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The Oddest English Spellings (Part 3)

by Anatoly Liberman

If we disregard the use of runes, we may say that literacy came to Europe with Christianity. Two exceptions are Greece and Italy. England, like its neighbors, adopted the Roman script, but the sounds of the Germanic languages (and English belongs to the Germanic group of the Indo-European family) were in many respects different from those of Latin. As a result, the learned men among the medieval “barbarians” had enormous difficulties in making the 26 letters at their disposal do justice to the vowels and consonants they heard in the speech of their countrymen. After the introduction of literacy, new sounds kept appearing that had no counterparts in Latin, and orthography coped with the innovations as best it could. Some languages invented new letters; others introduced special signs (diacritics). Anyone who has seen a page of Czech or Hungarian must have noticed those signs at once. Umlauts in German and accent marks in French are so familiar that they have long since been taken for granted. A common way of rendering consonants alien to Latin was to combine two or more existing letters and assign the needed value to them. Such are th, sh, and ch in English. Names like Schubert and Schumann have made the German combination sch familiar even to those who know no German. In the words shelf, nation, pension, Russia, conscience, delicious, sure, and chic, the letter groups given in bold designate the same consonant. But sch is rare in English. Yet it occurs and is worthy of a short note.

Apart from such obvious borrowings from German as schnapps
and schnauzer, sch may appear in words that originated in Greek, were
taken over by Latin, and then spread to most of Europe. In Classical Greek,
they were spelled with sigma and khi, and in Latin with sch. A typical
example is school. English has an inexplicable attachment for foreign
and archaic spellings. It is curious that Italians, the incontestable heirs to
Latin written tradition, spell scuola and experience no discomfort (but
then they also spell telefono), while English has retained both sch
and ph. An especially interesting case is schism. This word
surfaced in English texts in 1390. Its immediate source was Old French scisme
~ sisme
. Judging by an 18th century spelling skism, this
word was then pronounced skizm, with sk-, as in school,
but in the 17th century the forms shism, shismatic, and shismatical
turn up, which presuppose the sound of modern sh. Today the educated
pronunciation of schism is as it was in Old French, that is, sizm (though
many people, especially in America, say skizm). The etymological
spelling that has survived goes back to the 16th century (and it is
the same in Modern French).

No less famous than the pairs lorry ~ truck, autumn ~
and pavement ~ sidewalk, which divide British and American
English, are the different pronunciations of the noun schedule. In late
Latin, we find sceda and scheda “a leaf of papyrus.” Its
diminutive scedula meant “a small piece of paper.” The attested
meanings of this word that also came to English via Old French are (in
chronological order): “ticket, label; an explanatory slip accompanying a
document; appendix to an act of parliament,” and finally, “a classified
statement; program, timetable.” Since the Old French spelling was cedule,
the pronunciation with s- set in. It coexisted with the pronunciation skedule.
The variant shedule was hardly known even in the late
seventeen-hundreds, but by 1836 it had become universal. Its rise is a
mystery. (The memory of language change is amazingly short. Today the
prevalent British pronunciation of quagmire is kwogmire, and
among the English people whom I polled—their age was between 30 and 40—no one
even suspected that a variant with a different vowel ever existed.) Webster
defended initial sk- in schedule, and Americans followed his

The group sch turns up in the middle of the word seneschal
“an official in a great household” (a term belonging to history). This is
another loan from Old French, but French has it from Germanic, where it must
once have sounded approximately siniskalk (with some ending). Sini-
is related to Latin senex “old” (as in senior and senility),
and skalk- meant “servant.” Modern French has ch in the middle,
but English has preserved the oldest spelling, with sch. By contrast, marshal,
another “servant,” this time taking care of horses (compare mar- and
Engl. mare), makes do with sh. Marshal has come a long way from “farrier,”
that is, “someone dealing with horseshoes” to “a high official of the state and
in the army,” but then horses were the mainstay of the Middle Ages.

The story of schooner (trustworthy or apocryphal),
once told in Webster’s dictionary and repeated many times maintains that Captain
Andrew Robinson built the first vessel at Gloucester, Massachusetts. When the
vessel slid off stocks into the water, a bystander cried out: “O, how she
scoons!” Robinson instantly replied: “A scooner let her be!” and from that
time vessels like Robinson’s have gone under the name thus accidentally
imposed. The New England verb scoon “to skim along” has not been
recorded, but it is a possible variant of dialectal scun (the same
meaning). Since a respectable nautical term, unless it came to English from Scandinavia, must look as though it originated in Dutch, an h was added to scooner,
for in Dutch sch is as widespread as in German. In today’s Netherlands, the word feels perfectly at home, but it was coined in America. By way of compensation, Dutch jacht “yacht” (its primary meaning is “hunting; chase, pursuit”) has lost its middle consonant, unpronounceable in
Standard English (though it is known from Scots loch, for example); the
spelling yott turns up as early as the 18th century. Yachts
were so closely associated with England that in 19th-century Germany the word was often spelled with y- instead of j-.

Such are the peregrinations of sch, from Ancient
Greece to Massachusetts, via Germany and the Low Countries. It is a pity we
missed Italy with its scherzando, but a page and a half is not ample
sufficiency for an exhaustive linguistic travelogue.

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 protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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