Hey, Zeus!

zeusSilent letters have always perplexed me. As a huge proponent of the English language, I can’t help but consider them my friends, but it’s more like in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of way.

Why name her “Sarah” when you can name her “Sara”? Why is it a “gnat” instead of a “nat” or a “knot” instead of a “not”? I’m sure somewhere along the way the letter was an important part of the word, for whatever reason, but these days… well, these days silent letters are simply the bane of my existence.

I saw a copy of the Declaration of Independence this week, and I noticed that the word was “Congrefs” instead of “Congress.” I completely understand if the type face didn’t have an “s” back in the 18th Century, but it so obviously did, as evidenced by the “s” at the end of the word. How hard would it have been to just put another one in front of it instead of that horrendously wrong looking “f”? Sometime around the 20th Century they fixed all of that nonsense, but I’m just curious why they had to suffer through it for so long before that.

And don’t even get me started on letters that don’t sound a thing alike, depending on the constitution of the other letters contained in the word they find themselves chained to at any particular time. For example, sometimes the G is hard, as in grape, and other times it’s soft, as in stranger. Sometimes the C makes a harsh sound, like in Carbon, while on occasion it’s smooth like in Cereal. How are kids supposed to recognize when it’s supposed to be the “s” sound instead of a standard “c”?

Then there’s words with blends, like the TH combo. What’s up with that one? “This” and “The” arguably start with different sounds. When the TH is at the end of the word it can be a hard stop or it can be a smooth ride, depending on whether or not a silent letter is tacked onto the other side of it. Think of words like “Bath” and “Bathe,” or “Breath” and “Breathe.”

We teach our mouths to say some difficult words throughout the course of our lives, but none are harder to adjust to than names. That’s because names are individual, even when they aren’t. That means even though Brianna and Brianna are spelled the same, one could carry an “ANA” and the other an “AHNA,” depending on whatever preference her parents had for her. That’s why as a teacher I always offer an apology each semester before trying to pronounce my students’ names.

“I know you’ve had your name for at least 17 years, so you’re very familiar with how it flows from your lips, but I don’t know you from ADAM, so I’m going to need a little help here,” I tell them before diving into the list of increasingly more challenging names to both spell and pronounce. Even when they seem easy.

And of course there are also words from other languages, where their rules are completely different from the ones for English, but at least they generally stick to their rules without so many exceptions. I swear, for every random group of English words there are probably a few exceptions. But when I look at French, and German, and even Spanish, there just aren’t too many things I can mess up, except for names. Of course names are still an issue, because in English, or Spanish, or even Swahili for that matter, they remain individual to each person, and so carry an element of surprise.

I’m used to seeing “Jesus” and thinking “Gee-Zuss.” That’s how I grew up, as the son of a preacher, in these here United States. But so many parents of Latino heritage proudly name their sons “Jesus” and it sounds like they’re calling the king of the Greek gods, like he’s getting away from them and they want to catch his attention. “Hey, Zeus! Wait up. Wanna play catch?” Or in the same language, the double-L situation that sounds more like a twisted “Y” than anything else?

So I never assume I’m saying anything correctly if I’ve never seen it before, even if it follows basic rules of other words I’m very familiar with, because odds are it just might be totally different. I might know how to say “Cow,” but “Mow” doesn’t carry the same sound. I might know that “Tao” rhymes with “Cow,” but some may think it must sound like “Day-o.” Your name might be “Maella,” and I have no clue it’s pronounced “Maya.”

That’s because language is fluid. It shifts and changes so often, the pronunciations undulating like so many snakes, and it can be manipulated to suit individual preference at the same time. There are probably a hundred ways to say different vowel sounds that I’m sure I haven’t heard every single one. And my brain hurts when I think about the sounds those pesky blends can possibly make.

But that’s the same reason I love language so much, because there’s always a word to express what you’re really feeling, what you really mean to say, at any given moment. There’s always a way to bend words to your will, to remake them in your own image, even within a small circle of friends. I love the idea that language can keep growing long after words are introduced and accepted into the lexicon. And I live for each first day of school, through all the starts and stops, as I learn each new name.

Because who likes things to be too easy?

Sam

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