It started out innocently enough. My son’s friend was over playing video games, and he was reading the menu options out loud.
“APP-lee,” he muttered.
“What?” said my son. “Do you mean app-LIE?”
Like most of us, our young guest had encountered a word (“apply”) by reading it before hearing it. Writer Kate Sullivan replied to me on Twitter that her brother has a name for this: ”Read-it-never-said-its.”
That thing you put flowers in
Mine is “vaz,” the thing you put flowers in. Even now, I have to pause for an embarrassingly long time to pull from my brain that it is pronounced “vahhz” (the British way) or “vayse” (the American way). Both are acceptable, yet “vaz” is still what pops into my mind when I see the word “vase.”
English is a strange, strange language. There are rules around grammar, spelling and pronunciation — except when those rules don’t apply. There’s no “ch” sound in “chaos,” but there is in “cello.” Go figure.
Out of curiosity, I threw a question out on Twitter the next day.
Thousands of responses flooded my feed. They were hilarious, touching, delightful and unifying, in the lightning way Twitter The Good can be.
Book nerds, students, immigrants, scientists and Lin-Manuel Miranda: we have all suffered from the English language’s oddities.
With some of these responses came vivid memories, for many, of the moment they were corrected publicly and humiliatingly by teachers, parents, or classmates. Moments of feeling stupid and inferior.
For many, English is seen as the language of opportunity, holding equal parts expectation and judgment. It’s both an equalizer and a de-stabilizer.
My parents owned their own business and put in many long hours. They didn’t have time to read bedtime stories, but they were happy to drop me off at the library, and they kept my shelves stocked with books.
I remember sitting with my dad on lucky mornings, with The Vancouver Sun newspaper spread in front of us. I’d read stories out loud, and occasionally he’d correct my pronunciation in his faded colonial-British, mostly Canadianized English.
Whenever I asked my mom to read with me, she would defer to my father. “His English is better,” she’d say, even though her English — learned in both Hong Kong and Canada — sounded perfectly fine to me.
But, perhaps her reluctance is a familiar feeling for anyone who has felt they don’t fit in, or has had to try to prove they deserve to.
All of this Twitter business reminded me to be kinder, more patient and more encouraging, not only with my kids, who are graduating to thicker novels, but also with, well, the world at large.
It reminded me of the John Donne poem we had to study in high school: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
And of course, that’s “island,” however you pronounce it.