MAD DOG: Why Johnny Can't Talk Good

They say English is the hardest language to learn and I suspect they're right, since so few people you run into speak it worth a damn. It has the pronunciation problem (rough, dough, and through), the spelling problem (to, two, and too) and the learning problem (duh, duh, and duh).Here in the United States pronunciation is considered a personal freedom, guaranteed in the Constitution right next to the clause that lets citizens wear crop tops and bathing suits five sizes too small no matter how overweight they might be. This freedom -- the pronunciation one, not the crop top one -- means you can pronounce a word any way you want, which includes adding a spare syllable or two between vowels, dropping the ending to any word longer than three letters, or combining words at random because, well, it saves a breath and we only have so many in our life so why waste them?Now before you get your ethnicity in an uproar because you think I'm attacking everyone with an accent, let me point out that a couple of years ago the Hyundai Motor Company (motto: "Our name doesn't mean anything, we just like to hear you try to pronounce it.") took a survey that revealed a lot about how we perceive accents. Southerners, it turns out, have the most liked, most recognized, and sexiest regional accent in the United States. That in spite of the fact that they have to say "ink pen" when they want a writing utensil because there's as much difference between the way they say "pen" and "pin" as there is between the Doublemint twins. As for the rest of the country, the survey says Bostonians sound the smartest, the Valley Girls of Los Angeles sound the dumbest (fer sure!), and New Yorkers have both the most intimidating and the least liked accent in the country. Go figure.In the past, spelling was a particularly thorny problem in the English language, but not anymore thanks to the advent of the spell checker. In the early days of personal computing, word processors didn't have spell checkers. Of course floppy discs were hand carved out of stone then too. The first spell checker I used made me run each file through a separate program which then checked it against a massive dictionary of 251 entries, putting its vocabulary on par with Sylvester Stallone's. As the software progressed, so did the spell checkers. Unfortunately Sylvester Stallone didn't. Now, thanks to my buying so many software upgrades that Bill Gates sends me a Christmas card each December asking for another $109, all I have to do is hit a button marked ABC and the computer instantly tells me that "McDonald's" is guilty of incorrect capitalization, which is in no way related to the fact that you can find their restaurants in every capital in the world. Then again, maybe it is.If we Americans find English to be the hardest language to learn that's probably because we don't go to school enough. In the United States children go to school a measly 180 days a year, minus a few days for snow, threat of snow, or the fact that someone heard the weatherman say "that's no" and misunderstood him. In warmer parts of the country they substitute hurricane, earthquake, flood, and Robert E. Lee's Birthday for the word snow.Japanese children, on the other hand, go to school 218 days a year and they manage to learn a language that has a lot more than 26 letters. In England, students go to class 192 days a year, which means they've had 144 more days over the course of their school career in which to learn the difference between the past tense, the future perfect tense, and when Mums is PMS tense. Contrary to popular opinion, the English don't speak their namesake language any better than we do, it just seems that way since we can't understand a word they say other than "E.U.? Isn't that the same as P.U.?"But like the cast of Melrose Place, our language is always changing, and not always for the better. It used to be enough that you learned the difference between the passive voice and the active voice, now you have to contend with the grammatical construction of the 90's: the passive-aggressive voice. But that's not all that needs further updating. Take collective nouns. Go ahead, take them. Then collect the whole set.Actually, collective noun is just a fancy term for a specific group of animals. You know, like a herd of elephants, a pack of wolves, and a bevy of quail. Or a murder of crows, a shrewdness of apes, and a crash of rhinos. No, I'm not making these up, they really exist. So does a sleuth of bears, an exaltation of larks, and a bale of turtles. Good thing folksingers didn't know this or the old song would have gone, "Gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of turtles" and that would have screwed up children everywhere, not to say get the animal activists' organically grown all-cotton nuclear test-free panties in a knot.But since this is the 90's, I think it's time we added some new collective nouns to our language. How about a sorority of coeds, a Bubba of rednecks, and a palette of artists? Shouldn't we talk about a file of computer programmers, a bubble of blondes, and a staff of musicians? Wouldn't it make sense if you said, "Hey! Look at that round of drinkers, that corral of cowboys, and that lot of real estate agents.?" And don't you think we should start referring to certain groups of people as a loaf of bakers, a bobbin of tailors, and a rejection of writers?On second thought, maybe that should be a success of writers. Yes, that's better.


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