Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Littel Background on English Spelling.

Warning: Simplified (and smarter) spelling ahed! — Would one expect anything less in a writ about spelling?

At first this was part of another blog on English spelling but it was so long that I thought it better to break it out on its own. Sum words below, but not all, will be speld/spelt more fonetically than others. Since I’m doing writing, I get to choose which ones! As I go along you might see that I slip in more more fonetic spellings.

First we must acknowledg that English spelling never has been and never will be perfectly fonetic. However, at one time in the olden days of Old English, it was much more fonetic than it is now. What happend? Many things along the way.

The French sway on spelling in English is strong and is the root of many odd and unfonetic spellings. Following the Norman-French Takeover of England in 1066, French scribes brought with them the carolina script which was said to be a weaker or more delicate script than the one noted by the Saxons. With the carolina script, sum letters blended together more easily so as to make reading them a hard thing. Thus the scribes began noting French spelling with Saxon words and made many changes. This didn’t happen all at once or even qwickly since, soon after the Takeover, English almost died out as written tung. However, one can see in the erly Middel English writs that even then, the shift had begun.

A few of the chanjes were good but most were not. They gave us the two-staf blends like ch, sh, and the unneeded th. English had two letters for th — þ and ð. The þ is the only staf that they kept from the runes that the Saxons noted before switching to the Roman stafs. The ð was a try by the Irish monks to write the slightly sunder th sounds … It didn’t work. Scribes swappt them at will and thus the ð fell out while the þ lasted until the coming of the printing press which had to be brought in from other lands that didn’t hav the letter! The letters v and j began to be noted tho they were only riffs of u and i … and this itself was the root of much befuddling til they were later sunder'd. While we did need the ch, we didn’t need it for three sounds as ch (church), sh (chef, machine), and k (chaos, anchor [OE ancor, ME anker from Greek ankura. Today’s spelling is from anchora, a mistaken Latin spelling. The Latin lovers strike again!]).

They wrote the French -our for the Latin AND the English -or. Latin was a tung well-known to our forebears, so after the Takeover both color and colour (from Old French colour) are found in both ME and erly ModernE. However in 1755, Samuel Johnson put out his wordbook in which he backt French spellings over Latin spellings for that, as he put it, “the French generally supplied us”. If you want to note the French rooted spelling of colour, for a Latin word, meh. But it’s truly sad when you put it on an Anglo-rooted word like neighbor or harbor. Whenever you note the -our for these words, you might as well find the nearest Frenchman and put a big kiss on his arse and thank him for teaching the dumb Saxons how to spell.

They swappt the French ambiguus qu that shows two sounds (kw and k) for the Anglo-Saxon the cw which show'd only one. So now we hav qu = kw/cw (OE cwic > quick; cwēn > queen; cwēm > queem; asf) as well as qu = k/c (queue, bouquet, mosquito). By the way, did yu kno that queue and cue (the pool stick) are the same word speld otherly? (See list at the end of the writ.)

They swappt the hw to wh. Hwile many nativ English speakers naturally put the lightly aspirated h in front of the w when saying the words: what – |(h)wət, (h)wät|, most outlanders try to follow the spelling and put it behind the w. (From here on in the writ, I’ll write hw for words with the aspirated h + w [whu has mostly lost the w sound but I leav the w for that I like it for now]).

They swappt el to le. In Old English little was litel, lytel; idle was idel; middle was middel; circle was the more fonetic circul, and so forth.

They swappt er to re. In Old English acre was acer

Where you do see -re and -le in OE, it was often an obleeq case and it was said the was it was written.

To avoid handwriting befuddling in the French carolina script, many u sounds were respelt. Thus ou was noted insted of the long u, as in wound (the injury, OE wunde) otherwize it might hav lookt something like wund or uuund so they wrote wound to break up the u's. Hwen u was next to m, n, u/v (for v sound) they put ou or o, as in love (lufa, luua, loua, love). By the way, that is also why a y is often written in words insted of an i like wynde. Other times the ou was needlessly swappt in. They needlessly noted gh for the sum-hwat guttural h as in German ich or Scottish loch thus OE niht > night; thurh ( OE þurh) > through (French ou + gh). (Thr-o-u-g-h is neither fonetic nor etymological right. It is a French bastardization of an Anglo word.)

Also, under French rules, a word could not end in a u/v, thus they put (and most English speakers still put) an unneeded e on words that hav a short vowel that would otherwise end in a v … giv(e), liv(e) and to Latinate words as well … ~tiv(e), ~in(e), ~it(e) words. (See after-writ A; a short list at the end.)

To make things worse, sum-hwen (somewhen), sum-one ek't that silent e onto words that didn’t hav them such as engine (ME engyn from OFr engin). Thankfully, we droppt the silent 'e' from such words as queene, seene, deede, asf. Now we need to drop it from words like engine and go back to the more original and fonetic engin or, even better, enjin.

To see how the French ou for o, u, and oo (and sumtimes aw) messt up English spelling, let’s take look at the cuplet (couplet) from by Horace Mann: 

Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through
O'er life's dark lough I ought my way pursue.

By changing the way of saying the 8 -ough words noting their own analogies, the cuplet can be said in 8 to the 8th power (16,777,216) otherly ways! … Only ONE of hwich is right! Let’s look at it written in a more witful way:

Tho the ruff coff and hiccup plow me thru
O'er life's dark lokh I aut/awt my way pursue.

Of these, tho, hiccup, plow, and thru are found often these days … sumtimes, ruff and coff. Lough is also spelt as loch tho that is misleading as well since the ch is said kh rather than ch as in church. Other byspels of shifted spellings: draft from draught; taut from ME tought; donut from doughnut.

Care to take a guess as to how to say clough and slough? There are two ways to say slough hanging on the meaning! (Truthfully three since one of the ways is otherly in the UK than in the US, ther ar two ways to say it in the US and two in the UK but three overall.) 

We still mostly write the French -ous rather than the Latin -us for no good reason.

The troubles with English spelling hav been known almost from the beginning. Altho spelling was much nearer to the way of saying it than it is now:

Bear, the animal, in OE was bera; Middle English (ME) was bere. (Like German Bär, the ä = ā)
Bear, the verb, in OE was berian (the stem being ber) and beren in ME.
So how did it become bear? Bear doesn’t match other ear words: ear, dear, sear, fear, asf. To be fair, some of the words like these MIGHT hav been said in sundry dialects more like the ē sound … bear might hav sounded much like beer. In the end, often the spelling came from one dialect but the way to say it came from another.

Same for wear: OE werian, ME werien (wer is the stem); tear (to rip): OE teran; ME teren (ter is the stem).

For true, there is also weir ‘fense, low dam’ hwich was wer in both OE and ME.

How about glisten? Whu stuck the t in there? OE glisnian. Or the u in guess (ME gessen) and guard (Old French garde; liken regard)? The i in friend (ME frend)? Who put another l in allot (Old French aloter) or allay (Old English ālecgan)? Why did scare shift from ME skerren (Old Norse skirra)?

For some Latinates, the Latin luvers struck. They stuck the b into det, dout, and sotil (all from French) to make debt, doubt, and subtle so as to link them back to their Latin roots. 

They didn’t stop there. They added a c to the spelling of sissors (16th cent.) which was to link it with the Latin stem sciss- ‘cut’. The put the mystery c in other words as well (indict - ME endite/indite). They mistakenly put the c in sithe for scythe thinking it was from Latin scindere ‘to cut’. It wasn’t.

ME and erly English licur (Old French licur) was respelt to match the Latin liquor. Tho in Am. English the candy is still licorice (Old French licoresse which should hav yield licorish, liken Old French furniss > furnish).

They swappt -tion for -cion. Richard Rainolde in Foundacions of Rhetorike wrote, foundacion insted of foundation and commendacion insted of commendation. Neither are fonetic but one can better see the shun sound with -cion than -tion.

They added the h to OE scōl for school and to OE ancor (ME anker) for anchor. The erlier and better spelling of ancor, in the end, is from Greek ankura; the spelling anchor is from anchora, a mistaken Latin spelling. On the other hand, anchoret(e) / anchorite are from church Greek anakhōrētēs, from anakhōrein ‘retire’. Thus anchor and anchorite hav nothing to do with one another but yu woodn’t know that from the spelling.

The p which was added to the start of ptarmigan has no etymological grounds whatsoever other than that the Greek word for feather, ptera, began with a p! (The root of the word is from Scottish Gaelic tarmachan.)

For some unknown reason to me, a w was added to OE hore for the today’s spelling of whore.

These hore-children need to be righted.

Thruout most, if not all, of the erly years after OE, English spelling, literacy was not as widespred as it is now, and literacy in English often came hand-in-hand with learning in the Greco-Roman tungs and writs. Indeed, the thought of someone being literate in his/her nativ tung while being utterly uncouth in the classics would likely hav been truly odd to the folk living in such times. Hence, academics wrote mainly for their fellows, who shar'd their knowledg of the likes of Homer and Cicero. This would have instill'd a confidence that fonetically opake spellings would not hinder the understanding among the target audience, owing to the eath-seen ties to Greek and Latin roots would afford the semantic cues which Anglicized sound alone could not. Alongside the widespred belief among this groop that English was beneath the classical tungs and the lack of any need to reach the folk overall may hav also had a hand in putting etymology over fonetics in those whose works which sway'd erly lexicographers.

In 1887, William Graham Sumner, a sociologist, put the problem in more personal terms when he wrote:

I have two boys who are learning to spell. They often try to spell by analogy, thus using their brains and learning to think. Then I have to arrest them, turning them back from a rational procedure, and impose tradition and authority.

They ask me, 'Why?' 

I answer, 'Because your father and others who have lived before you have never had the courage and energy to correct a ridiculous old abuse, and you are now inheriting it with all the intellectual injury, loss of time, and wasted labor which it occasions. I am ashamed that it should be so.
(Robertson and Cassidy, 1954; 363) This a byspel of the doctrin of "correctness in usage".

Littel has chanjd in over 100 years.


Timeline of reform

c1200, Ormulum, short vowels were follow'd by two consonants (byspel)

In 1569, John Hart wrote a fonetic alphabet. 

A hundred-year later, John Milton, a well-known poet, “deliberatly noted spelling to show the sound and meaning of his words.” (Darbishire, 1952; xi) hwich has been sumhwat follow'd by others such as Edmund Spenser who wrote The Faerie Queen:

1. dropping the silent e: climat, temperat, doctrin, determin, fertil
2. apostrophe for indistinct vowel after soft g or long vowel before end d: bridg'd, proov'd
3. dropping e from -ed endings hwer the apostrophe was not needed as in #2 abuv: armd, dismayd, heapt, turnd
5. dropping sum other silent letters: forren, iland, lept, suttle
6. other fonetic spellings: moov'd, proov'd (Spenser) (today’s v for u)

The first true, widespred, successful reform came with Noah Webster’s reforms tho not even all of his reforms were widely taken and even the ones he put out took a long time to become the better like'd ones in the US. Truth be told is that many of his reforms were merely bringing back older more fonetic spellings like aker for acre from ME aker.

In 1876, the American Philological Association took up 11 spellings, and began touting them: ar, catalog, definit, gard, giv, hav, infinit, liv, tho, thru, and wisht. Two years later the Philological Society of England joind in the work. By 1886, the list had grown to 3500 words.

Here is the a book written in simple spelling from England: The Pioneer: Ov Simplified Speling Also see that HG Wells was on the board.

In 1879, the British Spelling Reform Association was founded.

In 1898, the (American) National Education Association (NEA) began touting a list of 12 spellings: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, decalog, and pedagog … all of hwich are still found today.

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the U.S. in 1906 and had a list of 300+ spellings.

The Chicago Tribune began noting smart spellings as far back as 1870. Later it gave it another bold, true-world try for 41 years with a few simplified, smart spellings. The paper began noting catalog and other former -gue words. They wrote agast, ameba, burocrat, crum, glamor, harth, iland, intern, missil, subpena. Later they added tho, altho, thru, and thoro. They tried frate, frater for "freight, freighter" and changing "ph" not at the beginning of a word to "f" such as autograf, telegraf, philosofy, photograf, and sofomore. Sum of these stuck and are still seen. So we see, it can be dun. Sadly, and sumhwat ironically, the Tribune itself has backslidden to noting many stupid spellings. Why? Forwhy teachers had gone back to the stupid spellings and were whining that the students pointed to the Tribune as grounds for their smarter, fonetic spellings while the teachers wanted them to write with the stupid spellings. — Keep in mind, the NEA started it in the first place in 1898. Sadly, the editors at the Tribune cav'd in.

A few lines from "The Faerie Queen", Edmund Spencer (with v swappt for u when befitting):

Thus ill bestedd, and fearefull more of shame

So been they parted both, with harts* on edge … 

At her so pitteous cry was much amoov'd
Her champion stout, and for to aide his frend,
Againe his wonted angry weapon proov'd:
But all in vaine: for he has read his end

Great God it planted in that blessed sted

*Hart is the more common spelling; but e before r was generally sounded a, as in clerk. This fact is recognised in the modern clumsy spelling of heart, which contains both the e and the a … — "A Biographical History of English Literature"

Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XI

Against the Syrian King, who to surprize … line 218
Of us will soon determin … 227
His starrie Helme unbuckl'd … 245
… and his scatterd spirits returnd, … 294
Celestial, whether among the Thrones, or nam'd … 296
(for I have drencht her eyes) … 367
to life was formd. … 369
Sunk down and all his Spirits became intranst: … 420 (entranced)
… compassion quell'd … 496
… then first to marriage Rites invok't; … 591
Judg not what is best … 603
but they his gifts acknowledg'd none. … 613
For that fair femal Troop thou sawst, that seemd … 614
in Array of Battel rang'd … 644 (Battle ranged)
and by imprudence mixt, … 686
Flood overwhelmd … 747
His Children, all in view destroyd at once; … 761
Man is not whom to warne: those few escapt … 777 
When violence was ceas't, … 780
Of them derided, but of God observd … 817
Wrinkl'd the face of Deluge, as decai'd; … 843 (decay'd)
Of Paradise by might of Waves be moovd …  830
Fast on the top of som high mountain fixt. … 851
… late repenting him of Man deprav'd, … 886


Ives, Kenneth, Written Dialects N Spelling Reforms: History N Alternatives, 1979 PROGRESIV PUBLISHR, ISBN 0-89670-004-6

Hotson, Clarence PhD, Can We Catch Up With Russian Education?, 1963

Kimball, Cornell, The History of Spelling Reform  

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