Monday, October 6, 2008


Shakespeare may have advised "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (Hamlet), but the English language has long ignored this edict. (To be fair, a number of other languages are also borrowers and lenders.) It is one reason why spelling in English presents so many problems.

As noted in the comment thread on a recent posting, the orthography (the way we write a word) and the pronunciation (the way we say a word) often have no seeming relationship to each other. Nor, when we do just a little bit of research, is the orthography/pronunciation relationship always the same. Sometimes "ancient" pronunciation exists in words whose spelling has been changed. Sometimes we pronounce words differently now even though we maintain an older written version of a word. Let's look at the "-ough" construction in English.

Tough, rough, enough--the -ough is pronounced as if spelled uff. (Interesting note: there is a word enow, an archaic form of enough, used by Shakespeare. It apparently didn't "take" and we are still stuck with enough instead.)

Cough--the -ough is pronounced as if spelled off.

Borough, thorough, dough--the -ough is pronounced as if spelled oh.

Through--pronounced as if spelled ooh.

Ought, bought,fought, brought, sought, thought--pronounced as if spelled awt.

Slough, bough, drought--pronounced as if spelled ow

Further complicating things is the -aught construction, giving us caught, taught and daughter pronounced as if the -aught is awt, and draught pronounced as draft, with the -aught as aft.

If you delve into the history of the words above you will not find the -ought or -aught spellings in the origins of the words. It was someone's attempt at standardizing the spelling, but didn't take into consideration the different pronunciation that remained.

Many people have suggested that we need to standardize our spelling to conform to the way that words are pronounced. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) American English is pronounced differently in many instances depending on geographic location in the country and 2) we could well lose the historical trail of the original roots and meanings of words.

There have been movements before to standardize English spelling; they have all basically failed. For now we are all going to have to grin and bear it, and make close friends with a dictionary.


mother in israel said...

How about nickel? ;)

ProfK said...

The -el and -le suffixes in English show our language origin and borrowing prediliction. The -el suffixes are from the Germanic language families, of which English is one. The -le is from the Latin into the Romance language families (think -able or
-ible for example). A source lists five categories of -el suffixes and nine for -le.

So our word "nickel" comes to us as follows: "1755, coined in 1754 by Swed. mineralogist Axel von Cronstedt (1722-65) from shortening of Swed. kopparnickel "copper-colored ore" (from which it was first obtained), a half-translation of Ger. Kupfernickel, lit. "copper demon," from Kupfer (see copper) + Nickel "demon, goblin, rascal" (a pet form of masc. proper name Nikolaus, cf. Eng. Old Nick "the devil;" see Nicholas); the ore so called by miners because it looked like copper but yielded none. Meaning "coin made partly of nickel" is from 1857, when the U.S. introduced one-cent coins made of nickel to replace the old bulky copper pennies. Application to five-cent piece (originally one part nickel, three parts copper) is from 1883, Amer.Eng.; in earlier use were silver half-dimes. To nickel-and-dime (someone) is from 1970 (nickels and dimes "very small amounts of money" is attested from 1893).

mlevin said...

"1) American English is pronounced differently in many instances depending on geographic location in the country"
There is one standard American Pronounciation practiced by News Reporters and Most radio personalities. And even with TV shows and other events, speakers try to pronounce words in as close to standard American as possible.

"2) we could well lose the historical trail of the original roots and meanings of words." Why is that important?

ProfK said...

There is something called "General American" as regards pronunciation. However, it never was the accent of the entire nation, nor is it today. General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents, particularly by those in the national sound media. General American is also the accent generally taught to people learning English as a second language in the United States, as well as outside the country to anyone who wishes to learn "American English." But speakers of English in the US generally model their speech after those they hear around them in their communities, not the national media personalities. New Yorkers sound like New Yorkers, Southerners like other Southerners etc.

Re the roots, words fall into word families--words connected because of one common root ancestor. Even without a dictionary we can puzzle out the meaning of a new word if we recognize a similar root from a word we already know. But that recognitiion may come because of the spelling, not the pronunciation. Take the word "two." It is pronounced in General American identically with "to" and "too." (They are homophons.) A change in spelling, so that all three would be spelled the same because they are pronounced the same, would lose the meaning of the word "two." It is related, by root, to the old Norse "tw-," which we see in twin, twenty, twice, twist, between etc., but it is not pronounced the same as its "siblings." The "tri-" in triple is not pronounced the same as the "tri-" in trident (they are homographs rather than homophons), yet they share the same root. Someone hearing these two words would assume different roots, therefore different basic meanings; seeing them written the same tells us how they are related.

mlevin said...

Honestly I think that we won't have to do anything. There is a whole new English developing as we speak via IM and texting. I predict that within a generation or two we would have books in English and books in txt or whatever they will call it.

A Living Nadneyda said...

I'm going to show this post to Elder Princeski, when she complains about learning her English spelling, so at least she'll feel her complaints are justified. It really is hard to learn English.

Thanks for an enlightening post.

גמר חתימה טובה

mlevin said...

ProfK - I think there should be a line drawn between spelling and grammar.

And if I'm correct, the whole new spelling will evolve from texting and IMing, but not grammar. English grammar will remain the same.

ProfK said...

There is already that line drawn between spelling and grammar, except in some cases of tense formation for verbs. We get some funny verb constructions. The past tense of "to fight" is "fought" and the past tense of "to buy" is "bought" but the past tense of "to sight" is "sighted," not "sought," because somehow "sought" is the past tense of "to seek."

Re the text and IM shortcuts taking the place of Standard English, I sure hope not. We would lose so much of the beautifully written and important pieces created in the Standard English of today and of yesteryear. Somehow I just cannot see translating Shakespeare into "IM-speak." "2b or nt 2b tht iz th ?" just doesn't do it for me.

Anonymously said...

Or maybe we could be reading Gr8 Xpectashuns some day. Or maybe this line from a book my daughter was reading for school "He could not help himself: the laughter uncoiled within him and snake-like erupted into her startled face." That line would probably be written as "rotfl" or maybe "rotflmao." Not a future I'd like to see come into being.

Gmar Chasima Tova.