Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Language: Nothing Wrong With Being Homophonic

Howard L. Chace, a professor of romance languages at Miami University, wrote a story in the early 1940s. He wrote a story in which he substituted the sounds of the words with slightly different ones. English is such a versatile language with so many words of so many sounds that it wasn't hard to come up with substitutes. Originally it was a story based on the idea that war time deprivations might have to extend to the spoken word. To quote the professor:
I wrote it about 1940. It was going to be part of a little article I was writing. It was in the days of rationing during the war and I thought about what would happen if we had to ration language. If our vocabulary were cut in half, we'd have to get along with other words. Consequently, I thought I'd see how you'd get along with the other half. I've never written that article, but I've always thought of doing it.
The story he wrote was a retelling of the tale of a young girl who visits her grandmother who lives in a dark wood. You might recognize the girl in question. She had a particular taste in cape and cap. The girl in question is, of course, "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut".
I taught French, and I used the story in my class to show the importance of intonation in learning a foreign language. You see, if you take these English words and put them in columns like a spelling book and just read them, they have no meaning. However, if you read them with the proper intonation, the meaning appears for certain people. For other people the meaning never does appear.
On today's web you may occasionally hear a tale of someone who posts something and it just takes off. It becomes popular and takes on a life of it's own without any help. This happened in the case of "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" years before the web came around.

I never submitted it to anybody, but it got spread some way or other. It's one of those things that got completely out of control. I showed it to a few friends and to a book salesman who came to see me. He liked the thing because it had to do with words. I think I may have given him a copy, and he must have given it to someone else. It first appeared in print in the Merriam Company's magazine Word Study. I think it got in Stars and Stripes (U.S. Army newspaper) because I heard from people in Baghdad, Sweden, all over the world. Sports Illustrated found it in another publication and gave me $1000 for it. Arthur Godfrey found it in Sports Illustrated, and he broadcast it and very generously told any readers that wanted a copy they could have one by sending me postage. To my surprise, I mailed about five thousand of them. After that episode, Prentice Hall asked me to write a series of stories for a book, which I did.
The book of stories was called Anguish Languish. It not only contained Ladle Rat Rotten Hut but also other Furry Tells and some classic Noisier Rams by Mother Goose, some Fey-Mouse Tells, and Lath Thing Thumb Thongs. Of the songs... may I suggest Hormone Derange.

The trick to reading homophonic stories is to read them out loud and not think to much about the meaning of the words themselves. Just let them roll off your tongue and let your mind transpose the words to the ones you really need. It also may be easier to listen to the story being read to you. That way you don't get caught up in what the words mean and you tend to listen to the sounds they make instead. Give a listen to a version of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut and see if it makes sense to you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a childhood tune I sang to myself over and over for years without realizing what it was actually saying:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats
And little lamzy divey
A kiddle eetivy two
Wouldn't you?