Corpse, Corps, Horse and Worse

In 1920, a Dutch writer named Gerard Nolst Trenité published a poem in English titled The Chaos, designed to draw attention to English spelling and pronunciation — and all the confusion its absurdities have let loose upon the world. It begins “Dearest creature in creation; Studying English pronunciation; I will teach you in my verse; Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse” and ends: “Hiccough has the sound of ‘cup’…. My advice is—give it up!”

“Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,” the first book printed in English and the source of just some of the languages many irregularities

The absurdity of this poem works because, frankly, when it comes to English spelling and pronunciation, there is plenty of rhyme and very little reason. But what is the reason for that? Why among all European languages is English so uniquely chaotic today?

To help us answer that question, we spoke with linguist and longtime friend of the show, Arika Okrent, author of the new book Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language. In it, Arika explores the origins of those phonetic paradoxes, and it turns out some of the reasons for confusion are as counterintuitive as the words themselves.

  1. tammy kruger

    Corpse, corps…..Definitely was one of my favourite 99PI podcasts up to date! (now I know why I – as a Canadian – write “favourite” and not “favorite” LOL)
    Loved the history and plan to retell it to my kids at dinner tonight.
    Just to add to the fun, I now live in the beautiful country of Israel and speak Hebrew. Here they have some pretty funny pronunciations of English words that have entered Hebrew – notably, they pronounce the /p/ at the start of ‘psychology’ ‘psychometrics’ “psychiatry’ etc and the /t/ at the end of “ballet”. Perhaps because they taught in universities with Hebrew lecturers using English textbooks initially, and these words were read before heard…?
    Food for thought ;)
    Thanks again for a great podcast – I love listening and learning. Keep up the great work!

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