By Anatoly Liberman
It is easy to get used to certain conventions. No characters exist for the initial consonants of the English words shin, chin, and thin, and at an early age we learn that two letters are needed to render them in spelling. In Part 3 of the series “The Oddest English Spellings,” I compared shelf, nation, pension, Russia, conscience, delicious, sure, chic, and Schubert, in all of which the letters given in bold designate the same sound. In other cases, the same combination of letters has more than once phonetic value. So in character, chic, and chick; knowledge and acknowledge, numb and amber, dogma and diaphragm. English spelling is so capricious that we take everything in stride. Only occasionally, when a word’s visual image is shockingly at variance with its pronunciation, do we wonder why such things should happen and then we resign ourselves to our fate.
Why, really, is choir not spelled quire? It would sound as sweet, perhaps even sweeter. In Middle English, after this word was borrowed from Old French, it was spelled quer(e) and cuer, but the latter part of the 16th century, some learned people decided that the quere had to be “restored,” so as to resemble its Latin etymon chorus. The result of the restoration was a ridiculous hybrid that pretends to be 40% Latin, looks 100% French, but is fully, misleadingly English. In the not too distant past, such spellings were called corrupt. Modern linguistics shuns the epithet corrupt, for everything has a reason and should be treated with respect. The politically correct term is altered.
So be it, but heaven save us from enthusiastic language planners. We owe to them some of our silliest spellings (fortunately, not all of them are extant; thus, we do not write habundance because of its presumed derivation from Latin habere “have”) and such felicities of grammar as: “When a student comes, I never make them wait.” The sentiment is praiseworthy, but the congruence (a student—them) is “corrupt.”
Abundance is related to the verb abound, from Old French abonder, from Latin abundare, that is, ab-undare (undare “flow,” unda “wave”); abundance suggests the idea of overflowing. But today my story is not about abound or surround (it has the same root and has nothing to do with round). It will be about the digraph (a combination of two letters) th, which can designate a voiceless consonant, as in bath, and a voiced one, as in bathe.
In word initial position, it is voiced in the and in a few pronouns, conjunctions, and adverbs: this, that, these, those, thee ~ thy, their, though, there, then(ce), thus, and thither. Compare thy ~ thigh, the only pair of English words of this type. But sometimes the letter following t is mute, as it is after r in rhyme (a doublet of rime), for example. So why is it there? The answer is the same as with choir : excessive zeal in etymologizing. Inserting h after t gained considerable vogue during the Renaissance. Words taken over from French were made to look like their Latin ancestors, which in turn, often went back to Greek. This is how theater, thesis, author, throne, and several others acquired their h, and so powerful was the influence of spelling that people began to pronounce those words, as they are still pronounced today. Considering the fact that literacy was rare, this result comes as a surprise. Thesis and author are bookish words, but throne? Who did not hear about kings and thrones?
A much greater surprise is the history of the names Catherine, Elizabeth, and Anthony. Here, it seems, the variants with t should have prevailed. And indeed, in British English, Anthony is pronounced as though it were spelled Antony. Shakespeare’s Anthony should be only Antony even in American English, in which Anthony and anthem have the same sound in the middle. But Catherine, Anthony, and Elizabeth are full, “official” names. Their homey variants have withstood Latinization; hence Kit, Kat, Tony, Betsy, and Bess (“Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess, / They all went together to seek a bird’s nest”).
Real confusion occurred when the spelling th became the norm, but speakers took no notice. The examples are well-known: Thomas (with Tom being spelled phonetically), Thames (except the river name in Connecticut), Esther, thyme, and (in British English) Anthony. Phthisis was at one time pronounced tizik, but this pronunciation, which was archaic in Britain long ago, seems to have disappeared in American English as well. (Not that many people use this word.) In asthma and isthmus, both t and h are usually mute. The name of Gotham, a parish in Nottinghamshire, unlike the nickname of New York, is pronounced gotam. The same holds for the phrase three wise men of Gotham (“Three wise men of Gotham / Went to sea in a bowl: / And if the bowl had been stronger / My song would have been longer”; however, in folklore, wise people often feign stupidity to deceive their superiors, and such tales are also told about the inhabitants of Gotham). Chatham is Chat-(h)am: t h belong to different syllables in it. Not only Latin played havoc with th. I have never been to a place called Rotherhithe, but, according to the books I consulted, its name should be pronounced redrif.
Is there another language like English?
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. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”