Sophie in Santa Cruz
The other day I had asked a friend of mine to proofread one of my essays. She’s from Spain, so English is not her native language but she has an excellent grasp of it nonetheless. At one point she looks up with a bewildered look on her face: “Sophie, what is a loofole?”
I ask her to repeat it, believing I couldn’t possibly have heard correctly. I don’t know what a “loofole” is, and it hurt my pride to think a non-native speaker knew an English word I didn’t know. And it sounded so familiar too, the way she said it like it was a common everyday kind of word. Not to mention that it took me by surprise that my friend had found this elusive word in an essay I had just finished writing. Was my mind going?
Repeating didn’t help so I went over to look at what word she was trying to pronounce, the inkling dawning on me that perhaps this was an issue of pronunciation-related mistaken word identity. I lean over her shoulder to make out the word she is pointing at: ‘loophole.’
Aha. My heart plummets, as it does every time this happens. When I have to explain to native speakers of another language that, unfortunately, as much as I love it, English is just inferior to their language. “You pronounce it loop-hole, like two separate words.” She looks at me, bemused. “Yeah, you couldn’t really have known that, because there’s no rule saying that in some cases “p” and “h” would not be pronounced “f” together. That’s just the way it is.”
When relaying this story to a Dutch friend of mine, he helpfully says in relation to Dutch pronunciation: “Well, it’s just that we have actual rules for that.” In light of this, it’s funny that English is deemed such an easy language to learn. Of course, there’s no endless learning by heart of tenses and endings as in French, or Der/Die/Das, the bane of German-learners everywhere. But, unlike Dutch, for example, trying to pronounce English words is often like groping in the dark to find your socks in the morning. You never know what you’ll find, and it may not be what you’re looking for once you turn on the light.