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The long, strange trip of English spelling

The long, strange trip of English spelling

April 28, 2018 By Emmalee C. Torisk Conferences

If you’ve ever had the feeling that English spelling is a dungeon full of traps waiting to trick and trip you, it’s because, well, it is.

That’s the case at least according to James Harbeck, an editor and writer and speaker on language. Harbeck spent his Saturday, April 28, ACES 2018 session titled “Why Is English Spelling So Wierd?” leading the audience through the many twists and turns English spelling has taken over time, stretching from Old English (625 to 1066) to Middle English (1066 to 1476), and from Early Modern English (1476 to 1776) to Modern English (1776 to the present).

Harbeck, a self-proclaimed collector of languages, referred to the English language as “a Caesar’s body” — it has had a lot of “input” from various sources, he said.

Consequently, in his presentation, Harbeck set out to first identify the culprits responsible for the oddities and peculiarities in English spelling (that is, “who and what is at fault?”) and then do some follow-up orthographical crime scene investigation (or, “who is responsible for what damage?”).

Harbeck’s list of culprits was long.

It began with Old English (aka “the English of ‘Beowulf,’” a proclamation that was complete with a dramatic reading of the epic poem’s opening lines) and ended, centuries later, with “teh interwebz,” which Harbeck called the “latest stage in our long enjoyment of playing around with language.”

The culprits in between included influences as disparate and diverse as the French, medieval calligraphy, the Great Vowel Shift, the printing press, classical Greece and Rome, “our own lazy tongues,” spelling reformers like Noah Webster and three phases of “rampant theft” of new words, Harbeck said.

For instance, a significant percentage of modern English vocabulary stems from the French, particularly the Norman French, who brought scribes with them and introduced the French influence into the English language. (We have more recent borrowings from the French language as well.)

Likewise, medieval scribes, who were paid by the letter and largely worked for lawyers and the law courts, lacked a standard reference for spelling and relied on “apparent precedent and analogy,” Harbeck said. They also frequently respelled words for ease of reading and under the influence of French.

The Great Vowel Shift — described by Harbeck as being “like someone just swirled the long vowels” — took about a century and was mostly complete by Shakespeare’s time. European typesetters, who had their own ideas about language, accompanied the emergence of the printing press. Words reflecting and emulating classical Greece and Rome fell into favor “because the Greeks and the Romans were just so goshdarn noble.”

Our theft of words, Harbeck said, involved first respelling words to suit us (and to look like English), then leaving the spelling of those stolen words as-is, and finally not making them look like English. After all, “if it looks like English, it can’t be right.”

But “the real culprit” in English spelling changes is time and tide (and maybe also the French), Harbeck said.

We’ve simply stopped using some letters, stopped making some sounds, and stopped employing some onset sound combinations. Some of our inflectional endings have worn off. We’ve also added some new sounds and some new letters.

“Change just happens,” Harbeck said.

The latter portion of Harbeck’s presentation featured an explication of just who or what is to blame for “ie/ei” (“siege,” “seize”); “ugh” (“daughter,” “tough”); “sch” (“school,” “schnitzel”); “ch” (“macho,” “machine”); the silent “l” (“calm,” “would”); the silent “b” (“dumb,” “tomb”); and various other often problematic curiosities of English spelling.  

The truth is that “we have always wanted it to be difficult,” Harbeck said, referring to the English language, “so that we can know who is and who is not the right sort.”

Check out more reactions to and recaps of Harbeck’s session by searching for #ACESEngSpelling (yes, the session had its own hashtag) on Twitter.

Emmalee C. Torisk is an associate staff editor for the Oncology Nursing Society and a Ph.D. student in rhetoric at Duquesne University, both in Pittsburgh, as well as a freelance editor.

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