Grammar dalek and the pair tree

One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.

In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:

Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.

Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.

Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.

Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.

Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.

Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”

Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.

Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.

Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.

Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.

Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.

Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.

Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”

Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.

Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.

Maikeeng Spelcek unesisairee

English is a difficult language. Not only does it have a large vocabulary and many exceptions to most grammatical rules, but English spelling is wildly unpredictable. Consider, for example, the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” Add to the list “threw” and “taught.” Various efforts have been made to standardize English spelling, and few of them have succeeded. With some extra time to play around with ideas on a long weekend, here I present the Salvageable seven-year plan to reform spelling in the English language.

These suggested changes would be made, two a year, looking at consonants in January and vowels in July. Spreading the changes over seven years would make it easier for people to adjust, rather than throwing what appears to be a foreign language into their laps all at once. People and places would be allowed to keep their current spelling if they chose, just as the post office allowed Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to keep its final “h” while smaller communities with similar names were urged to drop the “h.” All other written communication would be gradually reformed until English spelling finally made sense.

The change made on the first January would be to drop silent consonants from the language. “Psychology” would become “sychology,” and the book of Psalms would henceforth be known as Salms. This initial change would go almost unnoticed, but it will be already a step in the rite direction, the direction of consistency and predictability.

In July a bigger step would be taken by standardizing the letter “a.” From now on, when someone wanted to rite the sound “a as in pan,” that sound would be represented by the letter “a.” When someone wanted to rite the sound “ai as in pain,” that sound would be represented by the letters “ai.” This step would remove a lot of silent “e”s from the ends of words, and people would find it helpful to know alwais how to pronounce their “a”s.

The next Januairy we would stop doubling consonants and would use, for example, only one “t” in the word “litle.” This smal refinement would saiv time for riters and for readers, maiking English more and more acesible to al.

In July the time would hav come to standardize the leter “e.” From now on, when someone wanted to rite the sound “e as in bet,” that sound would be represented by the leter “e.” When someone wanted to rite the sound “ee as in beet,” that sound would be represented by a double “e.” Once agen, the geseeng gaim about how to pronounce certen werds would bee ended.

A tinee change would bee introduced in the next Januairee. A sound that has no consistent speleeng would get a new rule. The sound represented by the leter “s” in the midle of the werd “mesure” would now bee speld “jh,” chaengeeng the werd to “mejhure.” This smal change helps to set up a biger change that wil come the foloweeng Januairee.

But next, in July, wee could standardize the leter “i.” The sound of “i as in bit” would alwais be riten with an “i,” wiel the sound of “ie as in biet” would alwais bee speld “ie.” You can see wair this is goeeng. In the comeeng yeers, wee wil bee takeeng up “o” and “u” as wel.

Now the excietment bilds as wee comit ourselvs  to cleer phonetic speleeng. “Phonograph,” for egzampel, would beecome “fonograf.” Everee tiem wee wanted a “k” sound, wee would riet the leter “k.” This big step asures us ov a Januairee to reemember.

In Julie wee fienalee come to terms with the leter “o.” Frum now on, the sound uv “o as in hop” wil alwaes bee riten “o,” wiel the sound uv “o as in hoep” wil alwees bee riten “oe.” Wee ar moer than half-wai throo the proses, and wee ar maekeeng good progres.

A yeer after maekeeng al the consonants foenetik, wee wil hav noetisd that wee skarslee need the leter “c.” It now oenlee apeers in kombinaishun with the leter “h” in werds such as “cherch.” Wee need simplee to drop the “h” and let the leter “c” maik the “ch” sound, and wee ar wel on our wai to beter Inglish.

Cum Juelie wee kan deel with the leter “u.” If wee want the sound “u as in cut,” wee simplee need to riet “u,” wiel if wee want “ue as in cuet,” wee would riet “ue.” The manee tiems wen the “ue” sound is speld “oo” can bee canjd, soe a dubel “o” wood now alwees sound liek “oo as in book.”

Haveeng canjd “ch” intue “c,” wee ar now free tue taik the uesles leter “x” and let it repreesent the sound foermerlee represented bie “sh.” “Xut the doer” miet seem stranj tue our ies at ferst, but wee wil get uesd tue it oever tiem. Alredee transliteraixun frum Cieneez to Inglix uezez the leter “x” this wai.

Bie theez ruelz wee hav eeliminaeted the need to uez the leters “w” and “y” as vouls. Frum nou on, the “au” sound wil alwais bee riten “au,” never “aw,” and soe on.

Bie the fienel Janueairee uv this proses, wee ar redee foer the last big canj: wee wil replais everee “th” wiq the leter “q.” But beekauz the leters “th” repreesent tue diferent sounds, wee wil hav tue distinguix “q as in qeeng” frum “qh as in quis.” (In unrefoermd Inglix, that wood bee “th as in thing and th as in this.”)   Frum qhis tiem on, Inglix wil maik perfekt sens tue everee reeder, and the spelcek funkxun on our kompueter proegrams wil bee entierlee unesisairee.

Bie the wai, quis iedeeu did not begin wiq Salvajibel. Kredit iz due tue Dolton Edwards, hue roet “Meihem in ce Klasrum” in 1949. Ie enkounterd it in a book kald “The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology,” publixd in 1951. J.

She speaks, yet she says nothing–what’s with that?

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. Whereas Pythagoras believed that reality at its most basic level consists of numbers, the Bible reports that God spoke the universe and all that it contains into existence. Moreover, when the Son of God entered creation to redeem and rescue it from evil, one of his followers identified him as “the Word” and wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

On the other hand, when a group of people defied God and sought to build a tower as a symbol of their defiance, God overturned their rebellion by causing them to speak different languages. Humble and loving people could have overcome this opposition by learning to communicate with one another, but arrogant people like the tower-builders each insisted that he or she was speaking the only proper language and that those who spoke another language were wrong. As a result, the tower was never built.

Since that time, languages have changed, mixed, spread, and in some cases disappeared. English is largely a blend of Germanic and Latin vocabulary and grammar, with some Celtic and other influences stirred into the mix as well. As a result of that mixture and of centuries of change, English contains many mysteries, such as the contradictory pronunciation of the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” New words regularly appear. The word “inflammable” means “likely to burst into flame.” At some point in the twentieth century, someone feared that people would misunderstand the word “inflammable” and shortened it to “flammable.” Now both words are in the dictionary, with identical meanings, even though it appears they should be antonyms rather than synonyms.

A friend of mine thought she could obtain an easy A in high school by taking classes in Spanish. After all, she spoke Spanish at home with her family every day. To her disappointment, she discovered that speaking Spanish at home was not the same as understanding Spanish. Her grammar was not up to her teacher’s standards, her spelling was incorrect, and her vocabulary was smaller than she realized. Getting a good grade in her own language turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected.

This week another blogger took me to task for referring to the meaning of the Greek prefix “anti” in the title “antichrist.” In the Greek of the New Testament, as written in the first century A.D., the prefix “anti” means “taking the place of,” not so much “in opposition to,” as it signifies in contemporary English. The blogger’s rebuttal of my comment surprised me so much that I did not respond, and now it’s water under the bridge, too late for a meaningful discussion. If I offended anyone by seeming too proud of my knowledge of Biblical Greek, I apologize. But the blogger’s suggestion that knowing Greek and Hebrew are not helpful for understanding the Bible carries things a bit too far.

On the one hand, to learn the commandments of God and to see that we have not kept those commandments does not require any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. The English translations convey that message quite well. To recognize Jesus as the Son of God who redeems and rescues sinners through his sinless life and sacrificial death also requires no special language skills. Once again, the translated Bible conveys that message effectively. To know of his victorious resurrection, his guarantee of eternal life in a new creation, and his ongoing presence in this world also requires no Greek or Hebrew studies. In this case also, the basic message is communicated flawlessly in any translation of the Bible.

Anyone who presumes to teach others about the Bible should go beyond these basics. Even if he or she does not learn to read Hebrew and Greek fluently, he or she at least should be capable of consulting reference books on the Bible and understanding their application. Not only does the Bible need to be translated from ancient languages into contemporary languages; information about the cultures in which the Bible was written needs to be learned as well. Misunderstandings of certain verses and conflicts between different interpretations of the Bible are reduced (but, alas, in a sin-stained world, not eliminated) by consulting the Bible in its original languages and contexts rather than trusting contemporary translations to convey the full meaning and nuance of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.

The other blogger mentioned a case in which a man from Athens corrected a preacher who referred to some Greek word or phrase from the New Testament. Because no details were included, I cannot tell whether the preacher was truly in error or if the preacher was kind and polite enough not to insist to the man from Athens that the preacher was correct in his interpretation. Consider a similar scenario: a person in France has studied Elizabethan English in order to understand the plays of Shakespeare. Now this French person is teaching a class on Shakespeare. A man from North Carolina challenges the teacher’s explanation of a certain line, insisting that he has spoken English all his life and is better qualified to explain Shakespeare than anyone who grew up in France. (By the way, Andy Griffith performed a wonderful routine about Romeo and Juliet in which, when Juliet exclaims, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefor art thou Romeo?” and Romeo responds, in a thick Carolina accent, “Why I’m right here.”)

A Cuban-born woman once asked me the rule for when the letter t should be pronounced like a d in English. Until that time I had not noticed how often Americans pronounce ts as ds. Say the sentence “I wrote a letter to my sister” with crisp ts and notice how odd it sounds. But if a rule exists about when ts sound like ds, I’ve never learned it. By the same token, Spanish speakers often distinguish “b as in burro” and “v as in vaca” because their bs and vs sound the same.

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. When we think casually about communication, we tend to think of a single message being sent from one person to another. But there are several versions of each message: the version the creator intended, the version actually produced, and the version received by the audience. To further complicate matters, there is the actual creator and the creator assumed by the audience, as well as the actual audience and the audience assumed by the creator. When carefully studying a message, all these versions and participants must be kept in mind. It’s a wonder that two of us can communicate at all in this crazy world. J.