Tuesday, October 25, 2011

English Spelling & Pronunciation - Why the Discrepancy?

The discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation of words is perhaps the most difficult part of learning English as a second language. Or for that matter as a first language. How did this discrepancy develop?

David Crystal in By Hook or by Crook devotes a few pages to the history of English spelling that I will summarize here.

Irish monks living in England developed the first writing system for English during the Anglo-Saxon period. They did a fairly good job of recording the language as it was spoken. One problem they encountered was the difference in dialects between areas of England. Spelling phonetically resulted in hundreds of words with different spellings in different parts of the country. "Old" for example was spelled "eald" in the south but as "ald" in the north.

After the Norman Conquest (1066) the writing of English was taken over by the French who introduced their own peculiar way of spelling. Some of the Norman French contributions to English spelling are: "qu" for "cw" (thus cwen became queen), the "ou" in words like mouse and house, and the "gh" in might and rough. The Old English alphabet, with lots of up and down strokes made it hard to read words with adjacent letters "n", "m", "v" and "u", so they frequently substituted "o" for "u" making words like come, love, and son. As Crystal explains "[this] certainly helped legibility, but it added a new set of complications to spelling".

Later spelling "reformers" near the end of the Middle Ages decided that spelling should reflect a word's history, so words with a Latin origin were changed to remind readers of the original Latin word. This resulted in the "b" in debt (to remind us of Latin debitum) and the "o" in people (for Latin populum), among many others. Most modern English speakers do not view these changes as an improvement (my understatement of the day).

So why have these spellings persisted? It's not for lack of reformers. Many scholars over the years have made spelling reform proposals. All but one (more on the exception in a minute) were met with fierce resistance. No one wanted to have a new system imposed on them, even if it would make life easier (witness the resistance to metric in North America). It didn't help that the reformers couldn't agree among themselves on a single system. I have an entire book on the subject of English spelling in my language library - Righting the Mother Tongue by David Wolman - which I will delve into for more detail another time.

Now for the exception among spelling reformers: Noah Webster. His proposals came at the right time and place to gain national acceptance - the formation of the new nation of "The United States of America". Strong anti-British sentiment lent support to his proposal in 1789 for America "as an independent nation... to have a system of our own, in language as well as government." His 1828 "American Dictionary of the English Language" became the standard for American English. Webster of course only did the job of reform half way - if that. He dropped the "u" from words like colour and the "o" from diarrhoea but left the vast majority of irregularly spelled words (nearly 1/4 of the words in a modern College dictionary) the way they were. And of the words that he did change, Canada adopted both British and American versions, only adding to our spelling complexity (see my June 23 post "Canadian English, Eh?"). His opportunity may never knock again.

There is some hope, however. Modern linguists are watching the way English is being used in social media like email, chatrooms, and blogs. Here grammar, punctuation and spelling are greatly simplified, more or less without loss of meaning. Blogging is of particular interest where more complex ideas are being published but, as Crystal puts it, "without the intervention of an editor or proof-reader, so it is more like 'speaking in print' than anything before". Perhaps this is the beginning of grass-roots language reform.

Are you a traditionalist or reformer? I'd like to hear your thoughts on English spelling.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Original Word Order

The October 23 AWAD email had a link to a news article on the word order of the first language. Talk like Yoda? We May have originally by Natalie Wolchover in the Science website of msmbc.com. She was reporting on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Merritt Ruhlen and Murray Gell-Mann, co-directors of the Santa Fe Institute Program on the Evolution of Human Languages.

Of the six possible word orders of Subject, Object, Verb, slightly over half of the 2,000 languages they looked at are SOV (I you like). English is SVO (I like you) while Latin and German are SOV. The SOV order, the authors claim, is the most likely order for the proto human language from which all the rest have evolved. Incidentally, it is also the word order spoken by Yoda in Star Wars, hence the title of the article.

Ruhlen and Gell-Mann came to this conclusion after creating a family tree of the world's languages and discovering a clear pattern. While SOV languages changed into other orders, the other orders never changed into SOV. Therefore SOV had to be the original order.

A previous article had also predicted SOV as the original but based on an entirely different information. Tom Givon, a linguist from the University of Oregon, argued that the SOV order is the most natural to humans as evidenced by how children learn language.

So, perhaps Yoda's speech would not seem so strange to a German?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A-Hunting We Will Go

Ever wonder about the a- tacked in front of some verbs? Where did it originate? Does it (or did it) have any special meaning?

We're familiar with this construction now only from a few old folk songs like "A-hunting we will go", a few old English Christmas carols "Here we go a-wassailing" and "six geese a-laying", and the 1969 film "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting" which borrowed the name (and little else) from a silent 1925 MGM film of the same name. It is also found in a line of the Knight's song to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "an aged aged man, A-sitting on a gate" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haddocks%27_Eyes).

Wikipedia describes it as an "archaic intensifying prefix". David Crystal in By Hook or By Crook explains that the a- originally meant the action is on-going, something you do over and over. "A-sitting" indicates the old man had been sitting on the gate for a long time, or was accustomed to doing so. Its use in this regard died out centuries ago but has been kept alive by poets and song-writers who found it useful to fit the meter of their compositions. All of the examples given above are relatively recent and likely used for this reason. "A-wassailing" was composed about 1850 and "A-hunting we will go" was written in 1877 for "The Beggar's Opera". "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is older, first published in 1780 and likely somewhat older than that. Through the Looking Glass was published in 1871.

The a- construction also survived at least into the 20th century in the Appalachian English dialect. One can imagine a stereotypical hillbilly leaning on the door of his mountain shack, rifle in the crook of his arm, saying "I ain't afeerd o' nobody". It was taken there by the early settlers and because of their cultural isolation survived long after it was dropped by English-speakers everywhere else. For more on this fascinating dialect see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_English.

Lately I've been a-reading By Hook or By Crook by the English linguist David Crystal. It's subtitled "A Journey in Search of English" but I would describe it as a "delightful romp". As Crystal describes his journey through Wales and England recording local dialects, his narrative gets sidetracked into many different directions, all of them (to me anyway) quite interesting. I will share more of these in shorter posts like this one rather than wait for time to compose longer essays.