Wicked words – The hidden pitfalls of the English language

1 Apr

Christopher Wilkinson

Having been asked a series of questions about my mother tongue by non-native speakers, I have continued to realise how lucky I am to have acquired the world’s second most widely spoken language as my first.

I am constantly reminded of the fact that English is my first language, from going on a tour bus to thinking about the census. That is ‘census’, not ‘senses’ as my German friend recently understood upon hearing me refer to the population count. I do not think that this was a result of my accent, a reason which would be completely understandable due to the number of difficulties which can arise when two native English speakers from different parts of the world, or even two different parts of a country, have a conversation. It was, according to my friend, simply a problem of phonetics and this minor difference between the second syllables of the two words was apparently inaudible to the non-native speaker. So, already, it is clear that English contains a number of hidden problems. At least there was an official, even if only slightly audible, phonetic difference in that instance. But what about words such as ‘bow’ (as in the salutation) and ‘bough’?

And what about words such as ‘club’ which can have two meanings, even when used with the same word – ‘golf club’? The words are pronounced exactly the same, spelled exactly the same and have different meanings depending on the context. Then there are also wicked words such as ‘row’. You may have already thought about how a ‘row’ can refer to wicked words between friends, as well as an action that would propel a boat down a river – a “wicked” occupation, perhaps, in the positive sense. If you were to write to a non-native speaker, telling them that you were rowing with your friends for five hours last night he/she might suspect that you will either be competing in the Olympics, or suddenly be feeling more lonely than usual.

Speaking of making and breaking friendships, a single misplaced word can convey a meaning vastly different from the one intended. At the beginning of my Erasmus year in Italy I was asked “Do you want to eat each other on Thursday night?”. I did eat with this Italian friend one night that week, safe in the knowledge that I could make a few mistakes with my prepositions.

Whilst feeling pleased that I have not had to wrestle with learning English as a foreign language, each language obviously has difficulties of its own. I have probably made a few German- and Italian-speakers feel the same about their mother tongues over the years. In all of the aforementioned cases, I certainly appreciate the efforts of those who learn my native language and only wish that our English-speaking nation showed such a great effort in return. Native English speakers should certainly appreciate the language that is their mother tongue but should also let other people appreciate theirs.

Oh, and for your own peace of mind, I emerged from the restaurant that Thursday in one piece, having eaten nothing but a pizza!

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