Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Problem With English Is...

I called my step-son this morning to get his new address now that he's moved out on his own. "I'll email it to you," he says. "Well, I've got the address book open right now and a pen in my hand. Can't you just tell me what it is?"

He can't. He gives it a valiant try though. "Brridgeheratone Road." "Brridgeheratone?" "Yes that's it." "Ok, you're going to have to email it to me." When his email arrives, it reads "Brighton."

I never really realized how very un-phonetic English spelling is. You know how when you're learning to read when you are little, and the teacher keeps saying, "Just sound it out." I thought that meant English was something a reasonable human being could sound out. It's just schoolteacher propaganda.

Due to the efforts of a 19th century spelling reformer, Serbian is a language you really truly can sound out. Everything is spelled precisely the way it sounds. This makes things much easier when you're trying to learn it. (That's the first and last thing that will be easy though -- otherwise learning Serbian is hellish.)

I think Serbs take this phonetic spelling thing too far though when they apply it to personal names. As far as I'm concerned, your name is your name is your name. Not in Serbia. If your name doesn't seem phonetic to them, they will automatically change the spelling. For example, when you read gossip about Hollywood stars in the newspaper, the names have been changed to work in Serbian spelling. For example, Jennifer Aniston's first name is spelled Dženifer.


Anonymous said...

My friend in Serbia keeps correcting my "spelling" whenever I write an English name in an email to him. I know he's just trying to teach me the Serbian version, but I roll my eyes nonetheless. An unintended consequence of spelling names phonetically is the loss of puns and humor. Pun elimination might not be such a bad thing in some cases, but in others you lose a lot of good jokes. Much of English humor relies on substituting one spelling for another (a big argument against reforming English spelling to make it phonetic). During the U.S. election campaign, I emailed my friend to let him know an Internet nickname I'd seen for Sarah Palin: "Mooselini." His response? Correct the spelling to "Musolini." :)

Mario said...

I also prefer English and German names in original form but I like Serbian way with French!

Spelling is easy if your hobby is hamradio :-)

Great blog about Serbian foolies. Best one about Englismen was written by Hungarian.

Regards from Ljubljana, Slovenia

PJA said...

Ha, ha, my father who has been living in Canada since 1951 still makes fun of the English language. He loves to read each sign out loud, pronouncing each and every letter. It has become quite a joke. His favorite is Shakespeare, which he claims can be written with only 7 letters in Serbo-Croatian but he loves to sound out all 11.

miral said...

My Serbian mom likes to call angel hair pasta just "Hair Pasta". I have spent agonizingly long minutes spelling simple words like "Morse" with her. And it's never just M-O-R-S-E to mom, it's M, not N, O , got it, R, got it, S, you mean Cyrillic C? no S and EE so it's Morsee like Morsee. And then I hear a 20 minute lecture on Serbian grammar and why it is easier than English, which it is, because my English speaking children can pronounce, though not comprehend, Serbian, and Vuk, the inventor of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet. I am sure, for once in my life, that many people can relate to my plight!

Vesna VK said...

I like to tell people, "In Serbian, "r" is a vowel."

I wait for that to sink in. I watch their eyes as they try -- and, I presume, fail -- to imagine what that could possibly mean. To find some peg they can hang that on, among everything they know so far about language.

Then, when I see they're sufficiently boggled, I add this: "And our ability to communicate with the rest of the world goes downhill from there."

The Fishmonger said...

My first name is Mike. Simple enough. And there's a variant in most languages: Miguel, Mikhail, Michele, and so one. When we received congratulation cards from my Serbian-American wife's relatives in Belgrade, they were addressed not to "Mike" but to "Majka". Which I guess supports my brothers' contention that I am a real "Mother".

Matt Hollingsworth said...

Yeah, I saw the name thing in Beograd. Funny to look at writers names. They did it to my name too in an interview I did. It's a weird one to me too because a name is a proper name, not a word.

Christina said...

I can read (non-Cyrrilic) Serbian with few problems, but I've yet to learn how to use my keyboard for those extra letters. Without a circumflex, sretan (or srecan) Bozic is a problem. For the most part, I can get by conversationally.

Trying to explain the letter "c" - with or without diacritical marks - never seems to sink in with native English-speakers, so I have stopped trying to tell them that, say, "crno" is not kra-no or ker-no. Not only is "r" a vowel - "h" often is as well. But as long as I am not fluent, I am not in a position to do much correcting.