Your per-nunky-ayshun is her-ibble!
So spake my grandfather once upon a time, admonishing me—perhaps five years old at the time—when I mispronounced a word while talking with him. I remember dissolving in laughter, delighted by the strange words coming from his mouth.
Language, and its proper usage, were important to him. An accomplished calligrapher, a voracious reader, and an avocational writer, he was forever dwelling on the importance of speaking and writing correctly.
Years later, as a young teacher, I carried on that same tradition by including grammar lessons in my pupils’ daily curriculum. When I became a father, I continued the practice in conversations with our daughters.
Neither my wife nor I favoured the inane baby-talk that was so prevalent among parents back then as they communicated with their children. Right from the beginning, we resolved to speak to the girls in proper sentences, expressing complete thoughts, using correct terminology, pronouncing words properly. Most of it probably went over their heads in the beginning, of course, but we definitely set an expectation in their minds that effective communication was important.
Along the way, I made time to tell them of the various quirks and anomalies of the English language. Making a game of it, or including it in story-times, helped, I think, to convey the lessons.
I’d explain to them about adverbs and adjectives, and how they’re used. “Adverbs usually, but not always, end in ‘ly’,” I’d say. “So, you don’t run quick or slow, you run quickly or slowly. You don’t dress nice, you dress nicely. Get it?”
“Huh?” their quizzical expressions would seem to say.
“You can feel good,” I might continue, “but you’re never doing good. You’re doing well. And, you’re never doing poor, but you could be doing poorly.”
“But, you’re always saying I eat too fast,” the eldest once said. “Does that mean I’m eating too fastly?”
At that point, I launched into an apology for all the exceptions to the rules in English exposition.
Spelling and vowel-sounds were often challenging, as well, when I’d lead them through the pronunciation of such lookalike words as: through (long u sound), tough (short u sound), although (long o sound), cough (short o sound), and plough (sounds like ow).
For a long time, we enjoyed playing a silly-sounds game, asking each other to correct the mispronounced words in sentences like this: ‘Althoo my meat was toe, I got thruff most of it.’
To many of our friends, parents themselves, my emphasis on grammar and spelling likely seemed fetishist, even obsessive.
“I could care less about that stuff,” they often said to me.
“No,” I’d reply, “I think what you mean is that you couldn’t care less. If you could care less, it would mean you consider it important.”
Most of them would roll their eyes and drop the subject.
Pronunciation was always the main issue, though. In time, the girls would recognize and laugh at obvious mistakes they’d hear on the radio or television, from speakers who ought to have known better.
“That guy said Nagra Falls, Daddy,” one might say. “It should be Ni-a-ga-ra, right?”
Her sister might pipe up, “I heard someone talk about the nu-cu-lar bomb, instead of nu-cle-ar!”
“How about this one?” the first might say. “We don’t eye-urn our clothes, we i-ron them.”
“Yeah, and there are no taggers in the zoo; they’re ti-gers.”
I suppose it was Grandpa’s grammar lessons that imprinted on me, and led me to become so insistent on proper language usage.
But, what about the situation today, I wonder, when so much of our verbal and written communication is made up of verbal shortcuts?
Is the proper usage of language still important?
So many times now, I hear people say something like this in conversation: “So, she goes, ‘I like your dress.’ And I go, ‘Thanks!’ Then, she goes, ‘It’s nice.’”
Can they not use the correct word, as in ‘She said…’ and ‘I said…’?
It’s common anymore to hear someone say ‘What?’, not ‘Pardon?’ when they haven’t heard me; ‘Fer Shurr!’, not ‘For sure!’ when they’re certain of something; or, ‘It don’t matter!’, not ‘It doesn’t matter!’ when asked if everything is okay.
To me, it does matter.
Still, in the grand scheme of life, perhaps it no longer counts if our language continues to be used correctly and in its purest form. It is a living thing, after all, and should, therefore, be expected to evolve over time, adapting to technology and 5G capabilities.
But, so much of the first impression we convey to others about ourselves is wrapped up in how we speak, and in how we sound to others. So much about our intellect and learning is tied up in how we write. I have trouble accepting that grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, and pronunciation may no longer be valuable in our human discourse.
My grandfather told me over and over that our language should always be held in respect, and used in its highest form. And I, a child at his knee, believed him.
“Otherwise,” he’d say, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “it will be a true cattas-troffy!”