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Whose Chaos? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 7, 2012

Well, I am not asking about Hesiod’s χάος at the beginning of Creation. That would be the word, of course, that the Septuagint translators considered too chaotic in the context of Genesis 1:2 and therefore decided on a different Greek term (until Micah 1:6 and Zachariah 14:4, where they render גיא as χάος).

I am asking “Whose Chaos?” anyway. And I’m asking about “The Chaos,” by Gerard Nolst Trenité, which appeared as a 146-line poem in his textbook, Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen, published in 1920. But in ESL textbooks you’ll find additional lines and on the Internet you’ll google various dates of publications and multiple renderings with different formats and sometimes find transliterations into either American English or British English via the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA). The wikipediaists writing the entry on Trenité tell us, “The subtitle of the book means ‘English pronunciation exercises’, but uses the pre-1947 Dutch spelling instead of current engelse.” And that adds another little ironic wrinkle to this story to be ironed out, doesn’t it?

Do we think we’re the audience for this poem? Or was the poet writing for himself first and for other English as a second language learners?

To get us answering (or asking more), here are the first letters, words, phrases, clauses, sentences in rhymes and lines and stanzas (as we may encounter them, a bit like this, on one website):

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Saysaid, paypaid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

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