Culture on My Mind – The Chaos

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.

 

The Chaos
Gerard Nolst Trenité

Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
⁠I will teach you in my verse
⁠Sounds like corpsecorpshorse and worse.
It will keep you, Susybusy,
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 heartbeard and heard,
Dies and dietlord and word,
Sword and swardretain and Britain,
(Mind the latter, how it’s written!)
Made has not the sound of bade,
⁠Say—said, pay—paidlaid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
⁠But be careful how you speak,
⁠Say breaksteak, but bleak and streak,
Previouspreciousfuchsiavia;
Pipesniperecipe and choir,
Clovenovenhow and low;
Scriptreceiptshoepoemtoe,
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughterlaughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoidmeaslestopsailsaisles;
Exilessimilesreviles;
Whollyhollysignalsigning;
Thamesexaminingcombining;
Scholarvicar and cigar,
Solarmicawar and far.
From “desire”: desirableadmirable from “admire”;
Lumberplumberbier but brier;
Chathambroughamrenown but known,
Knowledgedone, but gone and tone,
OneanemoneBalmoral;
Kitchenlichenlaundrylaurel;
GertrudeGermanwind and mind;
SceneMelpomenemankind;
Tortoiseturquoisechamois-leather,
ReadingReadingheathenheather.
⁠This phonetic labyrinth
⁠Gives mossgrossbrookbroochninthplinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquetwalletmalletchalet;
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”.
Viscousviscountload and broad;
Toward, to forward, to reward,
And your pronunciation’s O.K.
When you say correctly croquet;
Roundedwoundedgrieve and sieve;
Friend and fiendalive and live;
Libertylibraryheave and heaven;
Rachelachemoustacheeleven.
⁠We say hallowed, but allowed;
Peopleleopardtowed, but vowed
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between moverploverDover,
Leechesbreecheswiseprecise;
Chalice but police and lice.
Camelconstableunstable;
Principledisciplelabel;
Petalpenal and canal;
Waitsurmiseplaitpromisepal.
Suitsuiteruncircuitconduit
Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
⁠But it is not hard to tell,
⁠Why it’s pallmall, but Pall Mall.
Musclemusculargaoliron;
Timberclimberbullionlion,
Worm and stormchaisechaoschair;
Senatorspectatormayor.
Ivyprivyfamousclamour
And enamour rime with “hammer.”
Pussyhussy and possess.
Desert, but dessertaddress.
Golfwolfcountenancelieutenants
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
Riverrivaltombbombcomb;
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;
Fontfrontwontwantgrandandgrant,
Shoesgoesdoes. Now first say: finger,
And then: singergingerlinger.
Realzealmauvegauze and gauge;
Marriagefoliagemirageage.
Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dostlostpost and dothclothloth;
JobJobblossombosomoath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
SeatsweatchastecasteLeigheightheight;
Putnutgranite, but unite.
Reefer does not rime with “deafer,”
Feoffer does, and zephyrheifer.
DullbullGeoffreyGeorgeatelate;
Hintpintsenate, but sedate;
ScenicArabicpacific;
Scienceconsciencescientific;
Tour, but our, and succourfour;
Gasalas and Arkansas!
Seaideaguineaarea,
PsalmMaria, but malaria;
Youthsouthsoutherncleanse and clean;
Doctrineturpentinemarine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
Sally with allyyeaye,
EyeIayayewheykeyquay!
Say aver, but everfever,
Neitherleisureskeinreceiver.
⁠Never guess—it is not safe;
⁠We say calvesvalveshalf, but Ralf!
Herongranarycanary;
Crevice, and device, and eyrie;
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegmphlegmaticassglassbass;
Large, but targetgingiveverging;
Oughtoutjoust 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;
HyphenroughennephewStephen;
Monkeydonkeyclerk and jerk;
Aspgraspwasp; 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 rowlockgunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewifeverdict and indict!
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying latherbatherfather?
⁠Finally: which rimes with “enough,”
Thoughthroughploughcoughhough, 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 “Shoesgoesdoes. 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.

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