New Old Spellings #PlainEnglish #Anglish #PureEnglish #SpellingReform

beowulf_cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f__132r

We spend a lot of time talking about Anglish words, but almost no time talking about spellings. The why is that I try to smuggle Anglish in. Non-standard spellings, however, draw attention to themselves. Therefore, I have only touched on spellings briefly (for example, see here). However, 1066 and all that left its mark on our spelling system, too. Many spellings were changed soon after the Conquest as the old English scribe class were killed and slowly dispensed with, Normans taking their place. For example, <cw> was respelt as <qu> on the French model: cwen became quen (now queen) almost overnight. However, other less radical changes have also happened over the years since then. This post looks at these spellings, specifically those changed based on an unright understanding of their origin (?erstspring ?upspring ?first-spring).

Before I go on, remember that my notion here at Wrixlings is not to create what might have been had history panned out differently — that is something I call “Modern Old English”. Rather, I try to inliven the Saxon heart our of present speech. Therefore, I do not say we must bring back ash <æ> or yogh, or spell <wh> as <hw> (OE hwearf ‘wharf’) or put an <h> back in words like lord (OE hlaford, would therefore perhaps be hlord if 1066 and all that had not happened). Therefore, I do not respell <qu> as <cw>: the grounds are that everyone can plainly understand <qu> for /kw/ — even tho the spelling is quite absurd, and French.

1. ACHE

Originally, there were two words: ake (deedwork/verb), ache (nameword/noun), as per speak (workword) and speech (nameword). Eventually, ache fell out of the language in favour of ake for both verbs and nouns (just like we used to say “reek” (deedword) OE reocan and “reech” (nameword) OE riec). However, it was felt by the 1700s that ake probably came from the Greek akhos, and so the spelling was changed accordingly (Greek kh / χ is rendered <ch> in English; see the arch– of words like archaeology, from arkhe / αρχη). Sadly, the word doesn’t come from Greek, but the Old English acan (deedword) and æce (nameword).

So let’s spell it AKE.

2. AGHAST, GHASTLY, GHOST

The letter g can “soften” to a “j” sound (or to a “y” sound in Old English: geong ‘young’). The letters <h> and <u> can “stop” it: guest, spaghetti. We don’t say these as “jest” and “spajetty”, do we? But this softening only can happen before e, i, and y. So why is there a <h> in these words before <a> and <o>? Oh yes, because that’s how it’s done in Dutch(!)… How does that make any sense?

The first two used to be spelt without the <h>. So let’s spell them AGAST and GASTLY once again. “Gost” might be troublesome as it may imply a rhyme with “lost” — although not needfully; see “host”! It comes from Old English gast; this <a> developed into a ‘long’ o elsewhere too. Sometimes it was spelt like this: OE stan –> ModE “stone”. And other times it was spelt like this: OE bat –> ModE “boat”.

So let’s spell it either GOST, GOAST, or GOSTE. I reckon the first two are best.

3. ANCHOR

The Old English word was ancor, taken from the Latin ancora (see, we did borrow sometimes in Old English too!). This itself probably comes from the Greek ankyra ανκυρα. None of these words have a <h>! Indeed, the word only began being spelt with an <h> in the late 1500s — after having spent around 700 years in English spelt without it. The decision is clear:

Let’s spell it ANCOR. Mark that “anker” would also clearly word on the grounds of saying (banker, wanker), but not on wordbirth.

4. AXE

This word was spelt æx in Old English and ax until around two hundred years ago. It is still spelt ax in the US, Canada, and increasingly now, Australia. The <e> was added for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Let’s just bin axe and spell it AX.

5. CRUMB, THUMB, LIMB, NUMB

Old English cruma, þuma and lim. Numb was earlier spelt as nome, from the OE root niman. Never had a <b> sound in there. Although the related words crumblethimble and nimble do. And then there’s dumb and lamb and comb, which used to be said with a /b/, but no longer are, yet are still spelt with a <b>. What a mess.

I suggest taking the <b> out in all cases, etymological and otherwise: CRUMDUM, LAM, LIM, NUM, THUM.

Only keep it where it is pronounced: CRUMBLE, THIMBLE, NIMBLE. Keeping the <b> in some related words but not others may trouble you, but it shouldn’t. For example, we write DECEIT and DECEPTION, not “deceipt”, which is an analogous case. In the case of “comb”, we need to show the way the vowel is said, so as with “ghost” above, we have either COAM or COME. COAME is even possible.

Maybe COAM to stop us mixing it up with the verb to come.

6. ISLAND, ISLE

Island represents Old English igland, from ig ‘isle/island’ + land land. It was thought to come from the Latin insula, hence why folk added the <s>. Although, by that logic (?through-thought) why wasn’t it spelt “insland”? The idea for <s> probably also took hold due to the word isle which actually is ultimately from the Latin insula. However, rather ironically, <s> was often lost from Latin to French (French fenêtre, Latin fenestra) — as it was in ISLE, too! We borrowed the word from French in the late 13th century as ILE.

Therefore: ILAND, ILE

If you want a homeborn word for isle, we do of course have ait and eyot which in some way represent the “i” of island.

7. SCYTHE

Influenced by Latine scissor ‘carver, cutter’ and scindere ‘to cut’. The word actually comes from Old English siþe and should be spelled again as once it was: SITHE (as in lithe, writhe, and so on; note: the letter þ is the exact equivalent of <th>).

8. TONGUE

This is a funny one. I often see it misspelt, by native speakers(!), as “tounge”. Why? They know how to say it, but they also know the spelling is a tad “funny”. So they take a guess. The OE was tunge and would naturally have lost the final <e>. Additionally, lots of words of this kind had their <u> changed to an <o> before <n, m> as the scribal writing of the time made them easily confusable. That’s why “come”, which rhymes with “hum”, isn’t spelt with a <u>. Therefore, this could be changed to tong or tung. But given that tong would be misleading, and the regular spelling would be with a <u> (see hung, rung, sung, and fellows):

I say this needs to be put back as TUNG. Altho it is true that some Northerners give this a spelling pronunciation of “tong”.

9. WHORE

Who, whooping cough, and therefore whore, right? Wrong. Actually, in Old English it was hore, and only began to be spelled with a <w> in the early 1500s. Let’s set this straight and bring back HORE.

10. OTHER WORDS

There are many other words we might respell. For example, see our little talk about <u> being changed to <o> as in tongue and come. There are a great deal of words that fit this mould exactly: wonder, monk, wolf, and so on. These could be respelt wunder, munk, wulf (see thunder and sunk). Or another idea: could could be respelt as coud. It comes from can, and was cuðe in Old English, but gained an <l> by analogy with would and should (which come from will and shall, words that DO have an <l>!). But both of these cases, wonder and friends and could, go beyond the bounds of this post. Could is indeed also false etymology, but one based on homeborn not outland words. And the case of wonder and fellows is about wonky former scribal habits — not incorrect etymologising. Maybe we’ll handle those kinds of spelling in another post.

11. SUMMING UP

Therefore, if we go down the road of Anglish spellings, we have changed the following from:

ache, aghast, anchor, axe, comb, crumb, dumb, ghastly, ghost, island, isle, lamb, limb, numbscythe, thumb, tongue, whore

to:

AKE, AGAST, ANCOR, AX, COAM, CRUM, DUM, GASTLY, GOAST/GOST, ILAND, ILE, LAM, LIM, NUM, SITHE, THUM, TUNG, HORE.

You might wanna check out a similar (but old) post by a fellow Anglisher here: New Spellings.

© 2016 – 2017 Bryan A. J. Parry

featured image the first lines of the manuscript of Beowulf: By anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, ff 94r–209v, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30380424

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