Shades of Spelling – Part VI

the words Shades of Spelling in color with dark blue/green at bottom fading to lighter color at top of letters

The Latin alphabet had been adapted to English by Christian Monks in the 6th century. The Norman arrival, with their French influence, brought more changes in pronunciation and sounds, along with suffixes, spelling practices, exceptions and analogies. In the 15th century, The Great Vowel Shift occurred and altered the character of English spelling forever.

A Charlie Brown cartoon: I hate spelling errors. You mix up two letters and your whole post is urined.

Spelling Irregularities

The amount of irregularity in English spelling had become so real by the 16th century, David Crystal says, that people began trying to reform it, looking for principles that could be applied to all cases. “But,” he says in his book, SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling, “there are so many idiosyncratic spellings, often associated with influential writers, that they could not make it conform.”

Various suggestions were made for spelling reform and finding a reason to justify what needed to be done. Finally, the solution was to make more use of Latin: it was a language that all educated people knew; children in grammar school learned it, having so speak it as well as write it.

Crystal gives the word debt as an example. “The English borrowed it from the French dette in the early Middle Ages. it went through various spellings: det, deyy, dette, deytt. None of them have the letter ‘b.’ Since the word originally came from Latin debitum, 16th century writers thought the Latin spelling would help ‘fix’ it in the English mind. So they added the letter ‘b’ since it wouldn’t affect the way they spoke; ‘b’ became a silent letter. “Of course, today most people don’t know Latin, and silent letters just confuse anyone trying to spell a word.

Etymology Rules

During the 16th century, Crystal says, etymology ruled. Subtle got it’s ‘b’ from subtilis, habit from habitus, indict got its ‘c’ from dictare, artic from arcticus, recipe got its ‘p’ from recepta, salmon got its ‘l’ from salmo, fault from fallitus.

“How come she can’t spell? Librarians should know how to spell.” – Ramona Quiumby as written by Bevery Cleary, Ramona’s World

Latin Influence

Crystal says there are straightforward examples of the influence of Latin. “There was a more complex background for words like author and authority. As so many of the borrowed words at the time, author started in English as a borrowing from French; authority was the same. But there was no ‘h’ in the French words, and none in the Latin either. So where did it come from?” He says it was probably one of the cases where writers saw a similar-looking word and assumed that these words were spelled in the same way. Analogy again, but which one?

“The most likely candidate is authentic,” he says. “All three words were coming into English at around the same time (14th century).” There were various spellings without an ‘h.’ but the original Latin was authenticus, using a th they used when they borrowed it from the Greeks. Therefore, Crystal says, “If authentic had an ‘h,’ so should authority and author.”

So if author and authority came from auctor and auctoritax, why didn’t the ‘c’ come into English as well? Crystal explains that originally it did. Then along came the ‘h,’ and pronunciation became difficult. To simplify, people stopped pronouncing the ‘c.’  Crystal gives the example of Americans not pronouncing the ‘c’ before ‘t’ in Connecticut. “Lots of people don’t pronounce the ‘c’ in adjunct. And eventually , ‘c’ got dropped from the spelling.”

He gave other examples of difficult pronunciation: autumn and hymn (from Latin autumnus and hymnus) lost their final /n/ sound, but these words retained the ‘n’ spelling.

Latinists Didn’t Always Get It Right

The Latinists didn’t always get it right though. Why is there an ‘s’ in island? Crystal explains that “the word in Old English is iland or igland—from ey + land. An ey was a Germanic way of describing a piece of land surrounded by water—the same word turns up in Old Norse and Old Frisian—and we see it today at the end of the county name Anglesey. The Anglo-Saxon word carried over into Middle English, but then became confused with another word, isle, which had come in from French.” The French were influenced by Latin too and had begun to write ile as isle (Latin origin: insula).

Things might have stayed with iland, with no ‘s,’ and isle, with a silent ‘s.’ But then people began to associate the two words in their mind, Crystal says, and began to think of it in a new way: it sounded like ile + land. If so, then the first part should be spelled like isle. And that’s how island got its ‘s.’ A mistake; the kind of mistake that Crystal says often happened in the history of English “when people mis-analyze a word. The word for apron was napron when it arrived in English (from French naperon), but after people encountered the phrase a napron, they heard it as an apron, and that’s how it stayed.”

Other examples included: why is there a sc in scissors? Because people thought it came from the Latin word scindere ‘to cut.’ But, Crystal says, “it was from cisorium, ‘cutting instrument.’  And why is there a sc in scythe? The same reason,” he explains, “except that in this case the word came from an Old English word sioe  (/see-thuh/).” (I cannot write the letter accents as they appear in the book.)

His last example was ptarmigan: a Scottish Gaelic word, tarmachan, which came into English spelled tarmaken or termagant. “But in the 18th century, people thought it was a Greek word, and that the beginning must be from ptero– meaning ‘wing-shaped, feathered,’ so they added the ‘p.’ (The Greek source is correct in pterodactyl and helicopter.)”

Poster that says "I'm an electrisen (crossed out); Electresin (crossed out); Electricion (crossed out). I cut wires!

Decision-Making in Spelling

Etymological reasoning increasingly became a major factor in decision-making over spelling, Crystal says. It is behind many common spelling errors, There are over 120 different spellings for privilege in the Oxford English Dictionary., apparently one of the most misspelled words in the history of English. According to Crystal, “Dr. Johnson followed the Latin source word, privilegium, and we have had privilege ever since. Sacrilege and sacrilegious went the same way. And it’s thanks to the influence of Latin that we use cede in such words as concede, recede and precede, rather than the more traditional English way seen in succeed and proceed.

Crystal feels that the evidence about the relative influence of French and Latin is frequently ambiguous. Words have changed their spelling over time, influenced first by one language, then another. He gave examples of what he calls “confusables,” words characterized by inconsistency, such as pairs as dependant (noun) and dependent (adjective), or attendant and superintendent.

Usually the problem, Crystal says, is in the unstressed part of a word. “Why do we have trouble distinguishing between stationary and stationery? The two spellings reflect different origins. Stationary from Latin -arius, as seen in necessary, primary and contrary. The ending in stationery comes from French – erie, as seen in cutlery, pottery, and confectionery -– especially today with new words such as eatery and winery.” He says the same kind of etymological explanation accounts for the many pairs of words distinguished by a single vowel in an unstressed syllable, such as complimentary vs complementary, principle vs principal.

“In Latin,” Crystal says, “the different vowels were emphasized, and in earlier English this was also often the case. Not so now. And as the pronunciation contrast diminished, so the spelling confusion increased.”

Silent letters, with their etymological explanations, also played a part. A common occurrence is silent letters arriving as part of loanwords, such as fracas or khaki. And sometimes it simply was the result of a change in pronunciation.

Yellow poster with black letters: Don't speak negatively about yourself, even as a joke. Your body doesn't know the difference. Words ae energy and cast spells, that's why it's called spelling - Bruce Lee


(In future blogs, I’ll explore some of Crystal’s explanations for the spelling difficulties in English