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Monthly gleanings for January 2015

I am pleased to report that A Happy New Year is moving along its warlike path at the predicted speed of one day in twenty-four hours and that it is already the end of January. Spring will come before you can say Jack Robinson, as Kipling’s bicolored python would put it, and soon there will be snowdrops to glean. Etymology and spelling are the topics today. Some other questions will be answered in February.


Sod, seethe, suds

Our correspondent Paul Nance is not satisfied with the idea that sod is related to seethe because the senses don’t match; he also wonders where suds in the triad seethe-sod-suds comes in. As concerns his doubts about sod and seethe, he is in good company. Yet Skeat was probably right and the two words seem to be related. We should first note that sodden, the petrified past participle of seethe, contains the syllable sod. The form of some importance is Dutch zode “sod,” “boiling,” and “heap, a lot,” the latter usually occurring in the forms zooi or zo. It is not immediately clear whether all of them are related and with how many words we are dealing (one, two, or three).

I think the best clue to the sod – seethe question is provided by Engl. suds (the singular sud also exists, but its meaning can be left out of the present discussion). English has a regional verb suddle “to sully,” a congener of German sudeln “to daub; sully; do dirty work,” often translated rather misleadingly as “to botch.” Sudeln is believed to have arisen as the result of the confusion of two different roots: one meant “cook” (compare “boil,” above); the other, which meant “sap, moisture,” referred to small bodies of water (pools, puddles, wells, and so forth) and is present in many words of the Indo-European languages, Old English among them. But it is not the ancient history of sudeln that matters. Engl. suddle looks like a borrowing from Dutch or Low German. The same is true of Standard German sudeln, which does not antedate the 15th century, and of Engl. suds, which goes back to the fifteen-hundreds. They emerged too late to be classified with native words. Finally, the same holds for sod, another fifteenth-century intruder, and here comes the main point: sod is almost certainly allied to suds and suds is almost certainly allied to seethe. By the law of transitivity, sod is also allied to this verb. Mr. Lance writes: “In Upstate New York, sod is only occasionally sodden.” But the semantic history of the entire group (sod, suds, sudeln, and suddle) should be looked for in the Low Countries.

Suds are good for babies and etymology.
Suds are good for babies and etymology.

House and hood

Even though house might refer to “covering,” while hood, a cognate of hat, certainly does so, they are not related. The ancient vowel of hood was long o (as in Engl. ore, without the r glider after o), while house, from hus, had long u (as in Engl. too), and no bridge connects them.

Engl. house and German Haus

Why do the cognates Engl. brother and German Bruder (to cite one typical example) have only br– in common, while house and Haus sound alike? House and Haus owe their similarity to good luck. It was the so-called German Consonant Shift that drove a wedge between German and the other Germanic languages. Engl. tide and German Zeit “time” are cognates, but the new consonants in Zeit destroyed the similarity. The consonants s and h stayed intact in German, and the vowel (long u) changed the same way in both German and English; hence house and Haus. However, the vowel shift, great or not so great, had partly unpredictable results; compare Dutch huis. The vowel in bread has undergone many changes since the Old English period, and it is hard to believe that both o in German Brot and ea, pronounced as short e, in Engl. bread go back to the same diphthong au. I have known a student who tried to translate an English text into Russian with the help of a German dictionary and, miraculously, had some success. Foreign languages are tough. One’s mother tongue may also look foreign. Thus, ea in bread, as opposed to e in bred, does not increase the amount of happiness in English spellers, and the horror of lead/led is known to many of us.

Latin antiquus

Thomas Lambdin, Professor in Harvard Department of Near Eastern Studies, once suggested that the Latin adjective antiquus “old, ancient” was a borrowing of Aramaic attiq “old.” One of his former students asked me what I can say about this conjecture. I have known for a long time that scholars’ etymologies of English words depend very strongly on their professional orientation. Those linguists who specialize in Old Norse point to possible Scandinavian etymons of English words, while Romance scholars find equally plausible Old French roots. (I am not speaking of the monomaniacs who trace all words of English, and not only of English, to Hebrew, Irish, Slavic, and so forth: those are simply crazy.) Similar things happen in some other areas. Modern linguistics is strongly influenced by the concepts of English phonetics and syntax, because the Chomskyan revolution, before spreading to the rest of the world, took place in the United States and its creator was a native speaker of English. Someone noted that, if N. S. Trubetzkoy were not a native speaker of Russian, some of the central ideas developed in his epoch-making book The Bases of Phonology (Grundzüge der Phonologie) may not have occurred to him.

Professor Lambdin is an expert in Semitic linguistics and, naturally, receives impulses from the material he knows best. I happen to be well-acquainted with his books and even reviewed the etymologies offered in his untraditional manual of Gothic. It is true that that the etymology of antiquus entails several difficulties, but, in my opinion, suggesting that that adjective came from Aramaic is hard to justify. As usual, the closeness of forms is not a sufficient argument. We would like to know why such a basic concept had to be taken over from a foreign language, under what circumstances the borrowing took place, and whether it filled a lacuna in Latin or superseded a native synonym. In the absence of additional arguments I would stay away from such a bold hypothesis.

Dwell and its Latvian parallels

I read the comment on the subject indicated in the title of this section with great interest. Such parallels are of utmost importance. They prove nothing but add credence to some of our conjectures. If a certain semantic shift happened in one language, it may, theoretically speaking, have happen in another. In etymology, high probability and verisimilitude are often the only criteria of truth. That is why Carl Darling Buck’s dictionary of synonyms in the Indo-European languages is so useful.

George Bernard Shaw. A glowing example of a man who not only advocated Spelling Reform but also supported it financially.
George Bernard Shaw. A glowing example of a man who not only advocated Spelling Reform but also supported it financially.

Spelling and spelling reform

Spelling: whose cup of tea?

One of our correspondents wonders why Modern English spelling is so irrational. It would take a book to answer this question in detail, but the main reasons are two.

  1. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 French and French-educated scribes imposed their habits on English spelling, and the medieval norm has more or less stayed intact to this day.
  2. The second reason is the loyalty of English to foreign spelling. The Spanish don’t mind writing futbol, while English speakers live with monsters like committee, though one m and one t would have been quite enough. Nor do we need sugar, chagrin, and shrine, to say nothing of fuchsia, despite its origin in a proper name.

Thus, the chaos most of us bemoan stems from reverence for tradition. Shureli, a tru skolar wud be imensli shagrind if he were made to put a spoon of shugar in his cup of tee. The tee would taste bitter and the world wud kolaps, wudnt it?

News about spelling reform

I am afraid to sound too optimistic, but it may be that the Spelling Society is making progress, that is, it seems to have feasible plans for effecting the reform and not only ideas about how to spell the words of Modern English. English children take up to two years longer to master basic words than those of other countries (the torture imposed on dyslexics and foreigners should not be forgotten either, for aren’t we all against torture?). The sound system of English is such that we’ll never reach the elegance of Finnish spelling, but something can and should be done. For that purpose, the institution of INTERNATIONAL ENGLISH SPELLING CONGRESS has been proposed. Everyone is welcome to join it. The Expert Committee will be appointed by the delegates who will make the final decision on the alternative scheme. The main virtue of the proposal is that it seeks to engage as many people in the movement as possible. Some publishers of visible journals are already showing an interest in the cause. The public should be informed that the preservation of the status quo has serious negative economic consequences. It is no longer a virtue to smoke. Perhaps the Spelling Congress will be able to explain to the world that retaining a medieval norm in spelling (arguably the most complicated in the world) is not a virtue either. Mr. Stephen Linstead, the Chairman of the Society, has spoken on the BBC and was mocked by many for offering to tamper with a thing of beauty. This is a good sign: no success without public outrage before a novelty is accepted. A report of these events has also been published by the Chicago Tribune.

Image credits: (1) A baby in a bathtub with soap foam. © artefy via iStock. (2) George Bernard Shaw, 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    It is indeed possible to write a whole book to explain why English spelling has ended up so chaotic, but it can also be summed up more briefly. Its inconsistencies stem largely from scribes, printers and early compilers of dictionaries acting in isolation, and giving no thought to ease of learning to read and write. The main diluters of English spelling consistency were the following five.

    1) 9th C scribes who thought that having the letter u next to m or n made reading difficult (munth) and so used o instead (month, mother, mongrel).

    2) Court clerks who were annoyed about having to switch from French to English (around 1430, after the end of the 100 years war between France and England), changed simpler earlier spellings like ‘hed, welth, heven’ and ‘reson, seson, speke’ to the more complex ones of ‘head, reason, etc.’

    3) Early English type-setters (starting 1476) who were fond of adding extra letters to words, because they were paid by the line (come, some, have, give, inne, itte, hadde).

    4) Dutch, Belgian, German and French printers of Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525 and later whole bible, because in England the printing of them was illegal until 1539, but people were desperate to read them. The bishop of London kept buying them up for burning in St Paul’s yard, but they kept being reprinted in many places, in at least 40 different editions, and so their spellings become more and more varied.

    5) Samuel Johnson who thought that it would be a shame to lose all of the rich variety of English spelling (e.g. thare, their, ther, thair, there) and decided to link some of them to different meanings (their/there).
    Jonson’s great reverence for Latin dealt the worst blow to English spelling. It led him to exempt many words of Latin origin from the English consonant doubling rule (as in ‘diner – dinner). He bequeathed us the likes of ‘habit, mineral, very’, and left the English system for spelling short and long vowels in tatters (rabbit – habit, minnow – mineral, very – merry).

    For more detail visit the History page of my EnglishSpellingProblems blog.

  2. EugenLV

    The devil is not as black as he is painted though. English spelling is not chaotic. It resembles a medieval castle with elaborately constructed defence walls against barbarous foreigners. If one takes e.g. a letter Z one can immediately notice that is rather uncommon in English and its sound occurs mostly in intervocal position. Sh is also a by product of s in certain positions with other consonants (sk, sc). Something in striking contrast with s, š, z, ž sibilant system in Latvian including consonant blends such as sk and st (sometimes interchanging with šķ) which probably derived from a singls s sound.

    Saule – sun, šaut – shoot vs šūt – sew, zivs – fish, žurka – rat.

    Introduction of Haček/Caron/Roof in English could resolve some of the complexity of s, ss, sh, sure, national but I suppose it would influence the entire vowel system (mission – mišn, vision – vižn, sure – šue, pleasure – pleže, because – bikoz).

  3. Michael Lamb

    As a British English speaker (age 72) I have great difficulty making your hypthesis about Trubetzkoy mean anything other than that he is alive and well and may not in fact have had the central ideas of Grundzüge der Phonologie. Are you accusing this person of plagiarism? Or do even you and I have a generational mismatch in this matter?

    See “Someone noted that, if N.S. Trubetzkoy were not a native speaker of Russian, some of the central ideas developed in his epoch-making book The Bases of Phonology (Grundzüge der Phonologie) may not have occurred to him.”

  4. Michael Lamb

    My point was that for the (in fact admittedly obvious) sense of this statement about Trubetzkoy, I (but also a lot of people my age, and in the UK a great deal younger) would have to use the pluperfect subjunctive ‘had not been’ with ‘might’ in the apodosis (as in OED ‘may’, sense 20b(b) or for example in 21. a(b), with an implied conditional), as here:

    “if N.S. Trubetzkoy had not been a native speaker of Russian, some of the central ideas developed in his epoch-making book The Bases of Phonology (Grundzüge der Phonologie) might not have occurred to him.”

    The use of ‘may’ for this use of ‘might’ is definitely trending in the UK as well, but where there is an explicit protasis with the still quite robust pluperfect subjunctive, it is not so confusing.

    My regrettable facetiousness about a generational mismatch reflected my surprise that you should use the trendier construction with imperfect subjunctive and ‘may’ (sense 13b) in the apodosis, when you are much more conservative than me in so many ways.

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