to pick and place quickly, so type cases were invented. These were literal wooden boxes with compartments in which the letters were sorted in a specific, though non-alphabetic order, although those orders varied from place to place. On top of that sorting, capital letters were kept in a separate case from miniscule letters, and the former was generally stored above the latter.

And there you go. The capital, or majuscule, type was kept in the upper case, and the miniscule letters were kept in the lower, and although physical typesetting like this has long since gone by the wayside, the terminology — like the legacy accent marks in English — linger on as an echo of history.

You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence

Don’t think, just do

As I’ve mentioned here before, improv was one of those things on my bucket list precisely because doing it scared the crap out of me even though I loved the art form as an audience member. Two years ago, I found out that a friend of mine was involved with a local improv company, ComedySportz, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1984. The L.A. franchise opened in 1987, making it now the longest-running comedy show in the city.

So I saw my first show two years ago, in October 2016, then found out that CSz had improv classes, figured “What the heck,” and dove in from there. After a year of classes, I joined the Monday night Rec League, and just began my fourth season, each season being three months long. So from first class to now, it’s been close to two years.

But… it really wasn’t until last week’s show that I had a major breakthrough and realized how I’d managed to make a leap in my abilities.

It was simply this. I came into improv as more of a writer than an actor, so I tended to play in my head. I would write the jokes ahead of time and then jump into a scene. The end result? It was all kind of forced and awkward, and it also cut my mind off from what my body was doing.

And then, one night, I turned that brain part off and it was a revelation. Instead of trying to plan the jokes out ahead of time, I made an effort to not think of anything beforehand and just jump into it and… damn. That made it feel like a quantum leap ahead.

Right off the bat, it led me to win a team head-to-head game that, normally, I would lose immediately. If you’re into improv, it was “What You Got?” This is basically a dance/rap battle in which we’re given a subject, and then the leader starts a chant in rhythm and movement that fits it, then the team follows. So, for example, if the suggestion is “Dairy Farm,” the first team leader might start with “Milking a cow, milking a cow, milking a cow, what you got?” combined with milking a cow gestures. After the first “milking a cow,” the rest of the team picks up the chant and the leader’s movements. If the team doesn’t get it or the leader can’t come up with anything, then that team loses and they ro-ro-rotate, bringing another player up.

Previously, in this kind of game, I’d try to be planning two steps ahead, with ideas in my head while the other team played. And they’d do their thing and I’d jump out and do mine and find out that I’d either really failed to plan it or had failed to listen to the other team and would just repeat their rhyme. Either way… ro-ro-rotate.

But once I stopped planning ahead, something interesting happened. I could just jump out there and do the thing automatically. It was like my body knew what to do and was just dragging my brain along. And so, in a game I’d normally lost, I was the last player standing and won, and it was not an easy suggestion. The Ref asked for a color and an audience member said “chartreuse,” and… come on. There’s not a lot that goes with that, but after my second suggestion of “Gotta repaint now,” the other team whiffed it really hard.

Funny thing is, this is how I generally write as well. Believe it or not, I usually start with the basic suggestion — i.e. the topic — with only the vaguest of paths in mind, but then I spark it up, let loose and… voila. The rest is stream of consciousness.

And yes, I totally get that writing this way would have made half of my English teachers in school apoplectic and the other half ecstatic. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” I didn’t appreciate Joyce when I first met him via a fanatic in my junior year of high school. Years later, I read Dubliners and The Dead, then finally Finnegan’s Wake and… damn. He really did for Postmodern English what Shakespeare did for Modern English. He created a language and a way of thinking that really went beyond thinking.

And by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the original subject. I’ve learned that the best way to think in improv is to stop thinking. After all, kids don’t think, they just act and react. It can be annoying to adults but, on the other hand, kids can be pretty damn creative and also don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

That is the true secret of improv and creativity. Don’t think, just do, and enjoy, and, most of all, don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about you because… big secret? Everyone else is too worried about what you think of them to give a damn about what they think of you.

Better seen than heard?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Gaelic, then all those silent letters may have stopped you. But there’s apparently a method to that madness. Not so much in English, where there’s only one letter that is never silent.

First, a quick quiz to be answered later. Without cheating in Google translator or something, how would you pronounce this Gaelic surname? Mudhean. Hint: The answer is not “mud hen.”

Now, I’d mentioned previously that I’m glad I learned English first because it’s the hardest to pronounce. However, I’ve tried several times to learn my mother’s family’s mother tongue, which is Irish Gaelic, and have failed completely for exactly that reason: It is impossible to pronounce!

Seriously, look at these Americans trying to pronounce common Irish first names — and trust me, I once watched my own father being totally clueless on how to pronounce the very common name “Sean.”

Now look at this liar of an Irishman (because all of us are liars!) claiming that it’s so easy! Right. Maybe if you get rid of all those damn extra H’s and silent letters and dipthongs that bear no resemblance to the vowels in them!

But… this brings me to the point of this article. As difficult as Gaelic pronunciation can seem to English speakers, our language is still weirder because almost every letter in it can be silent. In fact, Miriam-Webster only found one and a half exceptions in their very fascinating article. The first is kind of a cheat because it comes from a direct borrowing from Spanish, and it shouldn’t exactly be unpronounced. I’ll give it to you here as a freebie: it’s the “J” in marijuana. And it isn’t silent, it’s a “y” sound, but hey, I don’t expect gabachos to know that.

The other letter might surprise you, though, and I’ll give you a free hint: It’s not a vowel, so you’ve only got 21 guesses. Well, make that 20, since we’ve already eliminated J. So… which letter in the English language has no examples (to date) of words in which it is silent? To find out, you’ll have to read the Miriam-Webster article.

And, to answer the original question, the name “Mudhean” is pronounced like “Moon,” but with a very, very liquid “u” sound in the middle. Imagine it like drawing that “oo” out a couple of syllables.