Why on Earth is English spelled the way it is? Here's some clues.
Speling suks. The thing doesn't make sense. We all know spelling bees are just a mechanism to keep kids who can actually spell from complete ostracization. Of course there's no hope for the future either, since computerized spell checkers have done for spelling what calculators and cash registers did for America's math SAT scores. Out of sight, out of mind.... Spelling poorly on the Internet makes you look stupid, so History House tries to get it right, but let us be the first to tell you spelling is basically a bunch of crapp. Why? The answer's in the history, of course. Bill Bryson's classic book The Mother Tongue will serve as our guide into the fool's paradise that is English spelling.
Bad spelling is more dangerous than you might imagine. Bryson notes that "in Hungarian... Sza'r means stem, but take away the accent and it becomes the sort of word you say when you hit your thumb with a hammer." Twitch and miss the second 'n' in millennium and you've got millenium: one thousand, er, anuses. Spell-checkers don't include very uncommon words in their dictionaries, so millenium's apparent inclusion in our copy of Word 97 leaves us to suspect either a lot of Microserfs moonlight as proctologists or they've just given up trying to spell correctly. The FTC is no doubt investigating this flagrant abuse of monopoly power.
The Nights Who Say Kni!
But we promised history. Bill Bryson asserts, "sometimes our curious spellings are simply a matter of carelessness. That is why, for instance, abdomen has an e but abdominal doesn't, why hearken has an e but hark doesn't." Casting our eyes back to the days when monks wrote books by hand, we might think that carelessness and laziness would prune cumbersome words with the brutal efficiency of an angry bishop. But only the printing press and modern dictionaries have removed such hand-crampers like itt (it), nott (not), atte (at), and wheare (where) from our lexicon. Indeed, like many things in history, spelling silliness is evidence of a stubborn human insistence that the mistakes of the past are better than the uncertainties of the future. This explains why ache is still spelled the way it is, long after the pronunciation aitch went the way of the dodo. The transmogrification from 'aiche' to 'ake' isn't as strange as it seems. In fact, aitch was the noun form while ake was the verb form -- and they used to be spelled like that. Bryson again: "This tendency to fluctuate between "ch" and "k" sounds was once fairly common. It accounts for such pairs as speech/speak, stench/stink and stitch/stick. But ache, for reasons that defy logic, adopted the verb pronunciation and the noun spelling." It's been a while since this happened. Shakespeare's contemporaries were the last to witness sanity on the "ch"/"k" front.
This habit of merging two perfectly sensible concepts into a stupidity like ache is not new. It is a natural consequence of English's, ah, promiscuity. From the Frenchy invasion of Albion [on which, see William the Conqueror] to the Imperial sprawl which made English the official language of Sikhs and Zulus alike, English has long been a language of heterogeneity. Heterogeneity is a nice word people use when they mean, ah, promiscuity. We have Norman scribes to thank for the ridiculous spellings of good old-fashioned Saxon words like Cwene (Queen, for you Anglos out there). We assert that any nation which uses the letter combination eaux has no business trying to retool orthography. But to make a long story short, many of the confusions of modern English were direct results of the Norman invasion of 1066. The English welcomed French words like a Frenchman welcomes a mistress bearing particularly pungent brie. For some centuries, French became the official language of England, bastardizing spellings and pronunciations everywhere. But when the French language finally left the scene, leaving English as the lingua franca, if you will, people did not take the opportunity to clean things up.
When at last French died out and English words rushed in to take their place in official and literary use, it sometimes happened that people adopted the spelling used in one place and the pronunciation used in another. That is why we use the western England spellings for busy and bury, but give the first the London pronunciation "bizzy" and the second the Kentish pronunciation "berry." Similarly, if you've ever wondered how on earth a word spelled one could be pronounced "wun" and once could be "wunce," the answer in both cases is that the Southern pronunciations attached themselves to East Midland spellings. Once they were pronounced more or less as spelled -- i.e., "oon" and "oons."
Straiten Up Yore Akt
Not that effort wasn't made: in the thirteenth century, a monk named Orm called for a morr lojikal sistim of spelling and was laughed out of house and home. Bryson hits the nail right on the head when he observes that "for the longest time people seemed emphatically indifferent to matters of consistency in spelling." But by the time the printing press arrived in the late 1400s, book publishers at least seemed vaguely cognizant of the idea that some regularity might be desirable. By the mid-seventeenth century, the ubiquity of printed works meant that standardization of spellings was a necessary evil. We have publisher-entrepreneur William Caxton to thank for this turn of events. Mr. Caxton published thousands of books in English during the fifteenth century, making him very rich and very imitated. Over the next hundred years, so many books would be sold and read that they would change the very face of English, achieving spelling standardization by 1650 or so. But....
Unluckily for us, English spellings were becoming fixed just at the time when the language was undergoing one of those great phonetic seizures that periodically unsettle any tongue. The result is that we have today in English a body of spellings that, for the most part, faithfully reflect the pronunciations of people living 400 years ago. In Chaucer's day, the k was still pronounced in words like knee and know. Knight would have sounded (more or less) like "kun-nee-guh-tuh," with every letter enunciated. In short, the slient letters of most words today are shadows of a former pronunciation. Had Caxton come along just a generation or so later English would very probably have had fewer illogical spellings like aisle, bread, eight, and enough.
To make matters worse, when the Enlightenment hit in the seventeenth century, everyone decided English needed to be more like Latin. Dette became debt because in Latin it had been debitum. Apparently no one was too excited about this change because the pronunciation has remained unchanged. But some changes made for no other reason than plain mucking about stuck. Descrive became describe, perfet turned to perfect, and aventure had a d most unceremoniously inserted into its front section. English is hard enough without trying to bring Latin into it.
A Colonel of Truth
What happens when you bring all this madness together? You get the word colonel.
The word comes from the old French coronelle, which the French adapted from the Italian colonello (from which we get colonnade). When the word first came into English in the mid-sixteenth century, it was spelled with an r, but gradually the Italian spelling and pronunciation began to challenge it. For a century or more both spellings and pronunciations were commonly used, until finally with inimitable illogic we settled on the French pronunciation and Italian spelling.
A good English word for that is bullshit. The moral of the story, kids, is that today's misspelling is tomorrow's dictionary entry. So if your boss or your teacher ever tell you your spelling is off, tell them you're part of the future. And sign your name wacky. Make up some new words and tell everyone you know if you love English, spel it rong
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