Christian Monks adapted the Latin alphabet to English in the 6th century. The Normans brought more changes in pronunciation and sounds, along with suffixes, spelling practices, and analogies. The Great Vowel Shift occurred in the 15th century and altered the character of English spelling forever and increased spelling irregularities.
In his book SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English, David Crystal says, “Etymology is an essential perspective if we want to explain the spellings that have achieved notoriety in English. The ough set would probably come out as top of any hate list.”
Etymology Explains a Lot
He explains that although you can compare the words side by side now, that wasn’t always the case because they came into English over several hundred years. The trouble started in Old English when French scribes respelled a certain Anglo-Saxon sound with a /gh/, so that ni3t, mi3t and tho3 became night, might, though. By Middle English we had those, as well as might, ought, through, though and naught: what Crystal calls high-frequency. And he says that when a group of words rhyme, they influence others through the power of analogy. (might: night, fight, fright, sight).
According to Crystal, there used to be more gh spellings in English: spight/spite, yaughan/yawn. Printers were as confused as anyone else. Should it be willough or willow? The irregularity in these cases has been blamed on gh, but Crystal insists that it’s the vowels that are the problem. “Not so much with ‘i’ or ei, because the ‘i’ of right, might, etc., is exactly the same as the ‘i’ of mine and many more, and the ei of sleigh, neighbor, etc. is the same as the ei of vein, veil, etc. The nuisance is the way ou has come to be used to represent several sounds”
Crystal gave examples of the /au/ sound of plough and bough, the /aw/ sound of ought and bought, the /ou/ sound of dough and though, the /oo/ sound of borough and thorough, and the /ew/ sound of through. And he says that we have to count as exceptions the few cases where gh is not silent: enough, laugh, tough, cough. Another is hiccough. When it arrived in the 16th century, Crystal says it was written in forms such as hiukup, kickop, etc. But a popular feeling arose that there was a connection with a cough. So, people reasoned, if cough was spelled with ough, hiccough should do the same. Analogy again, except the earlier pronunciation remained.
Really, it is unfair to say that English spelling is not an accurate rendering of speech. It is—it’s only that it renders the speech of the 16th century. — Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankinds Greatest Invention
Etymology might explain why there is a problem, but it provides no teaching solution, Crystal says, especially today when classical languages are not a routine part of school curriculum. So where to find a solution? Spelling reformers in the 16th century began teaching people how to remember their recommendations, and the hunt was on for rules.
Different methods were taught, from rhyming couplets or quartrains to mneumonics to memorization. Why don’t rules work? Crystal says, “Partly because history has produced so many exceptions, but also because spelling has been viewed in isolation from the rest of language. Spelling, however, is an integral part of language.”
Rule: ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’
The most famous example of a “rule” that does not work is ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c.’ Crystal explains that the rule could only have arisen in the 19th century after spelling had stabilized, and the demand for correctness entered classrooms. “The spellings in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) show that the modern use of ei and ie was largely established, with just a few differences. The 19th century was an era when people realized they had to get their spelling right—adults as well as children.” And new words were entering the language via suffixes, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and scientific progress everywhere.
Suffixes Provide Meaning
Crystal says that the important thing to note about suffixes is that they are added to words on the basis of the meaning people want to express. The letter the words happens to end with is a side issue. So the plural of baby, body, lily, daisy, etc. is formed by simply changing the ‘y’ to ies, “regardless of the fact that these ending have a preceding b, d, l, r and s. And if the noun happens to end in ‘c’ before the ‘y,’ then that will stay too—hence agencies, policies, democracies, and many more. There are also a few adjectives and verbs in the same group (racier, juiciest, fancied).”
The same principle holds, Crystal says, when we build words by adding a suffix: suffice, sufficient, sufficiency, sufficiently. When you consider all the words that have endings after ‘c,’ you discover a large number of ‘exceptions’: ancient, conscience, proficient, etc.
There is another, smaller group of ‘exceptions’—those where we get ei without a preceding ‘c.’ Most of them, according to Crystal, show the influence of French spelling, which the scribes kept when the words were borrowed into English in the Middle Ages. Many are the result of an ‘e’ occurring before a suffix beginning with ‘i,’ such as atheism, deify, cuneiform, and others. As Crystal remarks, “It’s not that the various ie and ei spellings don’t have an explanation. They do. But the factors are too great to reduce to a simple rule.”
And because there are so few exceptions to the tired ‘i’ before ‘e’ rule, Crystal says it’s better to learn the specific words: receive, conceive, perceive, deceive, plus related words receipt, conceit, deceit, and ceiling, as well as a few others.
Even though being a good speller has lost its ranking in school, we can hope there is one group of artisans that still finds spelling important…the tattoo artist. — Nanette L. Avery
Dictionaries Make An Appearance
One of the interesting things I learned is that many features of English spelling have been shaped because they were recommended by individual writers. Crystal says, “Dr. Johnson had the most influence on the way spelling evolved in Britain, even though some of the spellings he advocated have since been changed.” During the 19th century, a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary could be found in every educated person’s library. Examples were given of people of influence who thought spelling the mark of an educated gentlemen: Lord Chesterfield in 1750 and Thomas Jefferson in 1783. And Noah Webster!
Meet Noah Webster
Noah Webster noted inconsistencies in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary and made a different set of decisions for American English, i.e. tires for tyres, humor for humour, etc. He worked as a teacher in Connecticut during the American Revolution and was struck by the poor quality of teaching materials, and as Crystal says, “especially by their failure to reflect the ethos and environment of the ’new nation.’“ Americans eventually adopted most of his recommendations.
In 1783, Webster published The American Spelling Book and because of its cover it was often referred to as ‘the blue-backed speller.’ It became the standard for spelling for generations of American children.
The growth of the number of dictionaries in the 19th century resulted in many conflicting recommendations about spelling. By 1859, there were sixty-five works published in English since Johnson and thirty in America since Webster. Publishers and printers evolved their own practices and introduced their own house styles—but these didn’t always agree either. In fact, over 200 specialized dictionaries and glossaries, as well as thirty encyclopedias, were published. All this was a result of a huge increase in the 19th century of the number of people able to read and write.
Crystal says that all this meant a new role for publishers and printers. “Ultimately, these were the people who were effectively ‘in charge’ of the writing system.”
Style Guides Appear
Horace Hart, a British member of the London Association of Correctors of the Press, began collecting material in the 1860s, Crystal says, which eventually formed the basis of a style guide for Oxford University Press. First issued in 1893, it became known as Hart’s Rules, and apparently was highly influential. In the USA, the Government Printing Office issued its style guide in 1887. The Chicago Manual of Style appeared in 1906.
American Usage Influences British
Despite the evolution of Standard English, there are obviously a huge number of spelling variants today. And though there are various reasons for individual cases, the increase is partly due to the differences between British and American English (we can blame Noah Webster for that). According to Crystal, increasingly American usage influences British.
I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing.
-– Mark Twain
Crystal says, “But it also reflects different intuitions over which of two spellings better reflects the content of the specialism. For example, we are more likely to find the conservative ae spelling in relation to subjects which have been historical content.”
Specialization Affects Spelling
He gave the example of a Google search in 2011, where the modern subject of pediatrics was ten times more frequent than paediatrics, and etiology was five times more frequent than aetology. However, the historical subject of archaeology was four times more frequent than archeology, and little to no difference between palaeo- or paleo– (although with the popularity of the paleo diet now, that’s probably wrong). Crystal says academic tradition is also a factor. The term aesthetics is normal in the context of art, but it is esthetics in dentistry
According to Crystal, different cultural traditions can also motivate individual spellings and contribute to variations. “Spelling does not exist only to communicate words intelligibly, It helps to convey identity.”
(In a future blog, I wind up exploration of Crystal’s explanations for the spelling difficulties in English)