Why does cough rhyme with toff but plough rhyme with now? Why does debt have a silent b? If ewe can be you, how comes eye can be I? Who on earth put the k into knight? Why is read read as red when it’s said in the past, but reads like its reed in the present? Indeed, why is English spelling so weird? In today’s post we look at the history of English spelling to find out some of the reasons that underlie its many orthographic idiosyncrasies.
Why is English spelling so weird?
Too few letters for too many sounds
Modern English has a phoneme inventory of 44 sounds (with some variation according to dialect) but only 26 letters with which to write them. Since its very earliest days, this mismatch has been a key obstacle to spelling the language in a regular manner. The monks who were among the first to write down Old English tried to solve the problem by adding new letters to represent sounds absent in Latin, such as a ligature of a and e, namely æ (ash), and several runic characters – þ (thorn), ð (eth), and ȝ (yogh). Æ can still occasionally be found (for example, in the official name of the Encyclopædia Britannica), but the runic symbols were eventually replaced by digraphs – combinations of two letters to represent one sound – th for þ and ð and gh for ȝ. Diacritics – those little marks above and beneath letters that you find in so many other languages (á, è, ü, ç, ñ and so on) – being absent in Latin, were never used by the early writers of English and so never really became a part of the orthography, except to write certain foreign loanwords. Continue reading
The title page of Johnson’s Dictionary
It might strike speakers of languages other than English as puzzling, even remiss, that there exists no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Real Academia Española, the Académie française, The Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo, the National Institute of the Korean Language, or any other of the hundred or so institutions set up to study, regulate and oversee the use of the languages with which they have been entrusted. On the whole, these esteemed institutions take a prescriptive approach to their work, laying down the rules of acceptable usage and deciding which new words may be allowed official existence in the lexicon. However, while other countries chose to establish national language-planning bodies, Great Britain in the 18th century, and the USA not long afterwards, opted instead for one-man endeavours. 1755 saw the publication on Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language, while across the pond in 1828 Noah Webster brought out his famous American Dictionary of the English Language. Both were masterpieces of scholarship and laid the foundations of what was to become an Anglosphere tradition of preferring to describe the language as it is actually used rather than attempt to dictate how it should be used. Continue reading
For Americans baseball is much more than just a sport. There is a whole culture tied to baseball that tells us where we come from, what our values are and how we view the world. It even influences how we speak the English language!
So I was very pleased to kick off our cultural talks for 2014 with a new presentation titled Play Ball! Understanding America through its national pastime in the beautiful Autonomous Community of Extremadura. I visited the Oficial Language Schools in Zafra and Plasencia and had the opportunity to share my views on a sport which is still somewhat of a mystery here in Spain with almost 300 students at 3 separate talks.
I just have to say how welcome I was made to feel in both schools, and I would like to give an extra special thanks to Antonio, Raúl and Veronica (pictured below) who lent me a hand looking up some useful expressions that have their origins in the American pastime.
Among some of the expressions they were able to “catch” from the talk were “to touch base”, “to take a rain check” and “to be in the same ballpark.” Do you know what they mean?
UPDATE: Today (7/11/14) I gave another talk near my “home base” in Madrid when I visited the EOI in Torrejón de Ardoz. The woman below reminded me of something that I knew but forgot to mention in my talk. Her name was Ana and she told me of her memories as a girl watching the American servicemen at the military base there play the men from the Cuban embassy. Torrejón has its own special history of baseball as well!
Ana, who is one of the most intrepid beginner learners of English I have ever met, also thought I neglected to mention the film A League of Their Own and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A point well taken Ana. I promise to do that in my next talk!