Spellings

April 18, 2012

I haven’t seen the subject of this post get given any real treatment by Anglish enthusiasts, so I thought I’d give it a (cursory) go. And that subject is spelling.

The English spelling system has been profoundly influenced by 1066 and its aftermath. I’ll give a couple of sets of examples before moving on to talk briefly about what this all means for “Anglish”.

The Great Vowel Shift & Anglo-Norman Scribes

Let’s look at the vowel sound in sound, found, and cow.

Over a very long period of time, the vowels in English shifted around quite a lot; the so-called Great Vowel Shift. [Notes 1, 2] Old English “long” i, as in the word min ‘mine’, which was pronounced like Modern English (ModE) <ee> as in “keep”, changed to the “eye” sound it has now. min –> mine, win –> wine, lic(an) –> like. And so on. However, the spelling of the vowel stayed the same. [Note 3] That is, we do not write <main>, <wain>, and <laik>. This reflects the inheritance of ModE “long” i from Old English (OE) long i.

A similar thing happened with OE “long” u which was pronounced as “oo”; after the great vowel shift it diphthongised, coming to be pronounced as “au”, or the <ow> of ‘cow’. The OE word was cu. Likewise, Old English mus, hus, and tun, pronounced “moose”, “hoose”, and “toon”, became, can you guess? Mouse, house, and town. Notice that, unlike with OE long i, the long u did have a spelling change. Namely, to <ou>. Why?

Simple answer, really. Let’s just say: bijou, Anjou, and Petits Filous. Yes, that formidable swinehoard France was to blame. Again. Basically, the Anglo-Norman scribes spelt English as they spelt their own language; thus “u” became “ou”.[Note 4]

If this change from <u> to <ou> seems trifling and marginal, then I would just say that it is the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that we’ll come to look at from up a little closer later in this post.

Hypercorrective Spellings (Hyperactive Monks?)

Many spellings were wrixled [Note 5], mostly to the effect of worsening the correspondence between sound and symbol, due to scribes attempting to make words look more like their (supposed) Greek or Latin forebears. In this way, “debt” acquired a <b> (despite coming from French dette), “receipt” acquired a <p> (altho the same root did not acquire a <p> in “deceit” or “receive”, none of these three words having a <p> in the French, in any case), and “admiral” acquired both a <d> and, ultimately, a spelling pronunciation /d/ sound [Note 6], to make it resemble the Latin word from which it doesn’t come; it actually comes from the Arabic amir-ar-rahl, by way of French amirail(!)

Now if this isn’t sheer idiocy, I don’t know what is. But I contest that this obsession with Latin and Greek antecedents, this fetish of the foreign, had and has its origins in the Norman Conquest and the culture-change it has ever stood for.

Anglish and Modern Old English

There are, in line with my previous analysis [Note 7], two main ways you could go with all of this (so far as Anglish is concerned). You could either go the “Modern Old English” route, or you could go a more “Anglishy” way. Let’s look at the possibilities.

Modern Old English

Here we try to undo all or almost all influence resulting ultimately from 1066 and all that . In this way, spellings may be even better at times: <qu> would be replaced by <cw>, such that we have something like <cwene>, <cwick>, and <cwoþ>. Which leads us onto <th> getting the old heave-ho in favour of <þ>; an “improvement”, perhaps, as it cleaves to the alphabetic principle of “one sound one symbol”: <þis>, <faþer>, and <wiþ>.

Some other times, spelling might not improve, but actually get worse!

Why not let’s re-instate the silent <w> in “lisp” which was probably lost from the spelling due to most <wl-> words themselves being lost from English, ousted by foreign counterparts! Thus, <wlisp>. After all, we still have the silent <w> in <write>, <wrong>, and <wretched>, a fairly analogous case.

How about shifting:

<house> and <louse> to <hus> and <lus>;

<boat>, <road>, and <stone> to <bat>, <rad>, and <stan>;

<yellow> and <yes> to <gellow> and <ges>;

<church> to <circe> and <chin> to <cinn>;

<ice> to <is>?

 

This is fun, actually!

But perhaps pointless.

Anglish

I think simply keeping the current system as it is, with all its French influences intact, is the plainest and therefore best thing to do. I would merely remove etymological and pseudo-etymological spellings which were designed to resemble Latin or Greek. Thus, we would write <stomack> and <anker> or <ancor>, not <stomach> and <anchor>. The reason? English spelling, despite having a French side, is understood by ordinary people, and works, quite well; <ch> is, well, ch, not k [Note 8]! Problems arising in the English spelling system are mostly due to three areas, areas I will not discuss further as that is a topic for another post: (1) spellings of the sort I have been discussing, (2) reduction of vowel sounds in English, usually to schwa, and (3) a lack of adequate representation for the “ow!” sound versus the “oh!” sound; does <row> mean an “argument”, pronounced “r-ow!”, or does it mean the thing you do on a boat, pronounced “r-oh!”?

Thus, I personally take the spelling system as it is, prefering instead to alter individual spellings which do not work from a phonemic point of view due to their being, in my mind, spuriously altered or modelled along French, Latin, or Greek lines; thus, I write <dout>, <det>, <ancor>, and <receit>.

But I feel I am now sliding towards a separate post on the merits of the English spelling system, so I will stop myself there. I hope this has been an interesting beginning to the debate, if only a beginning.

 

Bryan Parry

April 2012

 

 

[Note 1] The Great Vowel Shift at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift

[Note 2] The Great Vowel Shift didn’t become “completed” in all English-speaking areas, however. In parts of the UK, specifically the north, “long” u didn’t diphthongise; or to put it another way, “There’s a moose, a-loose, aroun‘ this hoose! danDAHdanAH aDANAHdana adundundunnadun!”

[Note 3] Arguably, and it is actually my view, but the non-contiguous sequence <i…e> is in fact a single grapheme; thus, the spelling of the vowel did change, from <i> to <i…e>. But this is a complication stemming from a separate issue which obscures the matter at hand.

[Note 4] Note that we write <cow> not <cou>; the reason is the same as why we write <oil>-<toil>-<toy>. Essentially, <ow> is what I call an allograph of <ou> when representing the sound /au/ used in final position: <out>-<bout>-<bow>.

[Note 5] “Wrixled” means “changed”, remember?

[Note 6] A “spelling pronunciation” is when people pronounce a word as it is spelt despite this not being the ‘true’ way of saying the word. Essentially, the usual thing that happens is people believe that the way they grew up saying this word is wrong, the correct way being in line with the spelling. Which is actually a fairly reasonable assumption, and given the stigma and ill effects associated with “poor speaking”, it’s easy to understand how such things happen. And so they hypercorrect , thus resulting in things like “admiral” and foreign-ese “receipt” (with a /p/ sound). Interestingly, I’ve even heard some native English speakers, without joking, say “receipt” with a /p/. Hmm. A hundred years from now…

[Note 7] See my blog entry “1066 Wrixled Everything”

[Note 8] Or, more precisely, the grapheme <ch>, by default, represents the voiceless palato-alveolar affricate, whereas the voiceless velar plosive is represented usually by either <c>, <k>, <ck>, or <q>.


1066 Wrixled Everything

April 17, 2012

1066 and all that. It wrixled everything, it did. Sorry, I mean, it changed everything. Wrixle was the Old English word for “change” (the noun form being wrixling, the title of this blog). One of the most obvious and longlasting legacies of Harold’s defeat at 1066, as you can see, was the English language itself. But how big a change was effected? Take a look at any Old English text, or a quick glance at German, Swedish, or Frisian, to get a clue. The changes affected the vocabulary (wordstock), the grammar, and even the spellings of English.

Many native (homeborn) words were immediately ousted — those relating to law and governance and suchlike — but the deeper changes to our language only came later after the influence of French grew deeper. A great deal of words were pushed out to the margins of our language or shoved out altogether. Many of these formations were of great beauty; how can we best threeness when trying to express the concept of the “trinity”, for example?

It even became illegal — or should I say “unlawful” — to speak English in English courts(!) Don’t believe historians who downplay the importance of 1066 and the wrixlings it brought; 1066 and its aftermath wrixled everything!

One thing that happened was a fetish grew for foreign (outlandish) borrowings. One commentator has remarked that English hasn’t so much borrowed words from other languages, but rather ‘chased languages down alleys, beat them up, and rifled through their pockets for spare vocabulary’.

Now, this all makes learning foreign languages all the more easy: we feel quite at home with Swedish man and kvinna (“woman”), hand, knä, or fot; likewise, Spanish cerebro (brain “cerebrum”), lengua (tongue), humano, and persona are easily intelligible to us. However, I can’t quite help but feel we do ourselves and the richness of our language down when we throw away our own gems, gems that other Germanic languages keep (e.g. Swedish befolkning “population”, from be- + folk + ning, which would translate almost exactly into English as befolking; that is, the noun form of ‘to folk’, i.e., to people, to populate).

A “Purer” English

I’m not the only person who has worked on creating a “pure” or more English version of English. There are many others out there (it turns out). However, when you find them and you speak to these, you would suppose, likeminds, you find they have some very different ideas indeed. This apparently clear goal of creating a de1066ified English is not so straightforward, after all.

There are, I think, two broad schools of thought which are quite different (albeit with a gray area in between). These are what I call (1) Modern Old English, and what is known as (2) Anglish.

Modern Old English

What I call “Modern Old English” is a language that could have been, it’s English as it would have been had Harold not lost the battle of Hastings. This involves, in effect, creating an alternative history, a timeline of the word different to the one we have had over the last 950 years.

This is a very fun project, but quite different to the beast commonly known as Anglish.

Anglish

Anglish is an attempt to make better use of the resources we still have. So this could even include grasping enthusiastically foreign words as being thoroughly anglicised.

Modern Old English versus Anglish

If you still aren’t sure on the difference between these two projects in real terms, I will illustrate it with a couple of choice examples.

(1) Face it

Modern Old English (ModOE) supporters might insist on chucking out “face” because it came from French. The word we used to use was onsyn which evolved into, and would still be today if it were used, “ansene”.

Anglish-ers might just say, ‘well, “face” is pretty basic and highly naturalised, so let’s just keep it’. They might respell it “fase”, though.

(2) Starry-eyed Surprise

ModOE proponents might say ‘let’s replace “astronomy” with “tongelcraft”‘, which is a modified form of the word in Old English.

Anglish folk might say, ‘”tongel” is deader than the dodo — quite literally — so let’s just stick with originally foreign “star” and say “starlore”, “starcraft”, or even “starology”‘

Dialects

There are, of course, many, many possibilities even within these two schools of thought. For example, do ModOE proponents start their alternative history off from 1066? Or do they start it earlier from before Edward the Confessor? Perhaps they go back to the before the Danelaw, or maybe they start after 1066, having Hereward the Wake overthrow William and take the throne back for an English king.

Schools?

And of course that is assuming that people even recognise these schools; from having spent quite a bit of time on these projects, I feel as thought most people likewise engaged have actually not stopped, in their passionate rush, to think about what their own goals in fact are. And so they end up with an ever-wrixling, hodgepodge mess.

Conclusions

I think that, before we can even discuss the project of a “pure” English (or whatever), all people interested in such things should really think about what it is exactly that they themselves are striving for. Why? Well, otherwise, there’ll never be any progress on this matter, and these projects, whatever forms they may take, will never become greater than the sum of their parts; rather, we will remain with isolated eccentrics and their yellow, stained notebooks.

So, yes! These English “projects” of mine are open to dialog with likeminds. Join me!

Bryan Parry

April 2012


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