A few years ago, a good friend of mine told me about her experience learning basic Italian for a trip to “the old country”. The instructor was explaining the rules for spelling and pronunciation, and at the end of the lesson, my friend put up her hand and asked for the exceptions to these rules. Apparently, there were none.
Naturally, my dear friend had been quite relieved to know that she wouldn’t have to struggle with all kinds of spelling anomalies; I, on the other hand, was a wee bit stunned. No exceptions? What kind of bizarro language was that?
Well, I have to admit here that I’m 100% Anglophone. (As a Canadian, I should also be able to speak French, but I didn’t learn it well to begin with and haven’t used it in twenty years now, so … yeah.) The point is, I was so deeply flabbergasted precisely because I had never become accustomed to speaking a language that was, as far as I knew, perfectly rigid in its spelling and pronunciation rules.
My native language, on the other hand, does nothing so well as break its own rules — even when those rules already contain exceptions. The perennial favourite, of course, is
“i” before “e” except after “c” or when sounding like “a” as in “neighbour” or “weigh”.
First, the rule insists that we put the “i” first, but then it proceeds to cite not one but two exceptions to itself. Really, this is not so much a rule as a mnemonic.
But then, something weird happens. A whole lot of words start to ooze out of the cracks in this little rule, words like, well, “weird.” The “e” appears first, but there is no “c” to be found and the vowel combination most certainly does not represent a long “a” sound. Not even close.
And “weird” is hardly a freak in this regard. “Height” is an excellent rule-breaker here, as are “feisty”, “leisurely”, and “foreign”. It’s almost enough to make you have a seizure.