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Félix Desmarais: the pronunciation of “helicopter” makes my head spin


I tried, among my colleagues, to revise the pronunciation of helicopter. My thesis is that it should be helicopter-ter. It never took off, writes Félix Desmarais. Photo/NZME


Did you know that the word helicopter is made up of two words?

Ok, you probably knew that one. But did you know it’s not a helicopter and a helicopter?

I say. It’s hard to accept.

It’s not helic and opt either, sorry.

It’s helicopter and pter.

Yeah. I’ll give you a minute while your whole world crumbles around you.

It’s understandable. I needed a cup of tea and lay down for a whole week for this one. My coffee table almost collapsed under the weight of the teapot.

These are two Greek words – helico means a spiral (propeller), or the sun, and pter comes from pteron, which means wing, in the same vein as pterodactyl.

Learning this, I tried, among my colleagues, to revise the pronunciation of helicopter. My thesis is that it should be helicopter-ter. It never took off.

English, the real empire where the sun has never set, has consumed everything in its path. It’s hardly its own language anymore – and it dates back long before colonialism.

He took bits and pieces from almost every other language in the world and made them his own. Even the phrase to explain how ubiquitous English is was taken from another – lingua franca.

This borrowing makes English both beautiful and ugly, a staggering Frankenstein monster of disjointed verbiage.

I’m leaning towards beauty – I’ve had a love affair with English ever since I received an Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-ROM in a cereal box when I was 9.

His dictionary had a feature where I could look up the etymology of words, and I soon learned hundreds of Latin, Norse, or Germanic root words that explained English words.

This meant that I would later read a word that I did not know, but extract its meaning by knowing its components. It was an amazing gift.

With that in mind, I really should have known how the helicopter was made up, but even insufferable nerds who spend hours reading dictionaries have their faults.

I may have been immersed in a sea of ​​European words as a child, but that was not the case when it came to New Zealand’s native language.

I certainly gleaned more than my parents’ generation – I have fond memories of teaching mum and dad E Ihowā Atua (the national anthem) around 1999.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence, it was around the same time Dame Hinewehi Mohi bravely sang it in the 1999 Rugby World Cup opener.

I remember being disappointed and embarrassed at rugby games in the early 2000s when the te reo version was sung in a stadium – it was so quiet, then booming in the English version.

That doesn’t happen so much anymore, because people like me who learned it in school populate those stadium seats. We both sing with such pride now. It adds to our pride. We are all united in being collectively incapable of hitting the notes, in both languages. It’s a beautiful thing.

Learning another language – not necessarily to fluency, even in part – has, in my experience, greatly improved my understanding, fluency and appreciation of my mother tongue, as well as the language I was learning.

Language reaches across barriers and cultures to our mutual humanity. The ability to speak, after all, is what differentiates us from other animals.

As an adult, I had the privilege of learning a bit of te reo Māori. What I learned, which I wouldn’t have fully understood without learning a few, is the real beauty of te reo Māori.

It is, for me, the language of a poet. It is not just the words, but the way it is said, often with real brilliance, that makes te reo Māori such a treasure.

How amazingly beautiful is the “tēnā koe” greeting? It means, literally, you are there. I see you, I recognize you.

It makes me proud to be a Pākehā, it makes me proud to be New Zealander, that we can share this land and its treasures.

More than celebrating, it is worth protecting. Every week of the year.

– September 14, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Maori Language Petition. Maori Language Week – te wiki o te reo Māori takes place from 12 to 18 September.

Félix Desmarais is a journalist and above all a former comedian who sold at a very low price.