We have a white board at work where we put up little quotes or facts; nothing huge, just something that makes people pause. Most often, I use a quote from someone who’s meaningful for that particular day, either because of a birthday or an event. Not always. This past week, for instance, I went with English language pecurliarities. I can’t, unfortunately, remember everything I used – I had my mind on other things, of course – but I do remember a couple.

I started with one that baffled me for the longest time – Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. I spent a good hour – not at work, at home – looking for something that would help make sense of it. I knew what all the individual definitions were, just not quite clear on where or when they were used. I mean, aside from the second Buffalo, New York reference. The capitalization was a dead giveaway. I finally got it, though, after reviewing several sites that purported to translate it for the confused mind.

Buffalo buffalo – animals from Buffalo, New York
buffalo – bully
buffalo – bison* that once roamed this country in the millions, maybe even billions.

Okay, got that. That was the easy part. Putting it together, that was tricky. I understood it with a word replacement sentence I found, using bison instead of buffalo, and continued picking until it clicked. This isn’t that sentence, but one I put together that helped me.

Bison from Buffalo, New York (Buffalo buffalo) that bison from Buffalo, New York (Buffalo buffalo) bully (buffalo) will bully (buffalo) bison from Buffalo, New York (Buffalo buffalo).

Ship shipping ship text
If the ships the shipping ship shipped were also ship-shipping ships, then it would be a ship-shipping ship shipping ship-shipping ships…

It’s a big loop. Yeah, okay, that isn’t a whole lot better. It worked for me, though. Diagramming helped as well. Not my diagram, I haven’t diagrammed a sentence in a very long time; others had it diagrammed, though. I don’t know that I could put a finger on any one thing that helped; a lot of the things I found were things I’d seen before. Maybe this time they just clicked for me.

There are other fun things about English, ways to make ridiculous, but correct, sentences. For instance, the whole “i before e” thing. apparently, there are significantly more words that don’t fit into that rule – even with the long a addition – than words that follow it. I learned the rule from a Peanuts special; I don’t recall ever being told that in school. As I may have mentioned before, any memories of times from before college are full of gigantic gaps, though, so that doesn’t really mean anything. The rule should read (of course I got this from the internet):

I before E except after C, or if running a feisty heist against your weird beige foreign neighbor.

To be fair, there are a couple of words in there that fit with the most commonly remembered exception, neighbor, and beige. The rest, though, I mean really.

What else we got? Quite a lot, actually. For instance, the title of this post. That’s pronounced “fish” by the most ridiculous of English pronunciation rules. GH as in enough, O as in women (pronounced differently than the singular “woman”), and TI as in nation. Alternately, it can be completely silent – GH as in though, O as in people, T in ballet, and I in business. Oh, there’s also GHOUGHPTEIGHTTEAU‡, among other made-up words. Linguistically, neither fits any rules, and would likely be pronounced the way they look. That’s not the point; the point is English is a creole, borrowing words from all sorts of places, or more accurately, as written on a usenet group back in 1990:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle [sic] their pockets for new vocabulary.”
– James Nicoll

Eden Morning_0035a
Ohio river as seen from Eden Park, Cincinnati. May 2015

This all serves as a distraction for me. There have been so many homicides in the past few weeks, it almost seems there’s a new shooting death every day. People are charging the police with keeping order, which is their job. It’s *not* their job to find something else for people to do, any more than it’s a teacher’s job to babysit the students. Remember the saying “it takes a village?” Well that wasn’t just political rhetoric, it DOES take a village. Parents, neighbors, friends, peers, support from the area government, all of these things make a difference in a life. Take away the things that helps a person feel human – quality food, decent shelter, opportunities for entertainment, a sens of ownership – and people will find their own entertainment. Sometimes that means vandalism, sometimes driving through the countryside at ridiculous speeds, sometimes defending a little patch of concrete you call your own.


◊The plan was to post this on 6/6, while I was away. Apparently, I forgot. On a beach or something.

*Much like the pronghorn antelope† is not a true antelope, the American buffalo is not actually a buffalo, but a bison. Big differences. There’s a lot of that here, area “discovered” by Europeans and things inaccurately named because they reminded the explorers of something else.

†I still remember the first time I saw pronghorn when I was in Colorado. I mean, I knew the song, Home on the Range, but it was a very different thing seeing them a few hundred yards away. There was a time when I didn’t have to go far to see them, early on. The drop in the herd size was significant in the ten years I was there, as Colorado Springs spread into the eastern plains.

‡GH – hiccough, OUGH – dough, PTH – ptarmigan, EIGH – eight, TTE – gazette, EAU – plateau.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s