Culture on My Mind
March 13, 2020
This week’s “can’t let it go” is a poem that reinforces a favorite quote of mine from James D. Nicoll, a Canadian freelance game and fiction reviewer:
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
The poem in question is called The Chaos, and was composed by Dutch writer, traveler, and teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité. The poem demonstrates the irregularity of English spelling and pronunciation. The first version, published under Trenité’s pseudonym Charivarius, was a 174 line appendix to his 1920 textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. A version billed as “the most complete and authoritative version ever likely to emerge” was published in 1993 by the Spelling Society and has 274 lines.
I would normally put quotations around this as I did with the Nicoll quote above, but the formatting is important. In particular, words with clashing spellings and pronunciations were printed in italics for ease of reading and analysis.
Gerard Nolst Trenité
Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain,
(Mind the latter, how it’s written!)
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say—said, pay—paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak,
Previous, precious; fuchsia, via;
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven; how and low;
Script, receipt; shoe, poem, toe,
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid; measles, topsails, aisles;
Exiles, similes, reviles;
Wholly, holly; signal, signing;
Thames; examining, combining;
Scholar, vicar and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From “desire”: desirable—admirable from “admire”;
Lumber, plumber; bier but brier;
Chatham, brougham; renown but known,
Knowledge; done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone; Balmoral;
Kitchen, lichen; laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German; wind and mind;
Scene, Melpomene, mankind;
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rime with “darky”.
Viscous, viscount; load and broad;
Toward, to forward, to reward,
And your pronunciation’s O.K.
When you say correctly croquet;
Rounded, wounded; grieve and sieve;
Friend and fiend; alive and live;
Liberty, library; heave and heaven;
Rachel, ache, moustache; eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed;
People, leopard; towed, but vowed
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches; wise, precise;
Chalice but police and lice.
Camel; constable, unstable;
Principle, disciple; label;
Petal, penal and canal;
Wait, surmise, plait, promise; pal.
Suit, suite, run, circuit, conduit
Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular; gaol; iron;
Timber, climber; bullion, lion,
Worm and storm; chaise, chaos, chair;
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Ivy, privy; famous, clamour
And enamour rime with “hammer.”
Pussy, hussy and possess.
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf; countenance; lieutenants
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival; tomb, bomb, comb;
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rime with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt, but aunt;
Font, front, wont; want, grand, and, grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger,
And then: singer, ginger, linger.
Real, zeal; mauve, gauze and gauge;
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, but unite.
Reefer does not rime with “deafer,”
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull; Geoffrey, George; ate, late;
Hint, pint; senate, but sedate;
Scenic, Arabic, pacific;
Science, conscience, scientific;
Tour, but our, and succour, four;
Gas, alas and Arkansas!
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm; Maria, but malaria;
Youth, south, southern; cleanse and clean;
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
Sally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess—it is not safe;
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf!
Heron; granary, canary;
Crevice, and device, and eyrie;
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic; ass, glass, bass;
Large, but target, gin, give, verging;
Ought, out, joust and scour, but scourging;
Ear, but earn; and wear and tear
Do not rime with “here”, but “ere”.
Seven is right, but so is even;
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen;
Monkey, donkey; clerk and jerk;
Asp, grasp, wasp; and cork and work.
Pronunciation—think of psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spikey;
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing “groats” and saying groats?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,
Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict!
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rimes with “enough,”
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of “cup”…
My advice is—give it up!
During my research on this poem, several sources noted that the line “Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger,” has a rather interesting anomaly since the word does can be pronounced in two distinct ways:
The first, pronounced /dəz/, is the third person singular present form of do. In a sentence: “Watch what that ferret does.”
The second, pronounced /dōz/, is the plural form of doe, a female deer.
Based on reading of the poem, I’m pretty certain that Trenité intended the first form of does, particularly since he precedes it with goes. Either way, it demonstrates Trenité’s point.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.