It occurs to me that the English language and close relationships have something in common.
Both feature inconsistencies and occurrences that make absolutely no sense.
Have you ever been in a relationship where it feels like the rules keep changing, where the expectations are an ever-moving target? What was understood yesterday and what was true last week is now obsolete. Sound familiar?
Well, if you’ve ever been in a relationship like that then English is the perfect language for you. For example, take these common words:
These five words end with the same four letters … ough. Any similarities end there.
If we add an “r” to the front of the ough train we get rough. How does “gh” make an “f” sound? That’s a subject for later.
If we insert an “t” at the beginning to make trough we keep the “f” sound but change the vowel sound. Huh?
For grins let’s give trough an “h” to make through…and that gives the vowel a long U sound. Wait, what? OK, let’s drop the “r” and we have though. Wait, we dropped one consonant and it changed the vowel sound to a long O?
Let’s invite “b” to come in and sub for “th” at the entrance and we have bough. This is pronounced like bow — as in take a bow, not as in bow and arrow. This brings us to
two side notes.
Side note #1: English has a myriad of words like bow — identically spelled words that sound different depending on their meaning. Such words are called heteronyms. For
example, see lead, close, deliberate, excuse, object and a hundred others.
Side note #2: Apparently “gh” is so versatile it can sound like an “f” or a “w”. What if other letters of the alphabet got together and just decided they were totally changing
their sound? You’d have chaos. What if “p” and “h” hooked up and decided that as a couple they could make an “f” sound too? We can’t let that happen to the alphabet!
OMG, we’re too late; it’s already happening!
In 1967 the Classics IV released a hit tune titled “Spooky”, featuring a guy who can’t figure out his girlfriend.
You always keep me guessin,’
I never seem to know what you are thinkin,’
This sounds like someone trying to learn English but constantly running into exceptions and contradictions.
For example, my weekly column usually comes out on Wednesday … which we pronounce as Winds Day but is written as if it should be pronounced Wed Ness Day. It’s as if “d” and “n” switched seats on the couch and we’re supposed to pretend that we didn’t notice.
And Wednesday is not alone. Try explaining to a first grader why raspberry is pronounced raz-berry and not rasp-berry? Tell her how sometimes the letter “s” makes a “z” sound; and then try explaining the placement and purpose of silent letters.
“Daddy, why is the letter there if it’s not doing anything? I heard you tell Mom yesterday that Uncle Rob isn’t good for anything and that he’s just taking up
space — are some letters like that?”
Here’s another parent-child conversation you might have:
Father: Sometimes a “c” is a soft c and sounds like “s”, and sometimes it’s a hard c and sounds like a “k”. Some words like “concert” have both.
Ashley: That’s confusing. Why don’t the people who make up words just use “s” and “k”?
Father: And sometimes the letter “g” in a word is a hard g and sometimes it’s a soft g which sounds like a “j”.
Ashley: So why not just spell the word with a “j”?
Father: Some words like “garage” have both hard and soft g sounds. I know that can be confusing. Do you have any questions?
Ashley: Yes. Why couldn’t I have been born into a nice Spanish speaking family in Costa Rica?
And that conversation might be followed by this one:
Timmy: If “womb” is pronounced “woom” and “tomb” is pronounced “toom” then why is “bomb” not pronounced “boom” and why is “comb” not pronounced “coom”?
Mother: I don’t know; go ask your father.
Timmy: I was going to; but Ashley said that Dad is on his second glass of scotch and keeps mumbling the words “concert” and “garage” over and over.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at