The Sounds of English

By Terry Owen

This world is filled with languages…look here—I’ve made a partial list:

There’s Mandarin and Arabic, Icelandic, Thai, Uzbek and Swiss,

There’s Gaelic, Hebrew, Lao, and Urdu, Mongol and Estonian,

(And did I mention Zuni, Kolo, Spanish or Hungarian?)


But of all these different languages,

From Danaru to French,

There’s only one that’s not quite logical—

The tenses here will make you tense!

One language where the sounds are strange,

The spellings odd, the traps immense…

I’m speaking here of ENGLISH, friend–

A language lacking common sense


Do you need proof?

Then follow me,

And I will show you what I mean.


We’ll start, I think, right through this door,

with simple words like to and for…


What’s that? A pair of humble words, and

nothing more, I hear you say?

Just harmless prepositions linking

Phrases met along the way?

Just modest and quite charming words that never

Ask for praise or pay?

(Just words, in fact, that you would scarcely

Notice in your busy day?)


AHA! That’s what they want you to believe, my friend,

I am afraid—

But look! Their sounds are represented



There’s to, and too, and also two,

And over here? For, fore and four!

Is this a good thing? I don’t know…

I think I need to study more


(Remember, too, the two ways to spell one—

My head is getting sore!)


At least–as far as I can see–

There’s only one way to spell three!


Do you believe now what I say?

You don’t? You can’t? Then come this way!


In school the teachers used to say

“This grammar rule you will obey!

This grammar rule will NOT be shirked,

Because this rule will always work!

And if you learn by heart this rule—

And say it every day in school—

(And put your Is before your Es,

Except when they come after C)

Then you will find true happiness,

Then you will prosper and succeed!”


I’ve always done as I’ve been told;

This rule, therefore, became my creed

and so, with Is before my Es,

I frolicked in the parks and streets

and danced with words like sieve and grief,

Retrieve, receipt, conceive and fief—


And thought my life was quite complete—


Until one day, beside a brook,

I found, beneath some leaves,

A book

(I couldn’t help myself,

I simply had to open it and look—)


And found the pages filled with ghastly words

That shattered my belief!

Dreadful and ungainly words, like reign and beige, and freight and Keith!

(Not to mention height and weight and either,

And, of course, eighteenth—)

And now I fear that all is lost,

And nothing will afford relief


Can there possibly be more?

There are! There is! Right through this door!


The letter C can sometimes sound like K: observe concur, concrete–

But Ks–renowned throughout the alphabet for incivility–

Refuse through sheer contrariness

To sound the slightest bit like C!

(And as they dislike Ns, they make

No sound at all in knife and knee)


Is that really any way

For well-bred letters to behave?

An outright breach of alphabetiquette,

I think I hear you say?


Attention, please! I wish you would

Examine closely could and should —

Deceptive and conniving words found

All throughout your neighborhood!

Appalling words which look like old

But really rhyme with hood and good–

(Which doesn’t mean that shoulders sounds like shooders;

is that understood?)


Are you convinced? You’re not? Well, fine! I’ve got examples by the score!

Observe these little Os that roll in pairs upon the kitchen floor–

These Os that can be found in any ordinary house or store–

These Os which look so innocent, and yet are ROTTEN to the core!


Too harsh, you say? Unjust and cruel? Then listen

(I can’t take much more!)

Just listen to the sounds in brooch and blood

And food and stood and poor!

Two letters that produce five sounds?

Please bolt the windows! Lock the door!

(And feed, for heaven’s sake, that dog that

barks and howls upon the moor)


Another sound?! It’s all too much!

I’m up the creek without an oar!

(And when I ask when this will stop,

I hear the raven: “Nevermore!”)


Look around! You’ll cough! You’ll sneeze

At all the possibilities!

At hungry spiders on the eaves,

At fiendish people eating keys,

At centipedes upon the frieze,

At manatees and cheddar cheese,

And swordfish who have lost their sheathes,

(And all I really wanted was one

Way to write the sound of “ee”!)


How can one remember

this great mess of strange and twisted rules?

It would be easier, I think,

to teach astronomy to mules!


To spell the “ooh” sound you could use another pair of Os like zoo

There’s also you and stew and blue and flu–

and don’t forget canoe!


(I wish I could just say “adieu,”

and fly away to Timbuktu!)


This language makes no sense at all!

This language makes me want to bawl!

This language makes me want to throw

expensive plates against the wall!


O-u-g-h sounds like bought and bough and thorough,

through and cough

It also sounds like rough and tough…

Good grief! I think I’ve had enough!

(And did you know, my little friend, that hiccup

once was spelled hiccough?)


(I must escape! Take me away!

I fear my brain is turning soft!)


I don’t want to err when I am writing down the sound of “air” —

Is it e-r-e like where or a-r-e like share and care?

Is it hair or is it heir… or could it be (gasp!) solitaire?

And by the way–who lost this pair of polka-dotted underwear?


(The same small sound spelled seven ways!

Please ask yourself: Can this be fair?)


I need to find a quiet place; a gentle garden, lasting peace

I need to get away; I want these clashing, clanging sounds to cease…


I know! Let’s go! We’ll fly to Greece

And visit with my niece, Therese,

Who quit her job with the police

and now knits socks for ducks and geese!

(For which she’s known throughout the country for her

style and expertise)


You see? I cannot stop myself! I have a dreadful word diseese!

(And incidentally, weren’t those trees and flowers painted by Matisse?)


Enough! Enough!

Turn off the sound!

Unplug the cords inside my head!

So long! Good-bye! And fare thee well!

(Please give my best to cousin Fred!)

I cannot take it any more;

My eyes will burn, my ears will shred!

And so I have decided to take

refuge underneath my bed!


Did I say bed? That sounds like bread!

That sounds like Oedipus and said!

(Good grief! this language is a mess!

I wish that I’d learned Welsh instead!)