BEUSCHEL: The Tower of Babel revisited

Mar 15, 2012


Given that I speak English, which is the primary language here in the United States, I didn’t think I would ever have major problems communicating with all the other people around me who also spoke English.

English in and of itself is a difficult language to learn. I was trying to help my granddaughter learn her spelling words and I noticed there were some really odd ways to spell words that I just couldn’t explain. It started with the word “enough.” It certainly is spelled different than it sounds. Why not just spell it “enuf”? 

What about the word “right”? Why not just spell it “rite”? I guess Rite Aid latched on to that idea.

Then there’s the mystery of the words “pneumonia” or “psychology.” What’s up with the silent “p”?

This all makes me wonder: How in the world did I ever learn how to spell? I still struggle with the “ei” vs. “ie” order in words.

Not only is spelling a challenge in English, but what about pronunciation? I may know there is the silent “p” at the start of pneumonia, but I still have to learn how to pronounce the word.

Given that we all use the same 26 letters, it’s amazing the different languages we have created that seem to impede our ability to communicate with each other in English. Since I work in an elementary school building, I frequently hear teachers say things about “phonemic awareness” or “phonological processing.” I’m not always sure what they are talking about, and I know I could ask — but I feel like, if we’re both speaking English, why can’t I understand what you are saying? 

My next challenge comes at coffee shops where the words “skinny” and “grande” are tossed about while ordering coffee. How did ordering a cup of coffee get to be so difficult? As I stare at the big poster behind the counter, I see words like latte and mocha, and really get confused. All I want is a good cup of coffee with cream.   

Then there’s all those cooking programs on TV in which terms like sauté, cream and braise get tossed around like salad. Having been a home ecomonics teacher at one time, I remember one of my students seeing the word “cream” in the recipe, and she went to the refrigerator and got the cream and poured it into the cookie mix. It wasn’t hard to understand her confusion.

Since cooking is one of my least favorite things to do, I don’t lose too much sleep trying to understand these words that confuse my grasp of the English language.

Trying to talk to military people throws another wrench in communicating in English. They start throwing around words like ordnance, drone and wingman, and leave me wondering about their meaning.

I just read the article in the Grand Haven Tribune about the “dog tags” that were returned to a serviceman’s family. Now those are interesting words. How about the term “mess kit”?

Even among the different branches of the service, words like “captain” or “major” denote different levels of rank. My goodness, could things get any more difficult?

Why couldn’t they use the same ranking system?

Let’s not forget the medical community with terms like adnoma and sphygmometer, or EEG or EKG. One medical word that most of us would understand is colonoscopy, thanks to Katie Couric and “The Today Show.” Then there is that jargon about DOs, MDs, PAs, OB/GYNs, ENTs and RNs.

Even in the mental health field, there seems to be a separate language evolved out of English. Terms like bi-polar, ADHD, OCD and ODD are often spoken between the LPCs, LLPs, SWs, MFTs and LPs. And like the medical community, the mental health community has even created its own directory of the language in the DSMIV-TR.

In the area of technology, I’m good at turning on my laptop and getting to my e-mails. At a recent literacy conference, I was listening to my colleagues and baffled as they started in about tweeting and blogging. And then someone mentioned Googling, and I was lost.

Then one of the speakers I listened to talked about Google Earth. Is that in reference to the same planet I live on?

I am very hesitant about getting a cell phone. I see people using them for texting, typing away on them using all kinds of codes like LOLs, BFFs and OMGs. I see families at restaurants and each person is holding a cell phone, and they are all texting away and no one is talking. I wonder if the code language they have developed is going to replace the English I learned as a child?

I’m keeping my landlines so I can actually speak to another person.

It seems like we have created our own Tower of Babel, one brick at a time.  

— By Janet Beuschel. She can be reached at her website,



Isn't this a Gallagher routine?


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