Why Is English So Hard to Learn?: The Ingenious Poem, “The Chaos,” Documents 800 Irregularities in English Spelling and Pronunciation

In 1920, Dutch writer and trav­el­er Ger­ard Nolst Tren­ité, also known as Chari­var­ius, pub­lished a text­book called Drop Your For­eign Accent: engelsche uit­spraakoe­fenin­gen. In the appen­dix, he includ­ed a poem titled “The Chaos,” a vir­tu­oso, tongue-twist­ing demon­stra­tion of some­where around 800 irreg­u­lar­i­ties in Eng­lish spelling and pro­nun­ci­a­tion. No one now remem­bers the text­book, and the poem might have dis­ap­peared too were it not for efforts of the Sim­pli­fied Spelling Soci­ety, which tracked frag­ments of it through “France, Cana­da, Den­mark, Ger­many, the Nether­lands, Por­tu­gal, Spain, Swe­den and Turkey.”

The poem’s his­to­ry, as told in the Jour­nal of the Sim­pli­fied Spelling Soci­ety (JSSS) in 1994, shows how it trav­eled around Europe, in pieces, con­found­ing and bedev­il­ing aspir­ing Eng­lish speak­ers. Full of homonyms, loan words, and words which—at one time—actually sound­ed the way they’re spelled, the poem’s fifty-eight stan­zas may be the most clever and com­pre­hen­sive “con­cor­dance of caco­graph­ic chaos,” as the JSSS puts it. Admired by lin­guists and his­to­ri­ans of Eng­lish, it has, since its 1994 repub­li­ca­tion, become some­thing of a cult hit for enthu­si­asts of lan­guage every­where.

You can read it here, hear it read above by YouTube’s Lindy­beige, and see a tran­scrip­tion into IPA, the inter­na­tion­al pho­net­ic alpha­bet. Though it’s pop­u­lar­ly rep­re­sent­ed as a kind of sort­ing mech­a­nism for “the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Elite,” that’s hard­ly accu­rate. Eng­lish once sound­ed like this and this, then like this, and now sounds com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent accord­ing to hun­dreds of region­al dialects and accents around the world. The soci­ety ges­tures toward this in their intro­duc­tion, writ­ing, “the selec­tion of exam­ples now appears some­what dat­ed, as do a few of their pro­nun­ci­a­tions. Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today’s read­ers.”

“How many will know what a ‘stud­ding-sail’ is, or that its nau­ti­cal pro­nun­ci­a­tion is ‘stun­sail’?,” asks the JSSS. It seems rea­son­able to won­der how many peo­ple ever did. In any case, Eng­lish, Lindy­beige writes, “is a rapid­ly-chang­ing lan­guage,” and one that has not made much pho­net­ic sense for sev­er­al cen­turies. This is exact­ly what has made it such a bear to learn to spell and pronounce—for both Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers and native speak­ers. Try your hand at read­ing every word in “The Chaos,” prefer­ably in front of an audi­ence, and see how you do.

via Men­tal Floss/The Poke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Eng­lish Would Sound Like If It Was Pro­nounced Pho­net­i­cal­ly

Hear Beowulf Read In the Orig­i­nal Old Eng­lish: How Many Words Do You Rec­og­nize?

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Terry Walsh says:

    Brings to mind G.B. Shaw’s ani­mad­ver­sions on the ‘chaos’ of Eng­lish pro­nun­ci­a­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly his won­der­ful remark that the word ‘fish’, accord­ing to the rules of Eng­lish spelling, could just as eas­i­ly be writ­ten ‘ghoti’.

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