Napples and Naranjas

English can be just a tiny bit arbitrary. I know you’re shocked by that news, but it’s better to face facts.

There are the spelling/pronunciation disconnects: Take rough, add th at the front and somehow you get throo, not thruff.

There’s that thing where adding one leetle letter at the end of the word (as a Spanish speaker complained to me) changes how you pronounce something back in the meedle of the word. I thought about pin/pine, fat/fate, and cop/cope, and had to admit she had a point.

There’s even a whole genre of comedy–think George Carlin and Stephen Wright–that relies on odd English usage for its humour.

Why do we drive on the parkway,
but park in the driveway?
Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic
called rush hour?

Today we build out this list with the lowly indefinite articles (a and an), courtesy of a word loaned (or borrowed, people don’t seem to know the difference any more) or just adopted-dagnab-it from Spanish: naranja. In a Spanish mouth, that j is soft: na-ran-ha (a bit like piranha but with a stronger ha). In an English mouth it’s a hard sound all the way.

Can I get you a na-ran-djah, Bill?

It was a suitably distinctive word for an exotic new fruit. It could hardly be confused with anything else, even when scrunched to just two syllables as it soon was: na-ranj. Then one day the n went walkabout and a naranj became an aranj or, as we might say, an orange. The transformation was complete.

But, of course, complete is not the same as consistent, or when we’re reading an ovel or an ewspaper we might give someone an udge to keep the oise down. We might go all silly over ewborns, take care where we point the ozzle of the garden hose, and admire the orthern lights (or even an ebulae if we’re lucky). Surely no one today would tell us to get to an unnery; if they did, though, we’d grasp the ettle and deal with them forthrightly.

I’d like to think that words change or stay the same for some sensible, underlying reason–Maybe ease of pronunciation?–but I have an otion it’s a tiny bit more arbitrary than that.


This entry was posted in Language and Communication, Laughing Frequently and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Napples and Naranjas

  1. You have put a lovely gloss on our oranges. It should be easier to tell them apart from apples, now!

  2. Tom Watson says:

    Albeit arbitrary, English is a fascinating language.

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