By Anatoly Liberman
The world has solved its gravest problems, but a few minor ones have remained. Judging by the Internet, the spelling of whoa is among them. Some people clamor for woah, which is a perversion of whoa and hence “cool”; only bores, it appears, don’t understand it. I understand the rebels but wonder. Woah looks like a garbled Hebrew name, though, on the other hand, why couldn’t there be a maiden called Woah? Quite possibly, she even existed and only escaped the annalists’ attention because she spent her childhood and youth in a cloister known as W.O.A.H. (“World’s Oldest Association for Happiness”), a precursor of YMCA. When she grew up, she found a spouse and became (“morphed into”) Whoa, because, wherever she went, she aroused great surprise. Stranger things happen in married life. I am neither a biblical scholar nor a marriage counselor; my concern is solely about the digraph oa in English. How did this combination of letters arise and why does it occur in so many words?
I will pass by cocoa and boa: both are too exotic to cause trouble. But why is the past of ride spelled rode, while the path used for riding is called road? Let us begin at the beginning. Middle English had two long o’s. One resembled aw in Modern Engl. law, paw, saw, the way those words sound in the varieties of English in which Shah and Shaw are distinguished. It went back to long a (approximately as in Modern Engl. spa) and was an open vowel, that is, during its articulation the lower jaw dropped quite a bit. Another long o continued Old English long o and was less open. In some dialects, a third o appeared, the product of short o lengthened before single consonants. It got in between the two older vowels. The space became too crowded, and multiple mergers took place. As a rule, the third o, in the few areas in which it arose, merged with its close neighbor. Still later all o’s changed under the pressure of the Great Vowel Shift.
While the two o’s coexisted, they were not confused in speech, and scribes needed different symbols for them. They introduced the digraph oa for open o: the letter a could signify the openness of o because a is the most open vowel in any language. The symbol for long close o remained the letter o. The device looks awkward, but its use can be justified. The digraph was not an invention of the English Middle period: oa had sufficient currency in Old French, and the scribes (of French descent or educated in the French tradition) followed the only model they knew. But there may have been another reason. While long a was becoming long open o, the spelling oa reflected the ongoing change or the scribes’ uncertainty (a? o?) quite well.
Here are some examples. The digraph oa in boat, goad, load, loan, oak, soap, and toad, among many others, designates the vowel that once was open long o (from long a). Road also belongs here. Old close long o became long u (pronounced as in Modern Engl. pooh-pooh); hence boot, doom, school, and so forth. These words will no longer interest us. As noted, short o, lengthened in Middle English, tended to merge with its close partner, and orthography did not react to lengthening: words with it were spelled with o in both Old and Middle English, changed under the influence of the Great Vowel Shift, but retained their visual image through the centuries (as, for instance, in spoke)—let us add: sometimes! After open and close long o merged, people could not know which is which, and spelling became chaotic.
Take the word mole “spot.” In Old English it had long a. This means that today we could expect moal. No such English word exists, though the omniscient Internet reminds us of Moalboal, a fourth class municipality in the province of Cebu, Philippines. Mole “animal name” had a short vowel in Old English; consequently, the spelling of its present day reflex (continuation) is regular. Opponents of Spelling Reform keep repeating that, though our spelling is hard to learn, at any rate, it preserves the venerable past of the English language. This argument makes no sense even in general terms (why should the spelling of a modern language be a faithful transcript of the past?), but, to make matters worse, spelling distorts the history of English as often as it reflects it. The case of road is characteristic. This noun and the past tense of the verb ride go back to the same base and were homonyms in Old English, namely rad (with long a). It follows that both should be spelled road. Either under the influence of forms like spoke or for some other reason, rode acquired a wrong shape. Home and bone are also “wrong”: their original forms (ham and ban, with long a) predict modern hoam and boan, like foam and groan. By contrast, soak should be spelled soke, but it is not. To restore fairness, English has a legal term soke “right of local jurisdiction,” which is spelled “correctly.”
The plot thickens when we encounter late borrowings, most often from French. Consider coat and coast. What would have happened if they were spelled coste and cote? Coste, with -e after two consonants, does not look ugly (compare haste, paste, and waste versus waist); cote (as in dovecote and sheepcote) is also fine. Moat had o lengthened before a single consonant and therefore should have been spelled mote, like mote “a speck of dust.” Here opponents of Spelling Reform tell us that homophones should be distinguished in writing. Really? Are they seriously inconvenienced by fan (for winnowing) ~ fan “admirer,” poach (as in poached eggs) ~ poach “trespass,” and dozens of others?
Some dictionaries list dote and doat and explain that dote “to be silly or weak-minded” can be distinguished from doat “to bestow excessive fondness.” Perhaps it can, but I am not sure that someone old but not yet in his (or her or better “their”) dotage will nowadays write a doating parent. The most puzzling word with oa is broad. In Old English, brad rhymed with rad (both had long a). Then, quite regularly, both changed their long a to long open o. Road went further and farther (roads usually do) and acquired a diphthong by the Great Vowel Shift, while broad stayed with its long undiphthongized o. At least two conjectures have been offered to explain this anomaly. According to one, broad, meaning what it does, was pronounced with an intonation that preserved long o intact. This is possible but rather hard to believe. The other explanation has it that broad is a northern form; in the North, vowels stayed away from many changes familiar to those who speak Standard English. But no solid evidence testifies to broad having been particularly favored in the North. Finally, I am pleased to report that there is absolutely no need to spell hoarse and hoard with oa, even though the vowel before r was open. Compare horse and porcelain. Yes, and I have almost forgotten gloat, a probable remnant of eighteenth-century slang. Wouldn’t glote satisfy us?
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.
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Image credit: Chile – twisting switchbacks at the border crossing. Photo by McKay Savage, 26 February 2012. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.