Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Language and libraries

I'm certainly glad I decided to order The Secret World of Og because Zoë has found it absolutely riveting so far. She begs for it every night, she sits transfixed while I read (unless she's too wound up from explaining all her theories about the people of Og), and she's fully convinced she can speak Og fluently (which isn't terribly difficult considering their entire language consists of a single word: og). At any rate, she's absolutely loving it.

During reading lessons today, we came across the word "bag," and Zoë was very bothered because in the system she's learning, each vowel sound is written a different way and she felt they used the wrong vowel symbol on the word.

/ā/ is a long a, as in the word bake (and which is technically a dipthong //eɪ//), whereas /a/ is a short a, as in the word back. This way the child can see visually which sound to put in any given word.

The issue Zoë had was that the book had /bag/ and she passionately disagreed with this.

"That's not how you say the word!" she said. "I want to say it the way you say it, so they need to put the line on top of the a—/bāg/!"

I can't remember where I was reading about how some language is innate while other parts of language are a conscious choice (which then becomes habitual and natural). I think it was Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch. And, in fact, it was (thank goodness for useful indices)! She discusses this phenomenon on pages 40–41: that Canadian children (who likely grew up watching American Sesame Street) grow up conditioned to say /zee/ at the end of the alphabet but then make a conscious switch to /zed/ later in life (but still as children) as an assertion of their identity. We also choose to continue using the British spelling of things, etc.

"We all make linguistic decisions like this all the time," she says. " align ourselves with the existing holders of power by talking like they do, so we can seem rich or educated.... align ourselves with particular less powerful groups, to show that we belong..." in other ways. Sometimes, I suppose, just to sound like our mothers.

I ran into another tricky problem last week when we were going over our science curriculum. We're learning about body systems and I was reading a section from our textbook about the circulatory system and everything was going smoothly until I came across the word /capillary/.

"Oh, dear," I said. "I honestly don't know how to pronounce this word. Well, I do. But I don't. I think I grew up saying kuh-PILL-uh-ree, which means that's probably considered wrong down here. So they must say KA-pill-air-ee. But, honestly, I could have that reversed. I'm not sure."

That's an occupational hazard of living in another country for half your life, not knowing which is which, I mean.

So I continued to read the section, pausing every time I came to the word capillaries, where I'd offer them both pronunciations, until they suggested I just look it up. So we did (the answer is here) but that still didn't feel like a satisfactory thing for me to do because I honestly don't want to adopt the American pronunciation for everything and it makes me feel like I've been gaslighted when I everyone tells me I've been pronouncing a word wrong only to figure out that I've been using a perfectly acceptable pronunciation (ie. the one I grew up with). It's not wrong; just different.

Andrew is worried (jokingly) that when one of our children gets to med school (because, of course, all our children are going to be doctors) they'll be made fun of for their pronunciation of capillary.

I assured him they'll do just fine. There are doctors in other parts of the world, after all.

Besides, isn't it my job to get them good and confused before I send them out into the world? I'm pretty good at confusing people. Take the dear librarians at our local public library, for example.

Our card, very unfortunately, has a limit of 75 items.

Frankly, that sounds rather generous until you learn that the library for us is like...Target...for other people. You know all those jokes about going into Target for one thing and coming out with, like, a billion. That's how the library is for us. I mean, I've seen people go into the library and reemerge with only an armful of books (sometimes with only one or two items, no joke). But we are not those people.

We storm into the library with 3+ bags stuffed full of books (which my children lovingly stuff into the hippopotamus-book-return's mouth) and waddle out an hour later burdened down by just as many books. It's lucky we can only leave with what we can carry, otherwise we'd definitely feel oppressed by our 75-item limit.

We usually end up with approximately 60 items out at any given time, but we go to the library every week, so I bring in 30 (or so) books and then my kids will quickly pick out 30 (or so) books (because it just so happens that each of our book bags can hold about 10 books each, I guess).

This means, however, that when it's time to go check our books out, I never have any room left on my account. Today, for example, I had 66 books checked out. We combed through and found all the books that were due today, as well as some extras from books that are due next week, but which we've already finished reading. So we returned a decent number of books, which meant that we could check out as much as we could possibly carry, right?

Wrong. Because our library is so slow at checking books in.

I mean, they get it all done by the end of the day, but I have learned that I really can't expect to return my books and check out new books in the same afternoon without running into trouble.

Today I had 66 books checked out and we checked out 31 books. 66 + 31 = 97 (which is well over our limit).

This means that I have to talk to a librarian every single time I go to the library. I recognize that librarians are nice people; I just don't necessarily want to talk to them every time we go to the library. It does not help that there's always this one librarian working there who feels it's a huge burden when I ask her to return our items.

She has asked us, "Why do you want to check out so many books?" (Ummm...because).

She has asked for my card and then has informed me that I still have room to check out seven books, so I should be fine. (Hahaha. No).

She has asked me for the titles of the books I want to check in. (Ummm...various titles...just...all the titles).

She has asked me what kind of books I'm returning (usually mainly juvenile books, but always some YA and up) and then has gone back there and only returned the juvenile books and has reported back, "I've got you down to 55 books out. Is that good enough for you?" (Only if I make my children weed through the new books they've selected and we leave half of them here).

And I just can't stand trying to work with her. Like—guys!—checking in books is not a hard part of working in a library. You don't even have to reshelve them; you just scan 'em all in really quick like and you're done. It's, like, not a burden. But this particular librarian seems to hate it.

And she was working today so I lurked around the "ask for help" station (there isn't even a counter at our library which totally throws me off; there are portable "ask for help" stations and I'm really not sure how I feel about it) until a different librarian was in the area and then I went and stood by the "ask for help" kiosk.

"How can I help you?" he asked.

"Okay," I said, bracing myself for him to dig in his heels and be grumpy about things. "This happens every time we visit the library, but my card is currently almost maxed out and my children will want to pick out a billion books but I won't be able to check them out until the billion books we just returned get checked in, so I was wondering if..."

"Oh, that's no problem," he said cheerfully. "Did you return them at the inside or outside book drop?"

"The inside one."

"Okay. I'll just pop back there and check them in. Anything else?"

"N-n-n-n-no," I stammered.

"Okay, then have a good day."

"You, too."

And he turned in all the books we had fed to Hiccups the Hippopotamus minutes earlier. So this might have to be my new thing, lurking by the community growing tower (where I have a view of the help "desk" and the children's section) until I see my nemesis librarian disappear and a new librarian emerge.


  1. I think you should just email the branch manager and tell her how the one librarian is always grumpy about it, and how much you appreciate the librarian who was nice about it, and ask if you can please always have the nice service. This would work--unless the branch manager is the grumpy one!!!

  2. Also, your medical school bound kids can just go to med school in Canada, and then if they want to say caPILLary, they will fit in.

  3. Our library seems to check books in fast, and I hate that that one person is such a grouch about it! Thank goodness for helpful workers like the man today!

    I had no idea about the alternate pronunciation of "capillary" so thanks for that lesson! I'm used to a bit of alternate pronunciations because I speak Southern, and most of the media have "mainstream" accents so I almost feel defensive when people tell me I say something wrong. Depends on my mood. :)

  4. Won't they give your kids cards. I think lur library has a 25 book limit for each kid that can write. At least then you'd have a little more wiggle room.

    1. They WILL but the app on my phone can only be tied to one card and I don't want to be unaware of what we have checked out because late fees drive me nuts! Hahaha! Maybe one day we'll give in and start using their cards though (they all HAVE them, even...I a control freak). :)

  5. I've never pronounced capillary the way you pronounce it. Hmm. But, we just had a conversation yesterday at a playgroup about the long a vs short a in "bag"... But the interesting thing to me is that my kids learning to read here always say a long a for the word "a" by itself. But in regular conversation no one uses that. I don't remember learning it that way in school. But if they do that here, what is the big deal about having a long a in the word bag?

    Side note, it is not just the Canadians who pronounce it that way--native North Dakotans and people from Wisconsin do also (yesterday it was a girl from Wisconsin who complimented me on my bag that started the whole discussion).

    1. Yes! All along that norther border they get into vowel raising quite a bit, it's largely a Canadian phenomenon spreading south. We'll take over the whole continent eventually, I'm sure! Hahaha!