Monday, April 29, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Stop Homophones!

by Bill Adler

It's great that English is the world's universal language. It's terrific for America that English is what people in other nations aspire to speak, and it's a plus for the planet that we're approaching a time in history when all the world will be able to communicate with a single language. This is also good for Americans, who, as a general rule think that learning foreign languages is pretty much a waste of time, and that one year of high school Spanish is all they need to know to get by on a trip to France.

We're approaching the day when Esperanto will become just a quaint idea, and when Google and Bing Translate's amusing confusions will be just that: fun to read, and not something that seriously screws us up. Because everyone will speak English.

I admire the rest of the world. English is a difficult language to learn. Americans have a hard time with English, too -- even former 43rd Presidents of the United States. Spelling in English is often random. The way we put stress on a word to change the meaning of a sentence is difficult: "that's my book" versus "that's my book." The list of irregular verbs --"bought" as the past tense for "to buy," for example-- feels endless. And then there are the idioms, which often don't mean what you think they should mean, and just have to be memorized: "It's about time," as in "It's about time you changed socks," for example.

English is like an asteroid. It's going to go where it wants and there's nothing we can to to change its trajectory. (Did you notice the two variations of "its" in that sentence?) But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to change English's direction. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix at least one unnecessary complication: homophones.

I say: Eliminate all homophones. Let's put a stop to word polygamy. For any same-sounding words that have different meanings, let's change the way one word sounds. There's no reason why the next generation of English language learners --be they American or not-- should have to be confused by "bare" and "bear," "not" and "knot," "rung" and "wrung," or the roughly 10,000 other homophones in English. We even have triple, quadruple, quintuple, and even sextuple homophones (though the last categories are mercifully rare)! Here's a quadruple, in case you're curious: write, wright, right, rite. Let's get rid of them all.

But how? English is an organic language. We don't decide things: they just happen. It's as if the language has an intelligence of its own: All that grammar, vocabulary, foreign language influence, and idioms, have mixed together in a way that we don't fully fathom, but which makes English seemingly sentient. Nobody is in charge of English. There's no official government body, no committee that decides usage. (If there were, the word "enterprise" would never have become a synonym for "business.")

Are we agreed that homophones are bad thing, because they're unnecessarily confusing? Are we agreed that homophones are also bad because Spellcheck still can't cope with them? Are we agreed that homophones are evil because they add one more chapter to books that people learning English have to read, memorize, reread and rememorize? Are we agreed that homophones should be done away with because they lead to confusion rather than clarity?

If you agree with me about same-sounding words that have more than one meaning, then the best way to get rid of homophones is to have a contest. Just like we have contests to name the baby panda at the National Zoo or to choose the next American Idol, let's have a contest to rename one homophone in each pair (or two in each triplet.) A contest would generate publicity, too, so that most Americans, especially those who watch game shows on television, would learn what the new word is.

Take "male" and "mail." Let's keep "male" and turn "mail" into "malik." See how easy that was? "Tow" and "toe?" Let's change "tow" to "twob." Of course, we'll have to vote on it. But you see how simple this really is.

Eliminating homophones will actually give meaning to some concoctions of letters that people who play Scrabble and Words with Friends often try out in vain.

We may lose a few puns, which are desperately dependent on homophones, but I'm willing to sacrifice "I don't like computer jokes one bit" and "I went to AT&T and Verizon's wedding, but the reception was terrible" for clarity and ease of learning English.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels," He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.

No comments:

Post a Comment