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The Ridiculously Wonderful Language

There is a scene from the movie "Sophie's Choice" that to me encapsulates the wonder ... and the frustration ... of the English language. Sophie says, "This is ridiculous language and there's too many words! The word for 'velocity.' There's 'fast,' 'quick,' 'rapid' ... and they all mean the same thing." The other two men in the room with her then continue the list, going back and forth between each other:

"Swift. Speedy." "Hasty." "Fleet." "Brisk." "Expeditious." "Accelerated." "Winged." Sophie finally protests, "No! Stop it! It's ridiculous! In French it's so easy. You say: vite. Or in Polish, szybki, and in Russian, bystro. It's only in the English it's so complicated!"

Yes ... affirmative ... agreed. And of course, they don't all mean exactly the same thing, which is precisely what makes English so ... well, ridiculous. Ridiculously rich, ridiculously frustrating, and ridiculously beautiful.

The best examples I can think of that demonstrate just how hard it is for someone trying to learn English as a second language are publicity brochures written in English ... sort of ... by someone in another country who maybe got a B in his ESL course. The most exquisite example I ever ran across was a brochure for Aeroflot Airlines, which stated that, among the many amenities on its 747s, there was a "saloon available onboard." The picture painted for me in my American imagination was walking up the steps of the 747 to find a smoke-filled room with cowboys sitting around at tables playing poker with their shot glasses and six-shooters within easy reach, and a guy wearing a garter and green eyeshade playing Scott Joplin on the out-of-tune upright piano.

Then my thoughts turned to the hapless brochure writer, who I can imagine turned to a well-worn Russian to English dictionary, and selected at random one of the words that can mean an establishment that serves liquor: bar, lounge, tavern, dive, watering hole, pub ... each coming with its own definition and image. No wonder people trying to learn English get frustrated.

As a journalist who happened to have been trained in the English language, however, I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by it since the day I was born. I also was lucky to have been raised by two college-educated parents who prized the things I still do today: Clear writing, correct spelling and grammar, and endless wordplay.

Let the wordplay begin!


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