If the 'P' in pneumonia is meant to be silent, why did the English put it there?

14 February 2020 - 10:39
By AND Fred Khumalo
In some respects, the English language is illogical, the writer says.
Image: 123RF/ iqoncept In some respects, the English language is illogical, the writer says.

The outspoken denizen of social media, Anele Mda, recently found herself the butt of jokes after she posted an online attack on Woolworths.

She had written: "Woolies Is Thrash." What she actually meant was "Woolies is trash". Thrash and trash have two different meanings.

Having written in English for more than 30 years - 11 books and thousands of articles - I still approach the language with some trepidation. It takes one letter to change the meaning of a word, or a sentence.

Native speakers of the language do not immediately recognise the absurdities of their mother tongue. Relax, the word "native" has got nothing to do with race. If you were born in Germany, you're a native speaker of German. Are we clear?

English is crazy and illogical. That is why it will never stop confounding people.

Let me show you. A writer writes. A killer kills. A fighter fights. But does a finger fing? A grocer doesn't groce either.

They'll laugh at you if you say the guy who cooks is a cooker. He's a cook. The tax man crooks me every year, but I don't call him a crooker. He's a crook.

Note that the word "thought" almost looks like "though", but they are worlds apart in pronunciation.

Not only is English illogical, it is b****y absurd. The plural of mouse is mice. But have you ever heard of anyone speaking of hice as the plural for house? More than one goose is geese. What is the plural for moose? Certainly not meese. The plural for tooth is teeth. But the plural for booth is not beeth.

The past tense for "cry" is "cried". But the past tense for "fly" is not "flied". Illogical.

Which brings us to silent letters. In the word salmon the 'l' is silent. In the words Ptolemaic, psychology, pneumonia, pterodactyl, the 'p' is silent. Why did they put it there if they wanted it to be silent?

And by the way, dear social upstarts, that fizzy wine Moët et Chandon is not pronounced "mo-weh". Somebody lied to you and said Moët is French, and therefore the last consonant should be silent. It is pronounced moot, with a hard 't'. Stick with Uncle Fred and learn.

To go back to the word "native", when researching my book Dancing the Death Drill I stumbled on an anecdote that is tragically funny.

When World War 1 broke out, black South Africans were still called natives. White people insisted on calling themselves Europeans, even though the majority of them had never been to Europe.

In keeping with white supremacy, social amenities such as toilets and public spaces were segregated. There were toilets for natives, and toilets for Europeans.

So, our natives travelled to Europe, to go and serve in the war. They were supposed to serve alongside fellow South Africans who happened to be white.

So, everyone who was against Germany had to share camps and amenities. But white South Africans had taken their segregationist thinking to Europe. So they had created a toilet for natives, and a toilet for Europeans.

To a white fellow from France this was confusing. A Frenchman is a native of France, but he is also a European.

As a result, the white Frenchmen chose to use the toilets marked natives. White South Africans were mortified! They said: "You shouldn't be using that toilet, it's for natives."

It was a double conundrum for Australian and American soldiers serving there. They were neither European, nor were they natives.

I did warn you: English is absurd. Crazy.