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By Anatoly Liberman

I keep receiving letters and comments on the spelling reform. When I broached this subject more than a month ago, I was aware of the fact that some groups on both sides of the Atlantic still believe in the possibility of the reform. Thanks to several responses, I now know more about their activities. They organize conferences and publish books on simplified spelling. I am full of sympathy for their work, even though their voices are weak and the wilderness is vast. There is no need to repeat the arguments of the opponents, for they, like the arguments of the advocates, have not changed since the middle of the 19th century. I will only dwell on two.

Distinguishing feat and feet in spelling may indeed be useful for the reader, as stated in a comment on the previous “gleanings.” The so-called hieroglyphic principle of orthography has always been recognized. A classic example would be an artificial differentiation in the rendering of the vowels in the Russian homonyms mir “peace” and mir “world” before the 1917 spelling reform. The word mir is known to many from the name of the space station Mir, which deliberately combines both meanings. With regard to etymology, the two words are descendants of the same parent: the semantic development was from “community” to “friendly relations.” Some people who did not see the pre-revolutionary editions of the novel insist that Tolstoy meant to call his work War and the World rather than War and Peace (this suggestion is wrong). There is no need to object to the existence of a few pairs of the feat ~ feet type. But English orthography turned hundreds of words into “hieroglyphs.” The result is an unwelcome strain on the learner’s mechanical memory. Besides this, in English, what is gained in one place is often lost in another. For instance, we may agree that preserving the visual distinction between the verb mean and the noun mien makes sense. But mien, rather than mean, is related to demeanor, while their spelling suggests the opposite.

By a coincidence, the second consideration to which I would like to respond also deals with hieroglyphs. Our correspondent asserts that the complexity of spelling and the level of literacy are not necessarily connected and adds that, although Japanese spelling is extremely complex, the population of Japan is highly literate. This, I think, is a faulty parallel. The Japanese do not write letters: they draw or paint “pictures.” One may forget the form or the place of the stroke, but this mistake is unlike the mistakes the users of an alphabet make. Neither the mental process nor the type of error illuminates the nature of English orthography. In Japan, one’s attainment is measured by the number of learned hieroglyphs. With us, the breadth of knowledge partly depends on the number of words we recognize and use, whether in oral or written form. All in all, the two approaches cannot be compared “across the board.”

To add a note of levity to what my colleagues with a bent for theory nowadays call “discourse” (here it would be a discourse on the spelling reform), I will quote a note on victual by Walter W. Skeat, our greatest etymologist and a staunch supporter of reasonable spelling. It appeared in 1907: “…the original spelling was vitaille, a spelling that occurs more than a dozen times in Chaucer, and lasted down to 1530, when Palsgrave gave us the equivalent form vytaile. But with the revival of learning, as it was called, the day came when the English people awoke to the amazing discovery that the Old French vitailles represented a Latin victualia; and they were so intoxicated thereby that they celebrated it by the idiotic insinuation of a c before the t, in order that this wonderful fact might never be lost, and under the delusion that etymological spelling means a worship of the letter without any regard to the sound. And now we all have to insert this idiotic c; for such is the right epithet.”

Separate Words. “I often hear people say exasperate when they mean exacerbate or mute for moot. Does this kind of confusion lead to words becoming homonyms?” These are, I think, two different cases. Exasperate and exacerbate are bookish words of Romance origin. Some people use them without remembering which means what, and since the verbs sound alike and rhyme, the distinction becomes blurred. If many speakers repeat the error, it may become the norm, and the two verbs may become synonyms, or one of them may drop out of the language, with the survivor doing double duty and acquiring the meanings “irritate” and “aggravate.” Moot and mute are already near homonyms. Their confusion is facilitated by the fact that some people pronounce words like suit with yoo in the middle, whereas in the speech of others suit has the vowel of boot. A similar situation arises with respect to do and due (A typical email I receive by the end of each semester: “Can you remind me when the papers are do?” By the way, the date is always given in the syllabus.)

How did the difference between insure and ensure arise? The more “legitimate” form is ensure, which goes back to Anglo-Norman enseurer, an alteration of Old French asseurer “assure.” Its meaning developed from “assure, pledge, guarantee” to “secure; make certain.” The verb was first recorded in the 14th century. Insure is a 15th-century variant of ensure. The prefix was changed, and a special meaning (“to secure payment on death or damage”) was assigned to it. It is no wonder that people have trouble remembering how to spell and use them.

“In the last three or four years the U.S. pronunciation of o has changed to ao: gao for go, etc. Why?” I am not sure which sound is meant by ao, but the problem is familiar. It is only dangerous to generalize and speak about the whole country. Both linguists and nonspecialists notice how rapidly vowels change their realizations. People who return to their native towns after ten years’ absence cannot believe what they hear. Such changes have been recorded, tabulated, and discussed many times, but the question asked by our correspondent still defies an explanation. Only a general answer can be given. Sounds change the more rapidly, the more diverse a community is. Presumably, on an island with all inhabitants having exactly the same pronunciation (this is, of course, a theoretical construct) and no exposure to other “islands,” the language will remain relatively stable. In any case, the experience of some colonial dialects (Pennsylvania Dutch, Louisiana French, and so forth) shows that they change very slowly. Also, sounds form a system and are allowed to vary within rather broad limits, as long as they do not merge with their neighbors. To the extent that hoe remains distinct from he, who, hi, and hay, all of them may enjoy their freedom. And this is what happens most of the time. But the exact results of variation are unpredictable, and we cannot be sure that the sounds will make use of the freedom the system allows them.

There also was a question about the origin of hubba-hubba. But this is a long story, and I will devote my next blog to it.

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.”

Recent Comments

  1. Bruce Balden

    Spelling/writing reforms are interesting/useful if they solve a problem. For instance, your understanding of the Japanese situation is not accurate. In that country, there are precise lists of which characters must be learned at particular education levels, and varying both the content and length of these lists in the post-war period has been very successful in creating the 99% plus levels of literacy which the country claims. In China, the post-1949 government introduced writing reform which has likewise been a component of greatly increasing literacy in that country. However the pre-1949 “traditional” characters have not been abandoned, and instead have become part of an additional layer of learning for advanced learners. However, the traditional characters are not needed for everyday life in China. Applying these considerations to English, English-speaking countries have already achieved high literacy levels without modifying the written language. As far as English for non-native speakers is concerned, something like Basic English, in which the more esoteric and archaic elements of the language are discouraged (avoided completely), is more important. In the context of today’s article, for instance, there is no reason for “insipient” (the archaic) word to appear in a modern document. Even the word “moot” might be restricted to legal contexts. The element lacking for English, compared to Chinese or Japanese, is the lack of any authoritative body to compile any well-accepted lists of common words. OED might do this de facto by simply estimating which words are more common and publishing lists of the 10,000 most common words. Of course English, being a common medium of many countries, is well-past the stage where any country or institution can or should control it unilaterally. Even Chinese “reforms” are not well-accepted in overseas Chinese communities or Taiwan (they are accepted in Singapore).

  2. Wander Frota

    Why is it that English native speakers, when writing a letter, for instance, tend to not part words at the end of a line where a word does not fit in? Instead, they choose to blot it out and put it down the following line available. Don’t they know they could as well look up the word in a good dictionary to see how the word is decomposed and try to keep the right margin of their text a bit more justified?

    Pretty much following this English language writing pattern, word processors are not made to part words at the end of a line – unless you tell them to. Their default settings (as when you open a word processor for the first time) always leave the right margin unjustified as if all other languages were like English.

    An English word like ‘sep.a.rate’ (from Latin)is decomposed in Romance languages like Portuguese and Spanish as ‘se.pa.rar’. Is there a reason why it is parted differently in English, where it’s more based on morphological elements (affixes)?

  3. […] my brief statement on English versus Japanese was criticized. A month ago, in the previous set of “gleanings,” I responded to someone’s remark asserting that the complexity of spelling and the level of […]

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