OUPblog > Language > Dictionaries & Lexicography > The Oddest English Spellings,
Or, A Lasting Tribute to Diversity, Part 2

The Oddest English Spellings,
Or, A Lasting Tribute to Diversity, Part 2

by Anatoly Liberman

The terms King’s English ~ Queen’s English are
familiar to many. They presuppose that the monarch speaks in a way to be
admired and emulated. Language obeys the laws of biology (to the extent that
it depends on the production of sounds) and of society (since it is a means of
communication) and is thus at a crossroads of nature and nurture. School makes
us aware of the norm and turns us into its slaves. Arguments about the choice
of a certain word, construction, or pronunciation make sense only if we
recognize the authority of the standard. Those who advise others “to leave
their language alone” and plead for descriptive rather than prescriptive
grammar books and dictionaries usually speak and write impeccable English, but
in their generosity release the remaining world (foreigners, of course, don’t
count) from all obligations. Language is a thing of beauty, a superb cultural
artifact, and should be treated with care. However, this beauty has taken
centuries to develop, and its crazy design is reminiscent of a cubist picture (crazy
“formed of irregularly shaped pieces,” as crazy quilt or crazy

In the late Old English period, the most prestigious dialect
was that of the region around Winchester, where King Alfred ruled, but shortly
before the Norman Conquest the capital moved to London. Present day English is
heir to the language of the East Midlands, except when modern spelling and
pronunciation go back to different norms. It is usually believed that uncouth
has the vowel as it was and partly is still pronounced in the north of England (from its spelling one would expect it to rhyme with south rather than truth).
Perhaps the word key also owes its spelling to the way it was pronounced
in the north; yet there is no certainty. In the speech of some people the
first syllable of heifer was indistinguishable from hay. Others
rhymed heifer with zephyr. Our spelling and pronunciation do not
match. But perhaps the most glaring examples of dialect mixture are bury,
and build.

The Old English letter y had the value of German u
with an umlaut sign (ū) or of French u. This vowel, providentially lost in
Modern English, retained its quality in the southwest until at least the 14th
century. In the southeast, it yielded e (as in bet), and in the
rest of the country, including London and its environs, i (as in bit).
Alongside short y, long y existed (in Old English, every short
vowel had a long counterpart), and underwent similar changes. Where it
remained intact (that is, in the southwest), its Middle English designation was
u for short y, and u or ui for long y. In byldan,
the source of build, y lengthened before -ld (as in child,
mild, wild
); hence the spelling build according to the southwesterly
norm, even though later the vowel again became short and though the modern
pronunciation reflects the speech habits of the central and eastern dialects. (Several
weeks ago, in discussing the verb wind and the noun wind, I touched
upon lengthening and shortening before -ld and -nd.) The history
of buy is more complicated, and only one detail is worth mentioning here.
In Modern English, we find final i only in the likes of such obvious
borrowings as taxi, spaghetti, and coterie. In all other cases, y
appears. If instead of buy we write bui, its historical southwesterly
spelling rendering long y will come to the fore at once.

Bury is also a hybrid, and its development must by
now be self-explanatory: the spelling is southwesterly, while the pronunciation
is southeasterly—despite the fact that most of the Standard is traceable to the
center! In busy, the pronunciation is, as in build, central and
northern, but the spelling is again southern and western. One might ask why build,
, and bury have not become bild, bizy, and bery.
The answer lies in the failed efforts to reform English spelling. But we need
not despair. First, thanks to the stubbornness of the educated class that would
not allow busy and its ilk to be buried in peace, anyone can study the
history of English at no cost by looking at such monstrosities. They lend
ceremony, even dignity, to the routine of putting the simplest text to paper. Second,
the spelling of some words has conformed to their pronunciation, improbable as
it may seem. The eastern norm enjoyed considerable popularity in Middle
English, and Chaucer’s language contains many so-called Kentisms. Where their
spelling has changed, we have no idea how they sounded in his days (which is a
pity, isn’t it?). Thus left (the opposite of right) and merry
were lyft and myrie in Old English (lyft occurred only as
part of a compound). Their modern shape shows that hardcore conservatives are
rare even when language is at stake.

It remains to be said that the original meaning of merry
was, in all probability, “making long business look short” and, by implication,
“entertaining, happy.” Consequently, the merry wives of Windsor were nice,
affable ladies (not to be confused with the merry widow of Leghar’s operetta),
and Robin Hood’s merry men were pleasant beyond belief. The Merry Monarch, as
Charles II was known, did not get his soubriquet because he was particularly
frolicsome; rather he ruled over merry England in a way that satisfied those
who called him that. And let us not forget Old King Cole, a merry old soul.
He may have been given to mirth, but, first and foremost, he was, I am sure, an
agreeable gentleman (most likely, in his prime), who enjoyed his subjects’
popularity, loved barbarous music, and spoke fluent and faultless King’s
British, presumably in the 3rd century CE.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. He enjoys answering reader questions, even if the solution is sometimes “origin unknown.” Email your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com.

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