Talky Tuesday: Y iz speling inglish so hard?

I’ve often joked that I’m glad I happened to be born in a country where English is my first language, because if it weren’t, the spelling alone would have forever kept me from even trying to learn it as a second.

I mean, it makes no sense. On the other hand, a lot of (but not all) other languages have spelling conventions that do make sense. Even Irish Gaelic, which I tried to learn but gave up on because I could just not pronounce it, allegedly has very strict spelling rules.

To be fair, though — English is all over the map. Exhibit 1:

How did we wind up with this messy orthography? It mainly happened because two dudes, one in England and one the the U.S., decided to write the definitive English dictionary, but followed different rules. But it also has to do with the convoluted descent of the language itself.

Let’s take a quick trip through time — but it’s going to start about five hundred years before what you were probably (or possibly not) taught in high school.

This would be Caedmon’s Hymn, a fragment from sometime in the 7th century C.E., which would mean over 1400 years ago. Here’s the opening line: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard…”

Any idea what that means? Well, probably not. The translation is, “Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian…”

Perhaps the only word that jumps out as even close to anything in modern English is “Weard,” but only if you realize that English at this time capitalized nouns, and “Weard” is very close to “Ward,” who is legally not the guardian but the guarded. Think Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s young “ward.”

“Nu” might kind of hint at “now,” but with a very warped vowel-sound.

Let’s check out the language about four hundred years later.

Here’s the first line of Beowulf, written in the early 11th century CE, in the original: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” This translates to “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” You probably recognize exactly one word in that sentence: The first person plural pronoun “We.”

Maybe, if you look closer, you might realize that “þeodcyninga” has the word “king” hiding in it, and is probably the possessive form of the noun built on the stem “cyning,” which would have been pronounced with a hard “C” at the beginning.

This is Old English, but it might as well be a foreign language, right? Let’s take another little jump forward:

“siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye…” This is the opening line of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1100 CE in a dialect of Middle English, and it’s probably a little easier to understand. In modern English, it reads, “After the siege and the assault of Troy…”

The funny looking letters that appear to be lowercase p’s in which the round part slipped down is actually the equivalent of the letters “th,” so you could interpret it as “sithen the sege,” and that second word reveals the reason for the biggest misunderstanding modern English speakers have about Middle English.

If you’ve ever seen something like “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that’s where this comes from. Instead of replacing the “þ” with “th,” early typesetters (who didn’t have the character) used a “y” instead, because to them it looked similar, and hence a non-existent word was born.

But back to the point, if you read that line out loud slowly, you can pretty much hear the modern English meaning in it. But look at how much the language had changed in just a century. Why? Simple. Beowulf and The Green Knight lived on opposite sides of the Norman Conquest.

This had a huge impact on the English language, infusing it with French. It’s a big part of the reason why we raise cows, pigs, and chickens, but eat beef, pork, and poultry. The farmers and cooks were lower-classes, so spoke English. The people who ate it were upper-class and rich, so spoke the courtly language, which was French.

Let’s jump ahead to 1392 and The Canterbury Tales, written in a later version of Middle English. I’ll bet that you can understand this one perfectly well: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

It’s basically giving us the setting — in April, when the rains of that month end the drought in March that affected plants right down to their roots.

Set the time machine for 1469, and Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, and look at this opening line: “HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned…”

I don’t even need to translate that, do I? Except maybe to point out that “Vther pendragon” is better know as “Uther Pendragon,” father of King Arthur.

One last jump of 140 years, and we get this line, for which I don’t even need to cite the author or source: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

And so was modern English born.

Think about that one for a moment. If you were to jump into a time machine, you could only really safely go back a touch over 400 years, or maybe 550, and still be able to communicate with other English speakers — and that’s not even accounting for The Great Vowel Shift.

But spelling was not standardized in Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an example from Twelfth Night, aka Twelfe Night, or What You Will.

And if you want a really funny take on the language of the era by a very famous American author, check out Mark Twain’s hilarious short story 1601, which is naught more but an extended fart joke at Queen Elizabeth (I)’s expense.

Shakespeare would have loved it.

But after Shakespeare died in 1616, it was less than a century and a half before Samuel Johnson felt compelled to compile a dictionary of the English language. His initial attempt was to “fix” the language, but he soon admitted that this was folly.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really fix much, and it’s thanks to him that we have such weird (British) spellings as programme instead of program, tonne instead of ton, and all of those words with “ou” instead of just “o,” like “colour,” because he had this weird boner for maintaining the spellings of words from non-English sources, like French and Latin.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster was born three years after Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1755, and the United States as an independent nation were born by the time he was in his early 30s. He started working on his own dictionary with a goal toward simplifying spelling, and it came out in 1828 after a preliminary run at it in 1806.

Of course, Noah learned 26 languages in order to properly classify English words, and his dictionary was considered by many to outclass Johnson’s in every regard.

But this meant that there were still two English dictionaries with quite different spellings, and with authors who didn’t really simplify anything.

Sure, Webster gave us the short forms of program and ton, and the less nonsensical versions of “tyre” (tire), “kerb” (curb) and “gaol” (jail), but that was about it. He could have quashed such nonsense like the letter “C” (totally redundant as long as we have K and S around); really simplified vowel sounds by standardizing them as single letters and creating strong and defined diphthongs and, finally, getting rid of those stupid silent vowels, mostly “E”, that like to creep at the end of words after a consonant and change the pronunciation of the internal vowel.

So, again, come on. “Maik” is a much more sensible spelling than “make,” which would be two syllables in most other languages.

Speaking of “syllables,” what’s with those double letters? In Spanish, two L’s together makes sense because they are pronounced differently — “Lavas,” meaning you wash, is pronounced just like that: “lavas.” But “llaves,” meaning keys, is pronounced “ya-vays.”

Well, unless you’re from Argentina, in which case it becomes “sha-vays,” but the less said about that the better.

But it gets really weird because American English prefers things like “traveler,” while British English insists on “traveller.” Or what about “judgment” vs. “judgement?” (Hint: Sorry, Brits. You’re wrong. It does not need that second “e”. Webster was right.)

Ben Franklin had tried to simplify spelling before Webster, proposing a new alphabet, but that never caught on. Then again, some of the Founders actually proposed making the official language of the new nation Hebrew instead of English.

Or maybe they were actually going to go for German. Who knows?

In any case… English is the bastard child of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin, German, Celtic, and (in latter days) borrowings from every country and culture we’ve managed to touch. As such, our spelling is a total hodgepodge and a hot mess, and it’s probably never going to get fixed.

On the other hand, a couple hundred years from now, everyone may speak Emoji, which would be a weird full circle back around from Egyptian hieroglyphics, where everyone knows what the little pictures mean even if they pronounce them in their own language.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

Noah Webster was 70 when he copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language in 1828. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fetish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly quickly. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s true gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) nor Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!