Friday, September 12, 2008

A herd of collective nouns

Isn't English an odd language? I find it fascinating, of course, but (as my children assure me) I'm weird. For a non-native speaker, getting to grips with collective nouns is a nightmare. And what is the collective term for collective nouns anyway? Who knows why owls form a parliament, larks an exultation and sheep a flock? Why are geese a gaggle when they're walking and a flock when they're flying... and what are they called as they take off and some of them are airborne and others not?

My husband has been speaking English for so long that it has replaced his native Swedish as his first language. For the pedantic listener, though, there are clues that at least part of his English fluency was gained from non-native speaking parents.

One of those is that he refers to anaesthetic as if the 'th' were simply a 't'. His parents struggled to master the 'th' sound, and putting it straight after an 's' in the middle of a word like that was just plain rude! Mind you, they have no room to talk, the Swedes have an 'sj' combination that is likely to put your tongue into spasm!

The other is collective nouns. While he could probably do fairly well on a written test in which he had time to think of the correct collective nouns, conversational ebb and flow is another matter altogether. At some point he just gave up and started using 'herd' as his collective panacea. Thus:

  • as we drive along a country road, we might encounter a herd of sheep
  • when he is struggling against the flow of pedestrian traffic, he is barged by a herd of people
  • when we go on holiday, his sweet blood ensures that he attacked by a herd of mosquitoes
  • when the wheels fall off, he is faced with a herd of problems
But, best of all, when he heads downstairs first thing in the morning, he is preceded by a herd of cats.

See? It can be done. And, just in case you are one of the few people on the planet who hasn't seen the ad, yet, just because it's Friday:


V Yonkers said...

Great ad. Actually, your husband would do great here in the states. When I asked my family what they would call a group of sheep, they were split between a herd and flock (although my husband points out that after 8 years of Catholic Schools and Christmas carols, they should know it's flock).

You might suggest that he modify the vowel sound and use "hoard" which is often used in the States (a hoard of problems is possible, and most Americans that heard "herd" would probably think he said hoard.)

What I find interesting about our language is it's variety from place to place. I remember when a substitute took over my class while teaching English in Costa Rica. He taught the class to say "I'm going to take breakfast." Then when I visited Ireland, the Inn I stayed at asked if I would like to take breakfast in the morning!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Karyn!

What a chuckle of laughs!

In New Zealand, the ASB Bank has a TV advert where a representative from a foreign bank meets up with a New Zealand farmer. He tries to impress him while surveying his prize herd of cows.

"Nice flock of cows", he comments, to which the farmer replies, "Herd of cows!"

The representative retorts, "Yes I have actually. Heard of chickens?"

I often have a laugh at the English language. I particularly enjoy the pronunciation debacles.

Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, is worth a read if you haven't already creased yourself on it.

I also wonder at these collective nouns. For instance, I wonder what noun is used to describe more than one computer mouse.

Mice? Mouses? Or something else. How about a 'scrabble'?


Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...

There are herds of made-up collective nouns as well. For the best overall, I think it's a tie between "a grasp of millionaires" and "a flourish of strumpets."

Anonymous said...

"I also wonder at these collective nouns. For instance, I wonder what noun is used to describe more than one computer mouse."

Along these same lines, how confusing are plain old plurals? For example, if more than one "mouse" is "mice", why is more than one "house" "houses" instead of "hice"?

Language by committee...go figure.

V Yonkers said...

My son was just talking about Alaska and the "meese" up there. (plural of Moose). I thought of this post.