Preparation for the Spelling Congress is underway. The more people will send in their proposals, the better. On the other hand (or so it seems to me), the fewer people participate in this event and the less it costs in terms of labor/labour and money, the more successful it will turn out to be. The fate of English spelling has been discussed in passionate terms since at least the 1840s. As early as 1848 Alexander J. Ellis wrote that spelling English is the most difficult of human attainments, that English spelling is the most foul, strange, and unnatural there is (his emphasis), and many other equally soothing things. Ellis’s scholarship arouses nothing but admiration, but one may agree with the verdict of The Westminster Review that “if on the subject phonetics he be a little mad, verily much learning hath made him so.”
I am addressing those who, at least provisionally, agree that English spelling should be reformed. The chances that such people will reach consensus are slim, as the fierce storms/tempests in the reformers’ teacup show. The fights were severe in the 1840s, in the 1880s, in the 1910s, and much later. Several hundred and sometimes several thousand people follow this blog. Could I appeal to them to express their opinion on the following propositions that are mine and only mine?
- The reform should be instituted in several steps and be as painless as possible. For instance, no one will suffer if scatter, unscathed, scoop, etc. reemerge as skatter, unskathed, and skoop. The distinction between sc– and sk– is artificial and easy to abolish. Along the same lines, dunghill will smell as sweet if it loses the last letter. So my proposal resolves itself into the following: begin with the most innocuous changes and stop for about ten or fifteen years. Then go on. The proposed reform should resemble a multilayer missile, because the public will not accept a revolution. For starters, bild for build is fine, but bery for bury is not. Consequently, I propose to draw up a list of changes, beginning with the ones that will not irritate too many opponents, go on slowly, and then (possibly!) strike where the change looks truly radical.
- Forget all plans that suggest an introduction of diacritics and new letters.
- However time-consuming the task may be, before the congress is convened, the Society needs a plan thought out from beginning to end; it should include all the words whose spelling will be changed.
- The congress will achieve nothing unless at the preparatory stage it ensures the support of those in whose power it is to implement the reform.
The less we talk about general principles, the better. A brief reminder of what I mean.
- “History will be effaced.” The etymology of English words will not fall victim to the reform. To begin with, etymology is not worth rescuing when it comes to the spelling of a modern language, and, which is more important, the spelling of numerous words that pretends to reflect the past is a monument to ignorance and does not preserve the true history of English.
- “Many homographs will appear.” There are already hundreds of them, and there are hundreds homophones, but context disambiguates them.
- “People will be confused.” Any change confuses people, but nothing can be more confusing than the spelling we now have.
- “Millions of books will have to be reprinted.” Not at all! Especially if the reform takes time, readers will gradually get used to the novelty. Anyway, most of us read book in new editions and reprints. Consult Shakespeare’s folios (facsimile editions are easily available) and compare them with what stands on your shelf. English spelling has changed dramatically since the days of the early seventeenth century, but English culture has not suffered as a result.
- Spelling reform has been implemented in several major European languages. Protest has always been vociferous, but there have been no casualties.
However, let me repeat: if the congress takes place, the focus should be on practical matters more than on the defence/defense of the reform, though some introduction on the predictable objections is naturally needed.
Finally, what do you think of the passage I have abstracted from a letter published by The Academy, July 17, 1915, p. 44, at the height of World War I?
“I want to see the grait and needless waste ov time and muny on teeching children to reed ended, and that speedily, espeshaly when there iz such an outcry for economy. Let us proov our sinserity in this crusade for thrift and carefulness by permitting teecherz to uze a sistem of speling which duz not waste time, duz not reezon at defians, nor disregard both history and etimolojy. Adults may spel, doutless will continue to spel, acording to the old fashon until the end ov the chapter. As Lord Haldane says—they ar too slugish to change, unles they wer taxt for every redundant letter emploid, the history, etimolojy, fashon, rithm, poetry ov wurds, wud fly to the windz. It is to the yung and the future, we need to giv attenshon.”
Where is d in French aventure, as opposed to Engl. adventure? It died. In Middle French, in a combination of two consonants, the first one was regularly lost.
Is the etymology of crêpe given in the OED correct? Yes, it is. The Old French adjective was crespe. In the groups of two consonants the first one was lost (see above), and in the stressed syllable the vowel was lengthened (so-called compensatory lengthening). The circumflex over ê is the reminder of the lengthening (obviously, today no one needs it, but spelling is needlessly archaic not only in English). The Latin etymon was crispus (cf. Engl. crisp). To prove the validity of this etymology, it is enough to observe that in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese the word still sounds as crespo. Crêpe ~ crape “fabric” is an etymological doublet of crêpe “cake.” In Modern French, the two homonyms are grammatically distinct: the first is feminine, while the second is masculine.
There was a question about the etymology of conscience and awareness. Neither word poses problems. Conscience, a thirteenth-century borrowing from French, is clearly con + science, so it refers to one’s inner knowledge of things, one’s inmost thoughts. The present day sense is late. By contrast, aware is of Germanic origin (compare German gewahr, the same meaning, as well as Engl. beware and wary). Aware is related to neither war, which is of French origin, nor the root of awaken.
Can Engl. fox be related to Latin focus? Since both f and k coincide in the two words, fox cannot be a cognate of the Latin noun, while the borrowing of focus “hearth, fireplace,” with reference to the color of fire, as an animal name is quite improbable.
Germanic and Celtic
Question: “I came across the following in Henry David Thoreau’s ‘A Plea for Captain Brown’: ‘Their great game is the game of straws, or rather that universal aboriginal game of the platter, at which the Indians cried hub, bub!’ Could the North American aboriginal expression be the origin of the word hubbub?” No. the English word was recorded in the sixteenth century, and its derivation from an Irish war cry is, most probably, correct. But the coincidence is not fortuitous: both exclamations are the product of the same impulse, and such words are sometimes universal.
A colleague called my attention to the fact that in my brief answer about the origin of OK, I should have mentioned the playful spelling oll korrect (1839), which is allegedly the true source of OK. The association with Old Kinderhook goes back to 1840, for only Van Buren’s 1840 presidential campaign made the word famous. Oll korrect has often been mentioned in the investigation of OK, and everything may have begun with this facetious misspelling. See Allan Metcalf’s book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.
The remarks about Latvian are apt! Most etymologists, unless they are specialists, cite words found in dictionaries and secondary sources. They rarely know the “non-major” languages to which they refer. This is also true of my recourse to Latvian. I can read linguistic literature in Lithuanian and, to a certain extent, in Latvian, but of course have no “feeling” for either.
Many thanks for pointing to Gąsirowski’s articles. I happen to know both (and many of his other works). My Bibliography of English Etymology features only one of them, but since its appearance the database has increased by about 4000 titles. With regard to books and articles, all advice is precious, for nothing is easier than to miss important publications on the subject in hand.
Image credits: (1) First Folio in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Photo by Daderot. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Crêpes con la Nutella. Photo by Dawid Skalec. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Stags Fighting 3. Photo by MrT HK. CC BY 2.0 via mrthk Flickr.