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How to wreck a nice beach

Every once in a while I run across something that makes me profoundly grateful to be a native speaker of English.

Reading the saga of May Pare, the queen of body-parts idioms, in the Los Angeles Times, was just such an occasion.

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Not to disparage Ms. Pare's achievements for a moment. This university-professor-turned-coffee-shop-waitress-turned-author has carved out a niche for herself in popular linguistics.

She's published a book called "Body Idioms and More," intended to enlighten speakers of English as a second (or third or fourth or whatever) language by explaining such baffling turns of phrase as "keeping your eyes peeled" or "using elbow grease."

Pare (pronounced Paray) has been waitressing off and on for the better part of 30 years in Glendale, Calif., but in her native Thailand, she was an English specialist, even teaching at the university level.

More recently, she earned a master's degree in English as a second language from the University of California at Los Angeles.

"She never bandied that talent around at the coffee shop. She just took notes," the Times reports.

"I've learned a lot from just being here at the restaurant," she was quoted as saying.

The genesis of Pare's book came when she was telling her cousin a joke with an idiomatic punch line.

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He looked baffled. (You might say the joke went right over his head. I'm really seeing the need for this book, aren't you?)

She then told him she was just pulling his leg. That only got them in deeper.

"He didn't get it," she told the Times. "I told him this is the way people talk."

She started taking notes, and soon the book was under way.

Of course, application of elbow grease and a habit of keeping one's eyes peeled suffice not to make an English speaker fluent enough to cope amid the verbal torrents of commercial American English.

There's the matter of the right accent and pronunciation.

"Jlaik smore?"

What do you mean, you don't speak Czech? That's not Czech; it's standard American English - according to an outfit called American Accent Training: "Would you like some more?"

American Accent, which offers online and in-person training for people such as call-center employees, introduces on its website the racy-sounding concept of "liaisons":

"In American English, words are not pronounced one by one. Usually, the end of one word attaches to the beginning of the next word." Thus, the pronunciation of "How to wreck a nice beach" is supposedly identical with that of "How to recognize speech."

I'm not sure I buy it completely - I think I pronounce the hard "g" of "recognize," unless I've got a bagel in my mouth. But it was an eye-opener (arrghh! more body parts!) to realize that this concept I first learned in seventh-grade French ("lay zay LEV") applies to English, too.

It's another reminder of how, as speakers of our mother tongue, we are musicians who play by ear.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.


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