Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Those who know and study such things tell us English is among the hardest languages to learn and is especially difficult for non-natives trying to learn it from scratch.
That might seem hard for most English speakers to understand since we already know the language, so let’s examine why it might be true.
While we might know the meaning of a word or phrase without thinking much about it, try to imagine the confusion for someone hearing the same words for the first time.
Our abundant use of slang phrases and expressions is likely responsible for at least some of the difficulty. For example, let’s take the word “thing,” which we have replaced with such alternates as thingamajig, whatchamacallit, whatnot, doofloggie and doohickey.
Merriam-Webster’s defines thingamajig as “a small object or gadget, especially one whose name the speaker does not know or cannot recall,” so how does that help?
Another illustration of how tough learning our language can be is the many words we use for one of the simplest of words, “house.” Slang substitutes for house as found in English dictionaries include pad, crib, digs, flat, place, spot, spread, hut, hooch, hacienda, chalet, condo, nest and abode.
The Hispanic word for house is casa, but reverse the situation and pretend you were trying to learn the Spanish language. Not only would you have to know all of the slang words for casa, but you would also have to be quick enough to recognize, understand and interject the word into the conversation.
Another case in point is the word “nothing,” which has substitute slang terms like zilch, zip, nix, nada, nunya, goose egg, diddly squat, jack squat, nought and nil, if you are a soccer fan. Yet another example is the word “car,” which carries such slang terms as wheels, ride, heap, jalopy, clunker, crate, rattletrap, wreck and gas guzzler.
TV folks have coined slang words they think sound cooler or more sophisticated, like “horrific” and “bridezilla,” while the advertising world has given us slang words like “scrumptilitious,” and the Weather Channel has added new terms like torcon (tornado condition index).
Among other confusing slang terms, idioms and expressions out there are “let the cat out of the bag,” “open up a can of worms,” “don’t cry over spilled milk,” “horse of a different color,” frogstrangler,” “neither here nor there” and “hunky dorey.”
In addition to the problem of slang terms, we also have a way of confusing matters by totally butchering our language and mispronouncing words in ways that, while incorrect, can be totally amusing or entertaining.
For instance, “It twern’t there” instead of “It wasn’t there,” “You needn’t tell me” instead of “There is no need to tell me,” and “a whole ’nother thing,” a contraction of sorts of “another whole thing.”
Also, “It don’t make no never mind to me” (translation: It doesn’t matter) and “rat now” instead of “right now,” especially in the South.
Further, we have words that offer confusion by sounding similar, such as subscription and prescription. Many people over the years have called our office seeking information about getting a “prescription” to the newspaper.
And then we have the case of former Major League Baseball player Yogi Berra, who also gained fame for his legendary Yogi-isms, also called malapropisms, which are defined as “the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance.”
Words and expressions falling into this category are often memorable.
For example, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes,” Yogi said. He meant electoral votes.
Which is to say, the biggest reason our language is so tough for outsiders to learn is because we haven’t quite mastered it ourselves.