Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Blissfully Bare

English is so inconsistent. Where else can you find so many words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same (the towed lode toed the load), and so many words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently (I plough through rough dough. Cough.). And of course, let's not forget the rule everyone knows by heart:

I before E except after C, unless it's for SCIENCE! Or, you know, if it's weird or foreign (or neither).

Which brings me to the Barenaked Ladies, who are both weird and foreign.1 In 2008, they put out a kids' album titled Snack Time. It's decent, but doesn't quite match the quality of the Ladies' adult entertainment. (Yes, I went there.) Personally, I prefer the four children's albums put out by They Might Be Giants, though that's neither here nor there.2 Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because of the second-to-last track, a song called "Crazy ABCs."

I like the idea of the song, but I don't understand why it's on an album for kids. Most of them won't get it. Hell, without the liner notes, most adults won't get it. Instead of traditional ABCs (i.e. apple, ball, chlamydia), BNL uses words that don't sound the way they're spelled. Words like bdellium, djinn, and mnemonic. The song's full of silent letters and foreign words, not to mention a ZZ Top reference (topical as always).

It's over-the-head of young kids, and too corny for anyone in their teens. Which means it's mostly for 6th graders who dream of one day competing in the National Spelling Bee.

But that's fine. They can get there by flying the czar's gnarly pterodactyl over a tsunami.

1 Or neither, if you live in Canada. If you do, could you send me some Nanaimo bars?
2 If it was here or there, I'd be infringing on Grover's domain, and he wouldn't hesitate to sic his attack Snuffleupagus on me.

This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, hosted by Jeffrey Beesler and seven others. Go check out the other participants!


  1. As an English teacher I can vouch for that - so inconsistent with the rules of grammar.


    A - Z Challenge L'Aussie Travel

  2. Dylan Thomas once said European writers and scholars in America are up against the barrier of a common language. It's also been said in a similar way by Wilde and Shaw.

    I blame it all on Noah Webster who wanted to write the definitive AMERICAN dictionary so started slashing 'u' s from words like colour..
    But perhaps you can puzzle out for me why you yanks say "zee" for the last letter of the alphabet instead of 'zed' like the rest of the world. Is it really so the nursery school song will scan and rhyme right through to the end?

    Sorry, m'dear, I can't send you Nanaimo bars--they'd be all mushy by the time they got there--but I could send you a picture of Nanaimo next time I'm up's just a 2 hour drive from here.

    take care and catch up with you in a few hours when I'm posted...


  3. I totally agree. English is confusing. There are also so many words that mean the same thing but can have different connotations when the sentence is shuffled around.

  4. In these times of austerity I am pleased to announce I am cutting all silent letters ! thimk of the savings in ink and time !


  5. my sister, brother and I broke out into a version of "Partical Man" and my parents and other, younger, sister had no idea what we were talking about. Shocked, we went through a list of They Might Be Giants songs, but they had no clue.

  6. English is like the rebel of the language world, bending and breaking the rules left and right.

  7. L'Aussie: And I wasn't even talking about grammar. I never got past pronunciation!

    moe: As luck would have it, the Noah Webster house is one town over from me, so I'll have to stop in and ask all about the zee/zed conundrum. Although, really, why do Americans do anything they do? Either because there's money in it, or to piss off some other country.

    Cheree: And that's why I'm always shuffling sentences around. I want them to experience every possible meaning and connotation before I send them off into the world.

    RJR: Sounds good to me, but let's leave the silent K. I now I'd be nocked for a loop if a night nelt beside me wielding a nife.

    Falen: And I had no clue "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" was done by a dozen other artists before TMBG. By the way, stay clear of Triangle Man.

    Liz: And English will continue to do so until there are no rules left, which isn't right.

  8. love the BNLs, love nanaimo bars both edible and visitable, won't send you any cuz they'd never make it past the nanaimo bar dogs at the post office. True dat.
    Jan Morrison

  9. I love the BNL's but I had no idea about the kids song. I am off to find it now. Happy A-Z!


  10. Me and my brother were like, geeking out and awing over this post. English is so freaking bizarre and awesome :) Love it!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog: B is for Bowie)

  11. oh, my goodness, Nate! You are actually following through on this A-Z thing! I am, proud of you! :)

  12. My son's just learning to read. I never realized just how many words aren't pronounced the way you would expect until we started sounding out words. Great post!

  13. You have some great posts, really like the roboapc.... (I'm not spelling the whole word). English is a crazy language, I like you prefer They Might Be Giants kids music.

  14. English - the melted language, I mean, melting pot language . . . we just like every influence in our language - a little French, German, Roman, Greek, Italian, Viking/Scandinavian - just for fun, and a reason for spellcheck.

  15. I have worked with many people learning English as a second language and they are appalled at all the exceptions to the rules. Great post. I look forward to more.

  16. Or neighbor and weigh...Barenaked Ladies was an interesting topic for the B day.

  17. Jan: Nanaimo bar dogs, I should have known! I guess I'll just have to make do with Arrogant Worms and Kids in the Hall.

    Dafeenah: Happy to be of service!

    Sarah: Wonderful! Glad I could help you two get your geek on. I hope to do more of the same in the coming weeks.

    Bridget: I'm proud of me, too. And impressed. A few months ago, I never would have guessed I'd get 26 posts out in a month.

    Alison: If only English was like one of the romantic languages, pronunciation would be straightforward. But our language wouldn't be nearly as interesting...

    Missy: Watch out, the robots might be giants, too. Then you'll want to hide behind E. (E eats everything.)

    Tyrean: And what we don't get from other languages, we pull from the Zeitgeist. Wait, that's just German again...

    Jeanne: I'd be appalled, too, if I wasn't so used to its intricacies. I can only imagine what it's like trying to learn English at a later age.

    Chuck: Or seize their reins. And don't worry, I have plenty more interesting topics to come.

  18. Nate, you are hilarious! And now I'm exhausted after reading that. Don't get me wrong. I loved the two minute English lesson, and your delivery is genius. I live in Canada, but I abhor Nanaimo bars and have banned them from my vocabulary. Sorry.

  19. I'm coming to you via the a-z challenge. I love BNL, and anyone who references them and TMBG is worth following in my book. I must find this ABC song, though, because I have never heard it.

  20. They Might Be Giants made a really cool Table of Elements song for kids loved it.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  21. Makes you wonder how any of us ever learn how to pronounce words correctly.

  22. As an English teacher I tell my students that English exists just to make their heads hurt. ;)

  23. Barenaked Ladied! Yay - I love them! And yes, English is a strange one, isn't it?

  24. No doubt it is a song full of irony and even the music has a rhythm the lyrics are decidedly child to adult: "P for pneumonia pterodactyl and psychosis" and is much more juicy: "U is for urn, But Not like earning money. " Greetings.

  25. I teach so many ESL students who get so frustrated at times with our language - and let's not forget all the street talk they need to pick up on. Good thing I teach them math.

    Great post!

  26. Something new for me to listen to.

  27. Kelly: Thanks for the compliments. And go ahead, ban Nanaimo from your vocabulary. That just means more for me...

    Jennifer: Glad I could bring it to your attention, and thanks for stopping by.

    Raquel: I actually haven't had a chance to listen to Here Comes Science yet. Now I have to. Thanks!

    Juliet: It is my belief that all our pronunciation comes from reality TV.

    Alex: So what you're saying is that English was created by the pharmaceutical companies (thus their crazily spelled name) to sell painkillers. Yep, sounds about right.

    Talli: Yes, Inglish shur iz strainj.

    Leovi: Well put, and exactly my point. Thanks for stopping by.

    Alison: I'd think math could be just as tough (e.g. pie, sign, a cute triangle, etc.).

    li: You're welcome. Glad I could help.

  28. That is really odd. But as you said, so is the band.

  29. I never thought about how the word Science breaks the rule.

  30. Diane: No, not odd. Weird. Weird is good; odd is peculiar and somewhat uneven.

    Kari: Yes, but rules are meant to be broken. Science is constantly breaking its own, so why not language rules as well?

    Mary: Why, thank you! I'll try to be good all month.

  31. Okay, wait. Who are these Bare Naked Ladies? And they're naked? Singing kids songs?! Ridiculous.

  32. And Hannah, let's not forget that their lead singer was also caught soon thereafter at the business end of a bunch of cocaine. (Surprisingly, he's no longer with the band.)

  33. I understand there are more words that break the i before e rule than there are not - English is the langauge to sort out the amazingly clever souls who learn how to spell it often well before they are adults (not me !) - it has the capabilities of being so beautiful so erudite and what fun would there be in spelling tests with an ordinary set of rules. Ling live the rebel of language - keep breaking them - keep the silent, the odd, the downright freakish - lets hear it for the english language Yay yay yay

  34. alberta: Hear hear! I love the English language because of its peculiarities, not in spite of them.